This might not be the first thing the Mets would like mentioned about their brand new ballpark, which hosted its first game — a college match between Georgetown and St. John’s — yesterday afternoon, but it’s one of the first things you notice when you take a lap around the stadium: You have a much better view of the Flushing chop shops than you used to.
As nice as Citi Field is — and it is very nice — its existence as a shiny, pretty, glimmering new ballpark feels out of place with the neighborhood in a way that Shea didn’t. Sure, Shea was run-down, dirty, archaic within minutes of its opening, but it felt as real and cranky as the guy fixing your plumbing — overcharging you while his pants slip perilously down his waist, but ultimately getting the job done. Right now, Citi Field is like a brand new couch you’re afraid to remove the cover from, lest someone spill something on it. It’s going to be a while until it feels like part of home. The question: Will those still be chop shops in two years, or will they turn into sports bars?
The immediate hit is going to be the Jackie Robinson Rotunda: Within five minutes of the park’s opening, fans were already posing for pictures in front of the signature “42” statue representing Robinson’s retired number. That and the Shake Shack and Blue Smoke restaurants, which already had lines even though the stadium was probably one-fourth full. (If you’re feeling frisky, there’s also a new apparel shop in right field: Touch, by Alyssa Milano: A Boutique for Female Mets Fans. They have all kinds of styles.)
The stadium isn’t quite ready. The first Mets exhibition game is this Friday (against the Red Sox), and the first regular-season game isn’t until Monday, April 13 (versus the Padres). The light drizzle that pelted the field led to occasional drips from the ceiling in the new Caesar’s Atlantic City lounge area (my Nathan’s fries got the worst of it), most of the concession stands were operating at quarter capacity (nothing unusual for the preseason, even in stadiums that aren’t brand new), and the massive scoreboards in center field and right field had blank spaces where corporate logos should be. They haven’t loaded all of the ads onto the scoreboard yet, but rest assured: The AIG sign in left field is gone for good.
And in case you’re one of the sorry souls addicted to nicotine (like myself): There is one smoking section in Citi Field, right by the left-field entrance. If you need a cigarette, you’re going to miss an inning-plus. Unless you’re like most fans, who just went ahead and smoked in the concourse anyway. One wonders if security will be tighter when the big-league club hits town.
There are potentially some sight-line issues, particularly in the outfield corners. Expect a lot of fly balls to go into a phantom area of the stadium where you’ll have to wait for the crowd reaction to find out what the heck happened. That barely came up yesterday, though, because no one was really watching the game. Obviously, this wasn’t a major-league match. You could tell by the god-awful “ping” of the aluminum bats — just out of respect for the major-league stadium they were in, someone should have forced them to use wooden bats. And by the way, every player sprinted off the field at the end of every inning — you don’t see that in the majors. It was easy to forget that to Georgetown and St. John’s, this game actually counted.
For the record, the first national-anthem singer ever at Citi Field was Joanne Persico, head volleyball coach at St. John’s, and the first hit was by Tom Elliot, Georgetown’s shortstop. And the ceremonial first pitch? Mets folk hero John Franco, a St. John’s alum who tore off his Mets jacket before the pitch to show off a St. John’s jersey.
He was asked what struck him most about the new park. “The crowds are closer, and the bullpens are all close together,” he said. The home and visiting bullpens sit parallel, right next to one another. Opposing teams’ pitchers will be able to chat with each other. “During a close, important game, that might cause some issues,” Franco said.
But close and important can wait. The Mets have a new stadium. And you can play baseball there. Real, live baseball games. Finally.