A Completely Compromised and Barely Informed Review of CitiField

citifield_front.JPGAs this title implies, what follows barely qualifies as a review of the Mets’ new ballpark, CitiField, aka TARP Memorial Grounds at Bernie Madoff Stadium, which I visited on Sunday for its first event: a college baseball game betwen St. John’s and Georgetown. There are several reasons for this.

The first was my not-very-smart notion to bring The Baby with me. In an ideal world, she can say she saw the first ever game that took place at this stadium, if she grows up to care about such trivial nonsense (and if she grows up to care about trivial nonsense, she is definitely my daughter).

But in the real world, she’s two-and-a-half years old, at a stage where her every whim must be catered to or a complete thermonuclear meltdown ensues (and sometimes occurs even when her every demand has been met). So The Wife and I spent much of our time trying to stave off the inevitable freakouts. This left little time to make detailed observations.

Second of all, the stadium was clearly not quite finished yet in many respects. For instance, several large tile spaces in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which should have been filled with portraits of its namesake, were instead filled with slabs of sheetrock. Nearly all the concession stands were manned and serving customers–however, nearly all of them were either missing some of the juicier new food items promised to fans, or experiencing some kind of technical difficulties. I saw no fewer than three escalators out of service (I took this to be a subtle homage to Shea).

Finally, crummy weather depressed attendance to begin with, and most of the folks who showed up were clearly there to check out the new joint rather than see the actual game being played (myself included). So CitiField did not have the energy it would during a Mets game. An essential part of the fan experience is being around other rabid fans, high-five-ing complete strangers and second-guessing bullpen moves with them. In the absence of that atmosphere, it’s a stadium trip in name only.

For all these reasons, I can’t judge CitiField in any definitive way. I don’t think I could judge any ballpark unless I’ve been there at least twice, and under optimal conditions. But I did want to post some pics for the curious, and record my initial thoughts for posterity.

If I had to sum up the feeling of a Mets fan visiting CitiField for the first time, it’s akin to buying a brand new car. You got sold on all the new fancy features, but when you finally take delivery, you don’t know how to use half of them, and owner’s manual is no help, and this one light keeps blinking on the dashboard and you have no idea what it means. You figure that once you get used to the new car and learn how to use it better, you’ll love it, but for now you’re kind of nostalgic for the old beater you used to drive.

More pics and attempts at detailed analysis after the jump:

First off, the approach to the stadium from the 7 train was not as jarring as I thought. In my head, I prepared myself for the glaring absence of Shea, which always seemed to emerge out of nowhere as the subway left Corona. But maybe I prepared myself too well, because my first post-Shea trip to Flushing wasn’t nearly as weird as I thought. Although the huge pile of Shea rubble you can see from the 7 platform is a little sad. The unofficial signs at the station still reference the old stadium’s name, but the MTA’s signage just says “Mets – Willets Point”, as if “Mets” was a neighborhood.

The approach to the main entrance from the subway is much, much more streamlined than ever before. Stairs lead straight down from the platform toward the home plate entrance. And if that sounds obvious to you, then clearly you have no idea how ass-backwards the Mets usually do things.

citifield_approach.JPGThe entrance process was relatively painless, even accounting for a member of our party requiring the obligatory/perfunctory bag search (granted, this was hardly a sellout crowd, and we did arrive at least an hour before game time). If you enter via the main gate, you’ll get a peek at the Fan Walk, paved with Mets’ fans messages for eternity. And, if you’re like me, you’ll wish you’d forked over the dough to buy your own slab of immortality.

fanwalk.JPGAt Shea, there were not many ushers, and most of them were trained around the Field level to keep the plebes at bay. At CitiField, you can’t sneeze without hitting a helpful employee. Whether you’re in a team store, or looking for your seat, or just trying to tell the difference between the Excelsior Level and the Promenade, someone in a bright-colored jacket is there to help you out. They may even say hi to you, for no other reason just to be friendly–a concept not just foreign to Shea, but pretty much the entire tristate area.

Unlike Shea, you’re free to roam the Field level concessions area. Most of this area is open, so that if you’re trying to get a beer or a hot dog, you can still see the action as you wait on line. And if you can’t quite see the field from your vantage point, you can probably see a TV with the game on (presumably they’ll be tuned better than these sets).

This openness goes for all levels. When you leave your seat to go to the concession area, no matter where you sit, you enter an open-air extension of the stadium itself, rather than the concrete cavern that was the Shea concession area. In the Promenade (upper deck) level, there’s even a picnic area behind home plate–imagine that, amenities for the cheap seats! All around, CitiField is about ten times brighter than Shea, even on an overcast day like Sunday.

field_level_view.JPGThe exception to this brightness is the area behind homeplate, which is reserved for some kind of super-exclusive restaurant/club/whatever and is extremely dark, almost claustrophobically so. I did noticed that many of the overhead lights were out, so I wonder if this darkness was just an attempt to be “green” (a PA announcement indicated an attempt at green-ness for the day’s event) or somebody forgetting to screw the bulbs in all the way.

