Citi Field opens era of new memories

Citi Field opens era of new memories

NEW YORK -- Tom Seaver threw a perfect strike to Mike Piazza. David Wright hit a home run and the big apple went up. There were 82 kinds of beer at the Beer Garden in center field.

The Shake Shack was so popular that it had a line that lasted all game. The Nathan's hot dogs were perfect. Inside the Caesar's Atlantic City club, some had their pictures taken with people in togas. The seats were hunter green and filled with fannies.

Under the bright red Pepsi-Cola sign in right, fans leisurely watched a Major League game and talked with friends while a blimp circled overhead. They all sang "Sweet Caroline" in the middle of the eighth inning.

Cast members from "West Side Story" performed the "Star-Spangled Banner." Airy concourses let fans see the game from practically everywhere, and you can't beat the long bench tables where anyone can sit with food and beverages while rooting.

There is no way we are going to mention Mike Pelfrey's third pitch or Ryan Church's misplay or Pedro Feliciano's balk or that annoying 6-5 loss to a surprisingly hot Padres team any higher in this story, because a million years from now when they study the Retro-Traditional Ballpark Epoch in Major League Baseball and the structure called Citi Field that was once built by the New York Mets baseball club, they will mostly note that it began with fabulous fun and plentiful pride.

"What I will remember from this day is just the atmosphere -- taking the field for the first time, hearing your name in the starting lineup for the first game ever here," Wright said in front of his locker late Monday night. "It was an historic day for all of us."

"The place is spectacular, very welcoming," said George Amores of Woodside, N.Y., watching the top of the ninth inning just to the right of the right-field foul pole. "It was almost like a road game. I'm 43, and grew up going to Shea on a regular basis. It's very fan-friendly, the food is great and fresh, all the amenities you want -- it's special. This is what fans have been dying for."

They will remember that on April 13, 2009, Mets fans had what they have wanted for so long. There might be no ballpark in the Majors that is better. Bruce Springsteen's new hit song "Working On A Dream" was played before the game as a music-video tribute to the construction process, and the title reached fruition here. It is a dream. It feels like it takes the best of what all the other new parks have to offer and combines it into one dream.

They will remember that when you got off the 7 train, instead of "SHEA STADIUM," the main signs on the depot read: "METS -- WILLETS POINT." Then they walked in the general direction that used to take them to big round Shea, circa 1964, and they were greeted by the fabulous Jackie Robinson Rotunda, evoking the images of Ebbets Field, filled with tributes to the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

They will remember cheering for Howard Johnson when he was introduced as a Mets coach in the pregame ceremony. They will remember having some harmless fun booing all of the announced dignitaries in attendance.

They will remember: Promenade, Excelsior, Empire, Field, Sterling and Plaza. Those are the six levels of seating, in order from highest to lowest, posted on signs around the ballpark.

They will remember being able to walk right up to the edge of the visiting team's bullpen out in right-center and heckle Heath Bell as he warmed up, and some of them will have a fonder memory of that than what Bell did next.

He recorded the first save in Citi Field history.

Jody Gerut hit the first homer in Citi Field history.

Church couldn't catch that ball hit in the sixth inning to the quirky bulge in the right-field warning track, and Luis Rodriguez wound up on third as a result and then scored when Feliciano somehow balked.

"I just opened up glove side, then turned around and the ball was out of my reach," Church said, declining to offer any excuses when surrounded by reporters. He said he "knew right where I was" and said the wind had nothing to do with it.

Yeah, some ordinarily "bad stuff" happened for the home team, but when you talked to Mets fans during the course of this inaugural game, it was nothing at all like the reaction you got on the final day of the 2008 regular season. Back then, they were saying goodbye to Shea and a shocking goodbye to their playoff hopes. Here, you had the comfort of knowing it was not even the tax deadline and you were a part of history.

"I'm looking forward to Wednesday already," Wright said. "Knowing our character on this team, we're all right. And we look forward to coming to this park."

That was the main thing. You do look forward to coming to this park.

You can't wait to come back to this park. You want to somehow make it to the front of that Shake Shack line. You want to see everything you missed the first time. If you are a disabled fan, you can't wait for those wide-open spaces that they never dreamed up in 1964 at Shea. You want to sit in those padded seats and sometimes get up and wander the concourses and view the HDTV screens seemingly everywhere and see Carlos Beltran in center while you order food from a concession stand.

It's like the only thing missing here is a postseason. Hence 162 games.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was represented at this game, as it will be Thursday when Yankee Stadium is opened against the Indians, and here is what Hall official Brad Horn is taking back with him:

• Bat used by Gerut for the third-pitch homer.

• Ceremonial first-pitch ball, signed by Seaver and Piazza.

• Dirt from the batter's box, gathered postgame.

Seaver held court with media in the elaborate pressbox early in the game, and he said what made the biggest impression on him was "the dirt on the infield and the mound." As he was speaking, Pelfrey took a spill while trying to deliver a pitch.

Speaking of the infield dirt ...

"Do you give him a 10 on that? Seven and a half, eight and a half maybe," Seaver said, watching the replay on a monitor. "It's the clay.

"That's not the knee you're supposed to get dirty."

It was the first night at Citi Field, and there was an example of how history comes included in a great place like this. Seaver, a right-hander, was famous for a pitching delivery that gave him such leg extension that his right knee often would brush the dirt. When his right knee was dirty, you knew he was on.

Seaver was on for this opener, throwing to Piazza in the bullpen to get ready after working on his pitches back home in California. The pair of former Mets greats walked in from center field and waved to the full crowd, and then provided the first-pitch battery as they had done for the last game at Shea, in the postgame celebration there.

Unlike that time, Seaver didn't bounce it to Piazza -- it was a beautiful pitch, breaking just right to left and nestling into the catcher's mitt. It was a four-seamer.

"I noticed the rotation wasn't exactly like the old four-seamer -- it was kind of twisting around this way," Seaver said, gesturing like a curveball.

No, it wasn't perfect, but that was the beauty of this night for Mets fans. Gerut homered quickly, the Mets fell behind early, Wright got them caught up for a while and then the Church-Feliciano 1-2 punch proved too much. It was a loss, but it was so much more than that. It was an incredible night to be a Mets fan.

Every seat was angled just right. Every seat was full, or the occupants were roaming around enjoying the atmosphere. Mets manager Jerry Manuel said his team is a "work in progress," and that is what this is now at Citi Field, a ballpark that no longer is a blueprint nor the site of exhibitions, but a work in progress that goes on for who knows how long. Memories will be made, and the next game there is on Wednesday.

New York's historic week of ballpark openings is under way, and the Yankees are up next. Good time to be a baseball fan.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.