Our House, in the Middle of 126th Street

workout_day.JPGMy first review of CitiField was inconclusive and ambivalent. But I made two trips back this weekend: once for an actual Mets game (well, not actually actual, but close enough after a very long winter), and once for a Workout Day, a fun event where plan holders can watch the team stretch and run and take BP (Scratchbomb Flashback!: I chronicled the Mets’ first ever Workout Day way back in 2006).

After this weekend, I still don’t feel comfortable making conclusive assessments about everything in CitiField. But I’m pretty sure I love it.

The first exhibition against the Red Sox, which I attended, was a much better test for how the stadium will feel during a real game. There were lots of Mets fans pumped to see a game, and there were enough fans of the the other team to approximate an in-season opposition.

So even though the weather wasn’t much better than during my first visit (worse, actually, thanks to a 1+ hour rain delay), the atmosphere was decidedly livelier. There was an energy to the place lacking during the college exhibition dress rehearsal. The Red Sox games were about as close to Game Conditions as we’ll get until Opening Day, and CitiField cleaned up well in this light.

Management took the four days at their disposal to add a few more features to the park, like distance markers on the outfield fence, and orange home run markers along it as well. The missing panels in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda were installed. Signage was much improved, in that it actually existed.

And I was able to see some of the Met touches that I’d missed before, like huge murals of great Met moments hanging above the Left Field Gate, and smaller banners along the outside walls above the Right Field Gate. I’d still like to see more, but I’ll give the Mets the benefit of the doubt that they’re working on it.

Best of all, I got to see a sort-of real game played there by mosty-real major leaguers. Blue Smoke and Shake Shack and table service restaurants with field views are exciting (few of which I’ll patronize with any regularity; the Mets still allow you to bring your own food, and I plan on exploiting this loophole as much as possible). The new team stores are neat if you like $90 hoodies. The Jackie Robinson Rotunda is impressive, though I don’t know that I’ll need to see it every time I visit.

When push comes to shove, all I really want from CitiField is is that it’s a good place to watch a game. On this basis alone, I liked what I saw on Friday. A lot.

Even though the field is bigger than it was at Shea, and it looks like it will be as much of a pitcher’s park as the old stadium (if not more so–felt like I saw a dozen balls that woulda cleared the fence at Shea turn into booming doubles), it feels smaller. Even in the upper deck, you feel like you’re right on top of the action. I suspect that CitiField’s sort-of enclosed layout will make it even louder than Shea, despite a smaller capacity.

Shea felt very steep, particularly if you were in the upper deck. It always felt like one wrong step could send you plunging to your death (and if the stands didn’t get you, the escalators would). In CitiField, all seats are angled toward the field, and not on a 45 degree slope, either. Granted, the Mets were able to do this by making a ballpark with 12,000 fewer seats than Shea, and I still suspect they did this more to charge higher ticket prices than
they did to enhance fan experience. But regardless of the Wilpons’ true motive, I think they succeeded in their stated one.

And even if you have the crappiest seat in the house, you can go down to the field level, pick a spot behind the stands, and still get an excellent view of the proceedings. Other than an actual field level ticket, or seats right behind home plate, these probably afford the best vantage points in the house.

One enhancement that I both like and don’t like: The addition of TVs in the concession areas. I screamed about this for years, how virtually every stadium but Shea had this amenity, so you could still see the game while waiting on line for food/beer.

Now they have finally have them, and I realize that it’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing for the reasons I stated above. A curse because it will almost encourage you to leave your seat. If you have any qualms about getting up at a crucial moment because you’d miss the action, now you won’t. And you can easily find yourself getting distracted, watching the game on a flatscreen, even though the game is being played live and in the flesh literally feet behind you.

Mets fans are still getting used to the brand new ballpark and its amenities, which were unfathomable at Shea. Everyone I saw this weekend gawked and stared and squinted at the new stuff, like they were hillbilly cousins invited to fancy to-do, and they didn’t truly understand how to conduct themselves. “What’s on that there menu? Buffalo chicken
wrap? Well, I’ll be hornswaggled!”