Speaking of green-ness, the men’s bathrooms use water-free urinals. They look squeaky-white, ultra-modern, hyper-spherical, and very, very weird–like something out of A Clockwork Orange. They also stick out farther than your average urinal, which will be disconcerting to the pee-shy. I didn’t snap any pics, as I thought that would be weird (although when I used the facilities, several other customers didn’t have the same qualms as I did).

Those with ticket plans who got pushed to higher seats than they had at Shea (like me) will be pleased to know that the Promenade still affords an excellent view of the proceedings. In fact, I discovered that my seats this year in the upper deck are better than my Shea Mezzanine seats were–I can actually see the whole field, for one thing. Here’s a shot from a Promenade section relatively close to home plate, only three or four rows from the very top of the stadium. This should indicate the quality of even the “nosebleeds”. I’m also happy to report that the steps to the top are nowhere near as murderous as those at Shea.

section_518.jpgOf course, as this next pic indicates, there are some bad seats. i.e., the ones behind the out-of-town scoreboard. Also, there’s only this one out-of-town scoreboard, whereas a lot of the new stadiums have two so you can see one no matter where you sit. Go to CitiField and sit in left, and you won’t have any idea what’s going on in the Kansas City-Oakland tilt.

out_of_town_scoreboard.JPGBefore Sunday, I was most intrigued to check out the area behind the outfield, which has some of the more in-demand concessions (Shake Shack, Blue Smoke) and some other fun stuff for the kiddies. However, none of these things were truly up and running yet, so the jury’s out. There was long block of retail-looking space beyond the huge-ass scoreboard that remains empty–not sure if this is earmarked for some kind of team store or Mets history-type area. I hope the latter, as the park remains sorely lacking a Mets identity (more on that later).

Even its (presumably) unfinished state, the outfield area looks like a neat place to just hang and watch the game from an interesting vantage point. It’s very open, with plenty of room to roam or loiter. And it offers some interesting vistas. Here’s where the end of the right field Promenade meets the Pepsi Porch overhang.

outfield_view.JPGFor the nostalgic, the outfield also offers a glimpse of the old home run apple. (The new one remains sheathed.) You can also sneakh a peek at the chop shops beyond 126th Street which, despite their spiffy new neighbor, defiantly remain.

bullpen_gate.JPGThis is as close as you’ll get to the outside world, because CitiField is very much a self-contained world. At Shea, no matter where you sat, you saw something beyond the outfield fence, whether it was the big U-Haul sign or traffic on the Van Wyck or just the parking lot. When I think of classic Shea games, I think of homers belted out of the stadium. But in CitiField, there is no out of the stadium, at least not one you can see (although, as The Wife pointed out to me, it was pretty damn foggy on Sunday).

pepsi_porch.JPGThis gives the stadium an intimacy, or a smallness, depending on your point of view. My first instinct is to say smallness, since I think the Wilpons made CitiField much smaller than it need be, particularly for a team that attracted 4 million fans last year.

There are also some design anomalies (some might say flaws) that make getting around a bit difficult, depending on where you need to be. For instance, on the Excelsior level (rough equivalent of Mezzanine at Shea), there’s a restaurant that looks out on the field. Which is cool, if you happen to be allowed to use it (I’m not sure what entitles you to this privilege, if anything, but on Sunday it was closed for a private event).

acela_club.JPGHowever, there’s no way to get around this restaurant if you have seats in left field and you’re coming from home plate, which necessitates going down or up a level, then returning to Excelsior to get to your seats. Seems weird and inconvenient, especially when you consider that these left field seats aren’t cheap.

In general, the signage leaves a lot to be desired. The various seating levels have names that aren’t really intuitive (other than Field, obviously), so some better wayfinding is definitely needed. There are many signs outside the stadium indicating the various gates, and there are signs in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda indicating which stairs/escalators lead to what levels. But once you’re actually in the stadium, you’re more or less on your own. As I said above, there’s no shortage of ushers to assist you, but I get the feeling that most fans will want to feel a little less helpless.

I was also a bit perturbed by the lack of Mets Stuff in the stadium. Each gate entrance has its own silhouette of a famous Met moment, which is neat, but that was basically the extent of team-specific imagery, at least as far as I saw.

Maybe I just missed other team tributes, or maybe they’re still working on something bigger. But how about a little museum exhibit? Some place where you could walk through and take a little visual walk down memory lane? In much of CitiField’s interior, you don’t get a sense that you’re in the Mets’ ballpark. It looks more like a spiffy ballpark where the Mets happen to play.

But again, any criticisms I have are based on the very first event held there, on an overcast day when the facilities were not 100% finished and I spent most of my time placating a toddler. So take all of this with as much salt as you like. There’s a lot of stuff about CitiField that I like, and as far as most of the stuff I don’t like goes, I’m willing to cut ownership some slack and hope they’ll figure most of it out. Not that I have much of a choice. Shea sure ain’t coming back (and, for all the good times I had there, not that I’d want it to).

This Friday, I’ll be in attendance when the Mets take the field at CitiField for the first time (which I am very happy about, since I got screwed out of tix to Opening Day). To me, how that event goes down will be a true gauge of the overall fan experience. I plan on another post to commemorate that event, or excoriate it if need be.