A Sort of Homecoming

I posted a poll the other day that posed this question: Would you rather have Citi Field (renamed Shea Stadium), or Shea Stadium back (but it’s renamed Citi Field)?

The first option, Citi Field renamed Shea Stadium, won in a three to one landslide. I had thought it would be closer, but apparently a (wholly unscientific) majority of people like the Mets’ new ballpark, particularly if it had a less silly name than it does now.

That said, several of the comments regarding Citi Field were negative. There seemed to be an agreement Citi Field is a superior ballpark in both terms of amenities and the number of Shake Shacks, but there was also a consensus that it didn’t feel like home, with some calling it generic or sterile. This more or less echos how I feel about Citi Field: I like it, but it also feels impersonal and arbitrary.

But I also think there are easy ways to fix this.

I’ll note here that, on some level, I sort of feel dumb complaining about this. A park is a park is a park, and it’s not like anyone is longing for the return of Giants Stadium. (I don’t know. Is anyone clamoring for Giants Stadium?) So why baseball?

Because the venue matters in baseball far more than it does in any other sports.

Take football. The stadiums are an afterthought, a means to experience the game in person but not much more. Which makes sense. An NFL team has an absolute maximum of 12 home games a year, barely a blip on the calender. No football stadium is an attraction for its own merits — Lambeau Field being the exception — because no one spends enough time in one for the stadium to matter.

In the other one-and-a-half majors sports, basketball and hockey, every team uses a fairly similar indoor venue. The result is that any mystique is derived from the personality of the crowd as opposed to the building itself. The power of Madison Square Garden isn’t the Garden as much as it is the possibility of 19,763 incensed New Yorkers chanting “sidekick” at LeBron James as he shoots a free throw. For the winter sports, it’s not the stage itself as much as it is the chorus. Which means the stage itself is almost interchangeable (and therefore almost irrelevant).

So the venue doesn’t matter so much in other sports. But baseball is different. Its ballparks matter more for three reasons.

The first is the nature of the game itself: baseball is really boring. The ball is actually in play for maybe 10 minutes over the course of a three hour game, which leaves 170 minutes filled with nothing but awkwardly bearded dudes standing around, chewing on things. And it’s like that for every game. 81 home games a year. If you’re a baseball fan, you get to know your team’s home park well, if only because your attention is directed at something between pitches out of sheer necessity.

Then there are the physical differences between parks. Baseball is the only sport without fixed dimensions for its playing fields — the bases are 90 feet apart, but the shape, height, and distance of the fences and the size of the foul territory are (effectively) unregulated. And this is really weird. Imagine if the Denver Broncos could build a 125 yard long football field, or the Orlando Magic could play in an arena with 8 foot baskets. It sounds crazy — and sort of awesome, actually — but in baseball these sorts of particularities are considered totally normal. Fenway Park in Boston has a 37 foot high wall in left field sitting 310 feet from home plate; PETCO Park in San Diego has an 8 foot high wall in left sitting 367 feet from home plate. Every ballpark has some sort of unique physicality that changes the way the game is played in that park, and contributes to its identity.

That is the second reason.

The third, and I think most important reason, is ghosts – which is not to say floating, translucent beings that can be measured by PKE meters. More like the ghosts of history. Baseball is obsessed with its own past, far more than any other sport, and its fans genuinely care about that past. Baseball has the only Hall of Fame people bother to argue about. In bookstores, baseball books takes up more shelf space than any other sport. Ballparks act as the physical manifestations of this history, such that they have ghosts, and the older a park, the more of these ghosts it has — ghosts being the collective memories of great players and moments, and the personal ones of fathers, mothers, siblings, relatives and friends. I felt a something with Shea Stadium that was stronger than with any other public place – it held a combination of personal memories and the historical ones shared by all Mets fans. When it was turned into a parking lot, that came down too, and it was sad in a real, meaningful way. The ghosts matter. Even if the building is right next door, they won’t come over on their own.

The result is, as baseball fans, we construct a personality for each ballpark based on its physical and historical characteristics. We have the time to form these constructions because baseball is a plodding game. So an ideal ballpark would have a lot of this personality to make us feel a connection to the building, to make it feel like home.

So here’s the problem with Citi Field: Because it doesn’t have a history and the quirks of the playing field are contrived, it lacks a personality other than “sterile” or “corporate” or something like that. So it’s hard to feel a connection with it.

But there are simple solutions for this, or so I think.

First, the problem of history. On some level, complaining about the lack of history in a three-year-old stadium feels silly. It sort of feels like calling a six-month-old infant unintelligent. It’s true, but it feels unfair in a way. The history problem will obviously take care of itself in time. That said, there are other things that could be done in the present. The Mets Museum is almost the right idea; I think it could be better executed. Keep the Hall of Fame part, but take some or all the memorabilia out of the museum and spread it throughout the ballpark. (The San Francisco Giants have done this with their ballpark.) Put Tom Seaver’s jersey, Jesse Orosco’s glove, Mookie Wilson’s cleats, all that stuff, in different display cases spread throughout the park. You get a hot dog and pass the 1969 World Series trophy along on the way. If you arrive to the park early, you can take a walk around each level and see all scattered the pieces. Doing this would put some of those ghosts back into the ballpark, instead of hiding them by the gift shop. I honestly believe this would help more than anything else they could do to the building.