Case in point: There’s a very large club/lounge behind home plate called the Caesar’s Club, open only to Excelsior Level ticketholders. It looks a lot like a fancy airport lounge, with a huge arcing bar, several concession stands, and tons of comfy chairs, each with a flatscreen nearby. I wanted to check it out, and I heard they had Brooklyn Beer, so I ventured inside.

This is literally the first thing I see as I enter the Caesar’s Club: A 50-ish man–not fat but not thin either–sitting in a very comfy chair with his feet on up on a table. He was sitting in this chair like it was the most comfortable thing his ass had ever touched, and he would never move again if he didn’t have to. Mind you, the game had already started by this point. But he decided that this was a better use of his time and the price of admission.

On Sunday, I attended Workout Day with frequent Scratchbomb commenter TheWhiteBoomBoom. I’d seen a lot of the vantage points from behind homeplate in my earlier trips, so I thought we should park ourselves in the left field section, below the Pepsi Porch, hoping to catch a few (fake) dingers.

At Shea, there was no outfield seating per se. Only the bleachers, which were not at all close to the action and open only to large groups. At CitiField, almost the entire outfield is ringed with seating, which is an extension of the field level. And it’s backed by a wide open
concourse where, again, you can just stand and watch the game from your feet if you’re so inclined.

Ryan Church smacked a few balls off of the face of the Pepsi Porch, which, according to the CitiField ground rules, would be homers in a real game (maybe he was picturing Garry Sheffield’s face on the ball?). So did Carlos Beltran. Dan Murphy and David Wright acquitted themselves well at the plate, too, belting a few shots of their own.

Left field was an awesome place to watch BP, so I can only imagine what it’d be like to watch a game from there. Plus, I got to see some dude a section over, who wasn’t paying
attention, get clobbered in the face with a foul ball. So I witnessed the first fan injury at CitiField. History!

I also had my first encounter with a crew of drunk mooks, who parked themselves immediately behind us. Everyone who came up inspired one of them to say, “He’s gonna be big! He’s gonna have a monsta year!” He declared that Carlos Beltran has “the sweetest swing in the majors”, with such conviction that you’d think this was a quantifiable thing. Like he rated a staggering 3.7 on Bill James’ Sweet Swing Scale.

Sunday marked my first chance to sample the sort-of fancy food available to all patrons in the outfield concourse (another big difference from Shea, where the Mets kept their best concessions hidden on the nigh-inaccessible field level). I opted for the three taco combo
at El Verano Taqueria, and washed it down with a Brooklyn Sabroso.

If you’re the kind of dork who likes pairing beer with food (like me), this is a good duo; a crisp, vaguely sweet beer that would go well with any Mexican food. I would totally buy this beer at a bar or deli if it were available there (sadly, it’s not just a CitiField exclusive,
but a CitiField taco stand exclusive).

As for the grub itself, they weren’t the best tacos I’ve ever had, but they’re probably the
best ballpark food I’ve ever had. Granted, that’s a pretty low bar. And while it ain’t exactly cheap–$7.50 for two tacos, $9.75 for three–I’ve spent more on food at games and gotten far, far less.

And they’d probably taste even better in a more favorable climate. We ate our food in the picnic area behind the scoreboard, and there were some seriously howling winds coming off of Flushing Bay. My first sampling was just the right temperature, but my third was more like a taco-sicle.

So this weekend hooked me. Not that I have a much of a choice; if the place was a total dump, I’d still go there to watch the Mets. In fact, up until this year, I did go to a total dump to watch the Mets.

But it seems like the Mets ownership finally–finally–has recognized that the team has loyal fans who maybe shouldn’t be treated like uninvited guests when they show up at the ballpark. That will definitely take some getting used to.