This weekend, I made my way out to the Willets Point–Shea Stadium stop on the No. 7 train, and for the first time with my own eyes, I saw that my beloved blue dump was gone. The only things left of Shea, the home of the Mets for 45 years, were some mounds of ash, concrete and rubble.
Behind the ruins, I still saw the Van Wyck Expressway in the background, the chop shops that line 126th Street in Queens, the planes flying from LaGuardia overhead. Flushing.
And then the No. 7 slowly led me to the front door of Citi Field, the new $850 million home of the Mets, designed by HOK Sport, which is based in Kansas City.
I didn’t see any Shea blue. In fact, there isn’t much color on the stadium at all. There’s a brownish brick and beige-ish brick on its facade, and exposed trusses and fixtures within arches that surround the whole stadium that are a dark, steel blue—a foreign color. There was, however, some out-of-context Mets orange. And a red Citigroup logo.
There was a blurb on A1 of The Times last week: “Good News, Baseball Fans: There is a lot to like about Citi Field. The Mets’ new stadium corrects many of the worst faults of Shea Stadium, the team’s old park, which is in ruins a few hundred yards away.”
The story that followed–“Mets’ New Home Is the Anti-Shea,” by Ken Belson and Richard Sandomir—was effusive.
It made many of the same arguments that Mets owners Jeff and Fred Wilpon had made for a new stadium—nicer food; nicer bathrooms; a nicer, dark-green-hued seating arrangement—all of which is perfectly … nice.
Some questions remained unasked, though. Does old-timey equal classy? Does quirky equal original? Are amenities and character mutually exclusive? Is this a stadium for the New York Mets?
The Mets, after all, are not the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Mets are not the New York baseball Giants. The Mets were born as a charmingly hideous hybrid of New York’s excised National League teams—a blue and orange mess.
Shea Stadium, a giant bowl with Technicolor-outlines of baseball players on the outside of the stadium, was the perfect symbol for it. It was modern (at the time) and brutally loud—the embodiment of a franchise that had racing stripes on its uniforms throughout the ’80s.
People can say what they want about the Mets, and about the losing, and the choking. But no one has ever accused them of being without an identity. The same was true, until now, of their stadium.
Shea had its problems. It was probably time for it to go. The question is whether Citi Field is a worthy successor.
The facade has been designed to recall Fred Wilpon’s beloved Ebbets Field, a stadium that was once an integral (if cramped and smelly) part of a densely built downtown neighborhood that was, and is, completely unlike Flushing by the water.
The seats in the Mets’ new stadium are not garish like the seats in Shea. Or festive.
“Dark green is the color of a classic ballpark,” said Mets executive Dave Howard to The Times when describing the color of the seats at Citi Field. The “candy-colored” seating arrangement of Shea had been disposed of, The Times noted.
“Classic” is something that Mets executives are obsessed with. In 2003, even before we knew there would be a Citi Field, Jeff Wilpon complained to The Times that Shea had to be knocked down because “it’s no longer state of the art, and it’s certainly not a classic ballpark.”
Classic isn’t really something you can manufacture, though, is it?
SHEA, IN ITS WAY, was a classic ballpark. It had Banner Days. It had life. The foundation literally shook inside that place during the playoffs, as a nervous-sounding Joe Buck acknowledged as the Mets won the pennant in 2000, or when Endy Chavez leapt over the left field wall in 2006. It shook because it had a devoted fan base that didn’t give a fuck that Shea was a dump. It was ours. That’s classic.
Inside the walls of Citi Field there is yet more green. Green seats, green walls, a green scoreboard above the left field upper deck. There are quirky dimensions! The walls are taller, supposedly inspired by any number of the ball fields of yore—the old Crosley Field, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, you name it. The overhang in right field is a nod to Tiger Stadium.
But this sparkling new stadium, if we’re being honest, doesn’t conjure the old Tiger Stadium or Crosley Field. It’s inauthentic—it’s a copy of a copy. And it’s a decade too late.
Camden Yards was a really neat idea, and it works. And now there are faux-antique baseball stadiums in St. Louis, Cleveland, Houston, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Arlington, Denver, Milwaukee, San Diego, Washington and Philadelphia, too. Between 1992 and last season, 18 teams moved into new ballparks, the vast majority of which are replicas.
Citi Field, in other words, could be anywhere. The Times’ writers noted, approvingly, that unlike Shea, the stadium is enclosed, shielding fans from views of the unsightly surrounding neighborhood. (Close your eyes and you’re in Philadelphia!)
“Sitting in their seats, few fans will see the chop shops in Willets Point, the cars roaring past on the Van Wyck Expressway, the subway yards to the south or the U-Haul sign,” they wrote. “They will still get a crystal-clear view of the planes on their final approach to La Guardia Airport. Some things never change.”
Ah, yes. Very thoughtful of those architects from Kansas City to still allow us the planes.
But, see, the stadium is in Queens. In Willets Point.
It’s the Valley of Ashes. It’s chop shops with signs that say CHEPE AUTO REPAIR and SAMBUCCI BROS. INC AUTO SALVAGE. It’s Flushing Meadows park, a grab-bag of World’s Fair relics and more recently installed amenities that now includes an unjustly underhyped New York panorama, a pitch-and-putt that serves beer, a highly enlightened zoo, a science museum where lots of Orthodox Jewish families go, an indoor swimming center where lots of Korean families go, and, still, somehow, the Unisphere.
The old adage goes that the Yankees are a corporate titan. They are winners, and their stadium—the Fucking House That Ruth Built, we get it—is a cathedral.
Shea, by contrast, was merely the most democratic stadium in baseball. It was monstrously big, and, with rare exceptions, you could always find a seat. It was a bowl where you went to go watch baseball games.
Now, the Mets have given their fans Citi Field, a place where we’re invited to do lots of things that don’t really involve watching baseball. There’s a Budweiser beer pit. There’s a party spot called “Knothole Alley” (more old-timey-ness!) beyond the right field wall. There’s an auditorium for corporate events. There’s a spot to host birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. And there’s a restaurant named Caesar Club where you can get gourmet food and watch the game. On TV.
It’s not surprising the Wilpons went down this road: Indications of their new-franchise class envy have been unmissable for a while now. In 2004, for example, the Mets renamed Thomas J. White Stadium, their longtime spring training home in Port St. Lucie, “Tradition Field.” It was an unsubtle attempt to ape the Yankees’ facility, which is called “Legends Field.” It was sad.
AFTER MY TRIP to Citi Field this weekend, I boarded the No. 7 with the intention of getting off somewhere to get myself burgers and beer. I noticed that there were some other Mets fans who had gone to look at the new stadium. I joined them.
At the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Guinness bar in Woodside, we talked about the stadium, and I realized I might be the one who has to get a grip. These guys, like all the other Mets fans I’ve spoken to about the dawning of the Citi Mets era, were divided between those who loved Shea but are willing to give Citi Field a chance, and those who really do like Citi Field much better. (The ones, presumably, the Times writers were addressing in their cheery lede: “For those fans who hated Shea Stadium, fear not: Citi Field is nothing like its predecessor, the last bits of which lie in ruins a few hundreds yards away.”)
“You know, we took the 7, and we got to 110th street; I couldn’t believe Shea was gone,” said my new friend Tom McLaughlin, a 50-year-old travel agent. “But you know what? I thought the new place was really great. I feel like it has a lot of personality.”
“Shea had to go,” said Rob Pedoty, a 44-year-old born-and-bred Queens resident. “You know those forest-green seats they got in the new place? That was the same color of the seats they used at the Polo Grounds!”
Well, fine. But who cares.