First Visit to Citifield
First visit to Citifield yesterday --
I was there two hours before game time, the better to scout the ballpark. Missing from the somewhat remodeled subway station: the black-and-white wall sign near the exit that read, simply, "Baseball" -- and a telling omission, because Citifield, as currently marketed, is not so much a ballpark as a destination. The stadium's outward aspect is a pleasing red brick, to the main entryway behind home plate, the "Rotunda," named for a similar, if more humble, extension at Ebbets Field, which had ticket booths. This rotunda is dedicated to Jackie Robinson, with appropriate heroic pictures and inscriptions. In these and all other tributes to Robinson -- and he deserves this much and more -- I continue to think of two elements of his character and legacy that are overlooked among all the rest.
He was fiercely competitive; Leo Durocher, his first manager and later, when running the Giants, his rowdiest opponent -- once said "He didn't just come to play; he came to beat you. He came to ram the bat up your ass." What Robinson showed was not so much that a black man could play big league ball -- of course one could -- but that a black man, in the early 50s, could LEAD a major league team. They were "the Jackie Robinson Dodgers" in every regard. When Giants pitcher Larry Jansen was intimidating Dodger hitters with high, inside heat, it was Robinson they looked to to deal with the problem -- which he did in classic manner, bunting to the first baseman to force the pitcher to cover first, then running him over at the base. In this instance Jansen opted out, leaving second baseman Davey Williams to take the charge, and Robinson -- a former All-America footballer who played both offense and defense at UCLA -- knocked Williams severely. Williams left the game; Jansen lived to pitch on, but there were fewer inside fastballs. And -- correct me if I’m wrong -- Robinson's 1955 thievery was the last straight steal of home in World Series play. It came late in the second game and narrowed the score of an eventual loss, but it awoke the Dodgers, who won the next three games and then, in the seventh game, the Series. By the way, Yogi Berra to the contrary (to this day) notwithstanding, Robinson was safe. The reason I know he was safe was that a run went up on the scoreboard and the number of outs remained the same. If he'd been out, the reverse would have obtained.
Behind the huge numerals 42 which are set back in the Rotunda is a massive retail operation, which I skipped, under my long resolve never to wear the Met logo on purchased goods, on the grounds that I haven't earn the right to such display by making the club as a player -- in which case I'd get it all for free, anyway. I'd abandon this position only if the Mets staged a promotion I think of as "Jake Pitler Day," a tribute the ancient, gnarled first base coach of the Dodgers whose major contribution to the club, in Roger Kahn's felicitous phrase, was "to absent himself on Jewish holidays," a statement of ethnic solidarity with a hefty slice of Brooklyn's fans. Pitler became irrelevant with Koufax's arrival and stayed home when the club moved to Los Angeles. I somehow envision a Jake Pitler Day at Citifield, with the winner of an essay contest permitted to don the uniform and coach one inning at first base. I'd put on the uniform instanter and, probably, be buried in it.
One rides the escalator to the field level to find oneself in what to all appearances is a food court in a shopping mall, or -- with higher ceilings -- some part of the endless promenade of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Follow along a wide, curved passageway and one finds, for the first time, that there's a baseball field in the middle of all this! There is it, off to your left, with the food court continuing to your right. It is no doubt a convenience to fans that the field is visible from these bars and grills, but one is robbed of the enduring moment offered by all parks in my prior experience -- that of marching up a narrow ramp under the grandstand to find, suddenly and almost unexpectedly, that great expanse of gold and green stretched out before one's eyes. Another regret.
Two impressions follow from this first look at the totality of the stadium's interior. The first is that no facing is bare of advertising; walls, fronts of the various seating levels, and large ironworks extending skyward all support billboards or electronic running signs that tell you, essentially, to turn around and go give them money. The Pepsi Pavilion sits above Mo's Alley ("Gotta Go to Mo's!"). Only the center field wall, the hitter's backdrop, is clean of these urgings; I was distressed to see that the walls are black and the home run lines a vivid orange -- Giant colors. Booooooooo!
The second impression is the irregularity of the grandstand and thus of the outfield fences. I am bothered by the fact that these irregularities are inorganic. Boston's Fenway has a short left field and high wall because the dimensions of the lot imposed the shape, being rectangular; one could have a grandstand and bleachers in right field but not left, because that's where the block ended. Ebbets Field was a mirror of the same: a grandstand in left, a high wall in right with Bedford Avenue beyond the fence. The Polo Grounds was oblong because the lot was oblong, enforcing short lines and a huge center field (and left-center, and right-center -- someone knew, in the 1880s, that one day there would be a Willie Mays). But these nooks and crannies -- and there are both, nooks being spaces that go outward from the interior, crannies spaces that come inward -- are entirely manufactured. So far there have been more triples at Citifield than home runs, which is a remarkable statistic; I challenge Tim Wiles at the Hall of Fame Library, copied on this, to see how often this has happened over the course of a season, and where, especially since the end of the dead-ball era.
They've given odd names to seating areas and levels, none of them in any way connected to the team or to baseball. There's an Excelsior level (oddly, not the highest level, either) and Caesar's boxes and an Acela club. None of these are reflective of any reality I can connect to the game, the club, or the history of either.
Everywhere, subliminally, there are dollar signs on the seats. Behind home plate, above the field level, is a section for kings, a parterre box, to use the operatic equivalent, removed and isolated and entirely royal, and one's first thought is of what they cost. The average hourly wage in the US is $18.50, the average weekly earnings (pre-tax and deductions) is $616.19. What one can make out of this is a vibrant argument against the concept of the flat tax. It would take some doing, I realize, and it would be denounced as socialism to the extreme, but I have an idea that would democratize the seating entirely. Tickets should cost not a flat sum, but instead a percentage of weekly income. Depending on the opposition and the day of the week, those seats cost $375 on average -- which is to say, sixty percent of the average weekly wage. If this formula was applied to millionaires -- that is to say, people earning $20,000 a week -- they'd cost $12,000 per. Let's call this excessive (I'm in a bipartisan mood) and say that instead, twenty percent would be a fair price. So sell them to millionaires for $4,000, and to average wage-earners for $123, still a hefty expense but not out of line for a superb back-of-home, unobstructed, food-service-to-your-seat location. Minimum wage-earners would pay $66. And apply this throughout the park; seats high in the outfield grandstand are currently priced at an average very nearly equal to the average hourly wage; charge millionaires $500 per for them.
Of course, as Shel Silverstein once pointed out, in an egalitarian society the Cubs would win the World Series once every 30 years, which is over three times better than what they've been dealt under capitalism.
I was encouraged to find that prices for food and necessaries -- scorecard, yearbook, etc. -- are right where they were last year; a Nathan's hot dog (and there are no others) cost $4.75, which is half the price charged at the new mausoleum in the Bronx. But -- no free pencils.
The game began, and it was a fine one with multiple elements one cherishes for their familiarity -- the slumping slugger (David Wright), the gutty ace without his best stuff but snuffing out threat after threat with necessary outs (Santana), the reliever committing the cardinal sin of walking the first two hitters he faces and then either wiggling out of it (Lindstrom) or allowing the tying and winning runs to score (Putz, who will not earn his preferred pronunciation if he does this often again). And it was a weekday afternoon, all sunshine, which remains my favorite ballpark experience. Three triples, one home run (Tim! get to work!) The home team didn't win, and it WAS a shame.
Between the lines, it's all the same. The game, the game itself, always rescues itself from its surround. And withal, it's not a bad place to watch a ballgame.
Eric Rolfe Greenberg
30 April ‘09