Review: Citi Field in New York

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Citi Field in New York, the home of the Mets, is like Ebbets Field without the charm of Ebbets Field.

I never saw a baseball game at Ebbets.  It was demolished 1960, long before I was born and three years after the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.  But it couldn’t have been like Citi Field.

I begin with Ebbets Field because that’s precisely what the Mets ownership tried to recreate.  The facade of the stadium is almost an exact replication (see below).  The style of the stadium follows the same old-style brick and exposed steel design popularized by Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  These elements alone are a welcome break from lifeless concrete slab known as Shea Stadium, where the Mets played for 45 seasons before moving next door to Citi Field.  But the Mets “recreate” Ebbets Field in the clumsiest way possible.  Citi Field is an homage to Ebbets Field the way the Luxor in Las Vegas is an homage to the Pyramids at Giza.  Citi Field is Ebbets Field, built by Disney and marketed by Coca-Cola.

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I understand the game has changed.  So have the game’s finances.  Club seats are necessary to generate income and playgrounds are necessary to keep little kids entertained.  That’s not what I’m complaining about.  It’s not a problem that the Mets have a club level.  It’s a problem that the entire stadium feels like a club level.  The Mets have the following seating sections according to their website: Delta Platinum, Gold and Silver; Metropolitan Platinum Gold, Silver and Box; Hyundai Club; Filed Gold, Silver, and Box; Caesars Gold and Box; and Baseline Gold, Silver, and Box.  Indeed, I had a club seat when I attended a game there in 2011, but I couldn’t tell you where.  In fact, I needed a printout from the Mets website to inform me which club levels I had access to and which ones I didn’t.  When everything is exclusive, nothing is.

Confusion aside, the proliferation of “club” seats detracts from the atmosphere of the stadium.  One of the simple joys of attending a baseball game is the walk around the ballpark.  Don’t walk around Citi Field, lest you accidentally wander into off-limits premium seating.

The design of the stadium is appealing.  Once in the stadium, the old fashioned brick and steel appears to be a wise choice for a market such as New York, which has a storied baseball history.  The stadium designers opted for a bridge motif similar to the train motif in Houston or steamboat motif in Cincinnati.  The Jackie Robinson Rotunda beyond the home plate gate is one of many recognitions of the Brooklyn Dodgers franchise ubiquitous in the stadium, an ownership choice criticized by many fans proud of the Mets’s own history.

The Mets owner Fred Wilpon was accused of ignoring the Mets’ half-century of history at the expense of the Dodgers, who left Brooklyn before the Mets even existed.  Wilpon grew up a Dodgers fan, and felt it proper to honor his childhood team.  Wilpon is right–to an extent.  The Brooklyn Dodgers’ history belongs to New York, not Los Angeles.  It’s appropriate to honor that history.  In fact, the Mets’ original team colors are supposed to be a melding of Dodger Blue and New York Giant Orange.  The Mets are just as much an extension of the Brooklyn Dodgers as the franchise currently playing in Los Angeles.

But the stadium’s biggest problem is that it physically honors the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field while ignoring their spirit.  Ebbets Field’s unusual outfield dimensions were necessary to fit in its own neighborhood.  Beyond Ebbets Field’s walls were apartments, shops, and signs of urban life in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.  Beyond Citi Field’s walls are freeways and parking lots.  The unique outfield dimensions are just a reproduction for the sake of reproduction.  Citi Field is selling nostalgia, but it comes with an aura of phoniness.  Citi Field doesn’t feel like 1950’s America, it feels like a soundstage of movie set in 1950’s America.

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The location of a stadium is almost as important as the stadium itself.  Here, the Mets failed.  They built the stadium right beside the now-demolished Shea stadium and near the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows in Queens.  The site was available and convenient no doubt.  But the Mets’ “modern-day Ebbets” is between a highway and a sea of yellow painted asphalt.  It just doesn’t fit right. (Marlins Park in Miami suffers from a similar problem.  See my review here).  Visually, the utilitarian Shea was ironically a better fit in the neighborhood.

There’s a way to build a modern, convenient stadium that also honors baseball’s architectural past.  I visited Baltimore Oriole Park at Camden Yards last weekend and I’m still amazed by it’s simple elegance.  It’s a baseball field surrounded by a seating bowl and structure designed to echo an earlier era.

It doesn’t seem that difficult, but maybe it really is.

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