Then there are the strange physical features of the playing field – i.e., the wall is 16 feet high in left field, then bends outward like a trapezoid and changes height in right field, where there are stands that overhang onto the playing field. I suppose this is meant to recall the configurations of old-timey stadiums. The thing is, in those old stadiums, the unique shapes came about through necessity. Tigers Stadium had to have an overhang because it was the only way to add extra seats into the stadium; Fenway Park and Ebbets Field had odd dimensions because they were squeezed into city blocks. Citi Field’s dimensions are an attempt to add some gravity of history — the right idea — but totally misses the point. It’s weird solely for the sake of being weird, which sort of feels dishonest.

I actually don’t have a solution for this weirdness for the sake of weirdness problem. I more just wanted to point out that I think the overhang in right field is dumb, though it’s possible I’m the only person who is bothered by this. I also suppose future baseball historians will see that overhang as a reflection of our current fascination with recycling culture (“The Chipmunks” movies are another example), and perhaps the most representative feature of the retro-ballpark fad. When and if that happens, the overhang will suddenly become quirky for the right reasons, like pet rocks. Or something. It’s another problem that will solve itself.

Anyhow. The physical configuration of Citi Field is less important than the history thing. I don’t care about the color of the fences or the seats, and I don’t think changing it would make much of a difference. The amount of advertising, particularly on the scoreboard, is ugly and overwhelming, but that’s a problem everywhere that will (hopefully) go away on its own. But if the Mets can get the building to breathe history a bit more, that will give it that feeling of home people are missing. It’s as if they moved, but left all their possessions in storage for a while. Then they put them all in a single room that’s easy to miss. Spread it throughout the house, and the entire place will feel more like home. It’s a great park, but that feeling does matter.

If you’re going to build a new stadium, raise the prices for everything, make sections exclusive, name it “Citi Field” as the economy goes to hell, and send out two losing teams – you should probably be trying to make it feel as much like home as possible. No one’s naïve; of course it’s all about money. But we like to be able to pretend that it’s not.

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12 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

12 responses to “A Sort of Homecoming

  1. I didn’t vote because I prefer Citi Field named Citi Field over it being called Shea or having Shea back in any fashion.

    I have yet to hear a name I like better that both gets the Mets an extra $20 million to spend a year and represents what the Mets are: New York Cit(y) Baseball.

    Sure, the walls are weird. so what? No Endy catch in LF? In 10 years we could be saying “Don’t change that Mo’s zone! Remember when Torri Hunter misplayed the carem and Reyes scored from first with the winning run in game 7 of the 2011 World Series?

    I agree we could throw some more historical stuff around the park, name the concessions “Alfonzo’s burgers” istead of “burgers and fries” but maybe we let the current guys grow into it a bit? Put the ball from the first division clinched at Citi Field in the promenade food court. Take the first post saeson home run bat and display it over the entrance to the elevator up to the Left Field Landing.

  2. The one thing I’ll never understand is the right/right center wall configuration. I mean you have a franchise player, the “face” of the team, David Wright who has good opposite field power. So how do you design the home ballpark? You negate his power to the opposite field. Was anybody thinking?

    • Patrick Flood

      . . . and then he started pulling everything, and couldn’t hit it out to left because the wall is really high there, too.

  3. I don’t think you can manufacture history at a new ballpark, no matter how much memorabilia you sprinkle through it.

    When the Mets have some on-field success at Citi Field, then it will be the site of positive memories. For now, the memories it inspires are of Eric Bruntlett’s unassisted triple play, Ollie Perez meltdowns and lots of losing baseball.

  4. Paul Zummo

    I made my one and only trip to Citi Field last year and my first impression was, “Wow, so this is what it’s like to play in a non-crappy stadium.” I loved Shea, but mainly because of the memories. I understand some of the complaints about it not feeling like home, but I think that will change, especially when they start winning.

    If you want a new stadium that is nice but completely sterile try Nationals Park. Not a bad seat in the house, some nice views of the Anacostia River and the Capitol depending on where you are, and a clear improvement over RFK, and yet it is the dullest of the new stadiums in baseball. In a way it does fit the personality of this town.

  5. Great piece. This is what Op-Ed should look like.

    I’m now going to proceed to miss your entire point by focussing on trivia.

    “Baseball is the only sport without fixed dimensions for its playing fields…” — Sadly, not so. I can’t speak for the modern era, but back when I followed hockey (1970s) the Canadian rinks, and especially Toronto and Montreal, were considered to be smaller than the American ones, especially those of the expansion clubs like the Islanders. We also said — rightly or wrongly — that the corners were tighter (affecting the puck’s rebound) and there was less room behind the nets.

    My hockey memory may be old and faulty, but I just recently did some research on soccer/futbol stadiums. There are at least three different ‘recommended’ sizes for pitches, but the absolute limits are sufficiently loose that the smallest legal pitches have literally half the square footage of the largest. You won’t see that much variation between ballparks.

    • Patrick Flood

      Ah! I stand corrected. Hockey and soccer are the sports I pay the least attention to, so forgive my ignorance. I have been to Rangers games and enjoyed myself, but I wouldn’t consider myself a hockey fan. I only like soccer once every four years; for some reason I’m captivated by the World Cup.

  6. I say leave all the Mets stuff in the museum, but sprinkle all sorts of items and displays about NYC’s National League history throughout the stadium. I’d love to to learn more about that.

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