Monday, November 13, 2006

Boring Rats: Cultural Learnings of "CitiField" Makes Inglorious Nation of Mets Fans

This New York Mets fan wanted to believe deep down to his orange and blue heart that the Mets organization would do the right thing when it came to naming the new ballpark. I wrote an article earlier this year about this topic in which I proclaimed that the new park should be named Jackie Robinson Field. I think I stated my case clearly and succinctly, but there was probably never a chance for this to happen because the whole thing came down to dollars and cents. Notice the words “common“ or “sense” are no where in sight.

Today there was a “groundbreaking” ceremony for the new park (despite the fact that construction work has been going on for months) outside the centerfield fence at Shea Stadium. This place will be called CitiField, though it will resemble the old home of the Dodgers, the legendary Ebbet’s Field, in order to evoke memories of the history of baseball in this town that has nothing to do with the Yankees. They have their own new stadium to contend with, but that’s another issue. The Mets have caved in big time, greedily sucking up $20 million a year in order for Citigroup to have its name plastered on the fa├žade of the new ballpark. For baseball purists like myself who find this offensive, we are supposed to be assuaged by a statue of Jackie Robinson that will be placed at the entrance of the new stadium.

Of course, many Mets fans will not mind any of this, for they felt the fact that Robinson never played in a Mets uniform was more important that anything else. It mattered little to them that the Mets were the logical, emotional, and spiritual heirs to the Dodger legacy in New York; and Robinson, more than any other Dodger, embodied that gutsy type of player that became emblematic of the Bums’ heart and soul.

My uncle used to say, “You can beat the Dodgers, but you can never defeat them.” This was a man who got so drunk in 1955 after the Dodgers beat the hated Yankees that he was lost for three days. He drank “in every bar in Brooklyn” according to his story years later, then got on the subway and started to visit every one in Manhattan for good measure. How he ended up in Teaneck, New Jersey, is still a mystery unlikely to ever be solved. Nevertheless, he and many Dodger fans bled Dodger blue and then cried a river of it when the team went out to California.

The Mets replaced this team in the hearts and minds of many of old Dodger fans, and the Mets’ roster had so many former Dodgers over the years that the connection seemed unquestionably obvious. Still, Mets fans were kind of hybrid, because many ex-Giants fans were also drawn into the Amazin’s web. The Mets logo on their caps comes straight from the Giants with its orange N and slightly bent Y. The marriage of that orange with Dodger blue gave us vibrant team colors that seemed to remind everyone of the history of the other two ball clubs while noting that this was the new team in town.

In response to today’s groundbreaking ceremony for CitiField, the first thing I screamed was “Boring!” This was followed by “Those dirty rats,” in my best James Cagney imitation. I could not believe the sound of those words, the hollow ring of corporate shilling echoing across the East River all the way to the Citicorp Building with its slanted roof. CitiField? Man, that is not only shocking but a less than amazing choice for the new home of the Amazin’ Mets.

I was mortified, angry, and then wondered how others were feeling about this. I donned my Mets windbreaker, Mets cap, and old Mets shirt (1986 World Champions no less), and I went over to the commercial heart of Queens, the newly refurbished shopping mall known as Queens Center. Located on Queens Boulevard on the corner of Woodhaven Boulevard, Queens Center is minutes from the current home of the Mets, Shea Stadium. It was filled with people doing early holiday shopping, so I pushed the Mets cap back on my head, took out my pad and pencil, and started to ask questions of people passing in the first floor’s main lobby.

I asked one simple question: What do you think of the new name for the Mets’ new ballpark? Here is an example of some answers I got:

Jose (18- Corona, Queens): I think it stinks, man. It should be something like Keith Hernandez Park or something like that.

Bill (49- Elmhurst, Queens): What name? What is the name (I told him it is being named CitiField for Citibank)? Oh, that’s terrible. That’s a lousy name for a stadium. Why not name it Gil Hodges Stadium? The team would be nothing without that man!

Cesar (22- Long Island City): That’s cold, really cold. I’m a Yankees fan, but I think even Steinbrenner wouldn’t do that.

Mildred (84-Maspeth, Queens): Oh my, that is sort of odd. Why can’t they just call it Shea once again? Make things easy for us all.

Willie J. (33-Brooklyn): Just too corporate, son. I mean, it’s just too damned corporate. Damn!

Alyssa (19-Whitestone, Queens): I’d call it Jose Reyes Park or name it for David Wright. They’re hot, and I don’t know who this CitiField guy is anyway.

Chuck (53-Mineola, Long Island): I’ve got one word for it: sell-out.

In all, I asked thirty-two people this question, and not one of them liked the name for the Mets’ new ballpark. Everyone seemed surprised that the Mets would do this, that the team ownership would make such an obvious play for corporate sponsorship. There seemed to be shock, disappointment and, for many, simply embarrassment that the team they loved would have to play home games in a field so-named.

I got back in my car and drove around onto the highway. It was a gloomy day today; the leaves that remained on the trees were clinging onto branches despite the robust wind blowing across Flushing Bay. I drove past my beloved Shea Stadium and felt a shiver scoot down my arms towards my hands on the steering wheel. I never realized how much I loved that ugly old place.

CitiField may one day prove to be the true home of the New York Mets the way Shea Stadium has been. So much of Mets history has taken place at Shea, so many Mets fans have spent long, hot afternoons and cold, windy nights there. It is a place where the present and past intermingle, with apparitions of our heroes long gone still shagging fly balls, tossing perfect strikes, and hitting the long one on each swing from here to eternity. CitiField is going to have a long way to go to find a similar place in the hearts of Mets fans.