Thursday, July 8, 2010

We Urge You To Take Public Transport

My wife and I made our first trip to Citi Field on Tuesday. For some reason we didn't get there last season, when the reviews were mixed--favorable comments on the park itself, negative comments on the absence of suggestions that the Mets franchise existed before 2009. For that alone I'm grateful that we waited until this season, when the time spent in the Mets museum and Hall of Fame was quite enjoyable."

Part of that enjoyment, I must admit, was due to the air conditioning. We picked the hottest day in New York City in umpteen years for our visit, and any semblance of air conditioning was welcome. Somehow we have developed a knack for buying tickets to games on days with extreme weather. We had tickets for the game on Mother's Day, when illness prevented us from driving through snow to attend a day game with a wind-chill factor in the 20s. Some fans said it was almost as bad as a July game at Candlestick Park.

Instead, we drove down to the city (200 miles from home) in the heart of a heat wave. The highest temperature we saw on the car's thermometer was 108; the official high in NYC was 104. Close enough. The humidity was somewhat higher than that. At least the car didn't overheat, and we didn't either until the minute we had to step out of the vehicle. At that moment, we were also numb from learning that the Mets were zapping us for $19 for parking. I'm pretty sure I've never paid more than $10 to park for a ballgame before; last year I paid nothing to park a few blocks from Fenway Park. Back in the 70s I used to park on the slummy side-streets when I visited Shea Stadium, but on a 104-degree day that wasn't a good option.

I understand the parking fees are even higher at the new Yankee Stadium and other venues, but $19 it outrageous enough for me. I think of it as Grand Central Parkway robbery. I can see the meeting where they decided on that figure: $19. "Hey, it's not like we're bleeding them for a whole Jackson. We are giving them change." Besides, someone has to pay the $12 million yearly salary of Oliver Perez. No wonder all those ads urge fans to take public transport to the game. The next time we go to Citi Field, we'll make sure to do just that.

The Mets museum and Hall of Fame is a great addition to the ballpark, as are similar collections at other new ballparks. The HOF plaques resemble those I see every day in Cooperstown, starting with Joan Payson, the team's first owner. There are several video screens with continuous highlights of the team's two championship seasons, and a Tom Seaver display with footage that shows his devastating combination of fastball and slider. Plenty of artifacts fill the cases. The most popular is the "Buckner ball," signed by Mookie Wilson, but my favorite item was the handwritten evaluation by Casey Stengel of Mets infielders from 1964, including the likes of Ed Kranepool, Ron Hunt, Rod Kanehl, Roy McMillan, and Charlie Smith.

I was also delighted to see that I am represented in that museum. There are more than a few items on display that are on loan from the Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown. Also on loan are the labels, which I wrote. One of my assignments here is to write the labels for the Locker Room, which features artifacts from the past decade for each major league franchise. (For some reason, the curators chose not to use my favorite label: "Randy Johnson pitched no-hitters in both leagues, and we have the balls to prove it.") It's a modest feat, but I'm proud to know that a few sentences of my scintillating prose are on display at Citi Field.

Like most folks who reported back last year after first visits to the park, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda is less than impressive. The screens that show Robinson in action are way at the top where you can't see them well, and from most spots are blocked by beams and other structural items. There are Robinson quotes on the floor and walls, but they seem incidental to what is merely a large lobby with a couple of escalators. I did, however, take my favorite photo of the day: my wife, standing at a rail above the escalators, framed by two words writ large on the wall: DETERMINATION and PERSISTENCE. That's her.

We took the time to walk around the park's perimeter, and thanks to a brisk breeze blowing through the open-air walkways, it was very comfortable despite the heat. It's certainly an attractive park with great views of the field from every angle, though thanks to the odd angles of the fences in right and center field, people actually sitting out there during the game are blocked from seeing what's actually happening. There's a huge variety of food choices, albeit at uniformly high prices; every twenty feet or so is a different cuisine, and you can experience everything from Korean food to fried dough to steak tips to lobster rolls (for $17, and they don't last nearly as long as the $19 parking spot). The garlic parmesan fries were tempting even at $9.75, but we had taken the precaution of eating on the road. Maybe next time.

Then there was the ballgame and great seats, purchased from a friend with season tickets. We sat about six rows back in the upper deck, directly behind the plate, with panoramas of the park and environs and a clear view of all the action except for slivers in the outfield corners. Nobody checked our tickets; I would urge you to take that public transit, buy a cheap bleacher ticket, and find an open spot behind the plate. Take your savings and invest them in one of the two dozen or so imported beers available almost everywhere you look.

Fortunately for Mets fans, Johan Santana was just as sizzling as the hot, dead air that filled the stadium once the sun went down. He gave up a double to the first batter he faced, and he gave up a single in the 9th inning. In between he allowed only one more hit, but that wasn't what electrified the crowd of roughly 28,000 potential heat stroke victims. In the 3rd inning, after a challenging 12-pitch at-bat, Santana yanked a high-inside slider from lefty Matt Maloney and drilled it off the right-field foul pole for his first major league home run. The Mets announcers have boldly predicted this inevitable event for two years, and Gary Cohen repeated the prediction just two or three pitches before it happened. That blast probably meant more to him than the shutout.

Still, he was quite determined to get that shutout, after having four no-decisions already this season in games where he allowed no earned runs. With one out in the 9th and a 3-0 lead, a single and an error put two runners on. He had thrown 101 pitches on a night when the ballpark temperature at game-time was 99 degrees. Manager Jerry Manuel popped out of the dugout, and the crowd booed mightily. This was Johan's night, and nobody wanted to see it spoiled, especially a couple of days after Francisco Rodriguez detonated a two-run lead in the 9th inning. The visit to the mound lasted about three seconds. I'm not sure if Santana told Manuel "don't you dare give K-Rod a chance to blow this" or Manuel told Santana "you'd better not let me regret giving K-Rod a chance to blow this instead," but the manager headed quickly back to the dugout, now roundly cheered by the crowd. Santana didn't waste time. The next pitch was a line drive snared by Ike Davis, and the pitch after that was a bouncer to third that ended the game.

Santana was exultant, and so were the sweat-soaked fans. On the concourse, a group of 20-year-olds did a sing-song chant of "Jo-han San-tan-a" that soon changed to "R. A. Dick-ey" (to honor the newest Mets darling) punctuated by one group member's rousing "suck my Dick-ey". Yes, it was a time to celebrate, especially for those headed home on public transit.

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