— NEW YORK - Forget the first hit, the first home run, the first run, the first pitch and all the rest of the standard new-ballpark stats. Let it be known instead that the first Met to fall off the pitcher’s mound in their new ballpark was Mike Pelfrey.
It happened in the second inning. With nobody on, Pelfrey started his motion to the plate, rocked back, planted his lead foot — and fell over. He didn’t appear to slip or trip, and he certainly wasn’t hit by a gust of wind on a relatively calm night. He simply toppled over on his left side as if he’d stepped in a hole — or the Ghost of Mets Past pushed him.
It happened at 37 minutes after 7 p.m., and 37 just happens to be the number worn by Casey Stengel, the first manager of the original 1962 Amazin’s, which remains the worst — and most entertaining — team in the history of baseball. Coincidence? I think not.
No damage was done, and as he picked himself up, Pelfrey was laughing along with his teammates and the 41,007 paying customers on Opening Night in Citi Field — that’s Troubled Assets Rescue Program (TARP) Field to you, the taxpayer. Hey, if you’ve got to christen a new home for the Mets, what better way than to channel Marvelous Marv Throneberry, the bumblefooted, hands-of-stone, .237-career-average first baseman for Casey’s original Mets?
This was a good start for the new park, which is long on charm but so far lacking in identity. It’s something to remember, a story to tell for years to come. There are going to have to be a lot more stories to build an identity here, to make it feel like home. New ballparks come with comfy seating and quirky angles and trendy nosheries, but not with memories. Those are things that the team has to build.
And the Mets, despite their two World Series titles and four National League pennants, have been remarkably lax in the legend-building business. In 47 years, they have yet to produce even one great ballplayer who began and ended his career with the Mets.
Tom Seaver, who threw out the first pitch to Mike Piazza, is the greatest Met ever, but he played only half of his career with the Mets before being traded to Cincinnati in a fit of anger. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry flamed out and were traded. Other heroes such as Piazza, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and John Franco came from other teams and, except for Franco, finished with other teams.
So when the Mets decided to make the focal point of this park an entry rotunda reminiscent of the one that once graced Ebbets Field, the old Brooklyn Dodgers home park, they dedicated it not to a great and famous Met, because there is no such creature. Instead, they dedicated it to Dodger Jackie Robinson. No argument with dedicating anything to Robinson, who integrated the game and remains one of the most important figures in its history. But he never played for the Mets.
The Mets have some players who could become genuine legends. Third baseman David Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes have made a good start on it. All they have to do is what no Met has done before — stick around for an entire career, something that’s easier said than done.
This would be a good place to do it. Citi/TARP Field has all the bells and whistles you’d expect in a new park — restaurants, boutiques, beer stands and even a Caesar’s night club, not to mention a kid’s play area where young fans can whack whiffle balls out of a miniature ballpark and play computer baseball oblivious to the actual humans playing the real thing just yards away.
Give this place some years, and it could become a beloved home field, and it’s about time this team had one.
The Mets began their existence in 1962 in the Polo Grounds, the old home of the Giants, who had moved to California along with the Dodgers in 1958. After two years, they moved into Shea Stadium, an ugly and uninspired multi-purpose cookie-cutter park of the type that blighted many urban landscapes in the 1960s. No matter how much the management tried to gussy it up, Shea was never anything more than a steel and concrete circle with a ballfield plunked down in the middle of it.
Shea’s stands assaulted the eyes with a garish display of blue and orange seats. Citi/TARP Field’s 42,000 seats are all a restful forest green. Shea was open to the parking lots outside. This place is open to the ballfield inside. Shea was a dump. This has the potential to be a jewel.
The fans certainly seemed to like it, lining up outside the Rotunda long before the 4:40 opening of the gates and the charge into the future. They scooped up Opening Night programs and rode up the big escalators backwards, taking pictures of the rotunda and the entrance.
Once inside, they chowed down and beered up, waiting for the first pitch. There were no speeches or ceremonies beforehand. No one smashed a bottle of champagne across the park’s prow. There weren’t more than a handful of old Mets on hand — Seaver to throw out the first pitch, Piazza to catch it and Strawberry, Gooden, Rusty Staub and Franco to watch it. Notable Mets fan Billy Joel was not called in from Long Island to sing the anthem; that honor fell to the Broadway cast of the revived West Side Story — even though this is an East Side ballpark.
There was just the normal Opening Day stuff — a giant flag, plenty of servicemen and women, a flyover by a fighter jets. It was as if the Mets wanted fans to feel they’d been in this place forever.
I spent a couple of middle innings wandering the concourses high and low, checking out the menus — everything from brick-oven pizza to genuine slow-smoked ribs to gourmet seafood — and the prices — surprisingly moderate. I was surprised to find that the park even has a smokers’ ghetto well removed from the rest of the crowd but still with a view of a big matrix television screen that shows the action.
In my extensive fan research, which consisted of chatting up New Yorker Sheri Morstein and her friend Sara Southern, who was visiting from San Diego, I found that fans — meaning Sheri and Sara — love the new stadium. They love it first because it’s not Shea, second because they can eat and wander and shop and chat and still watch the game, either from the back of the stands or on the ubiquitous HD monitors, and third because it’s all there in front of you, close and intimate.
And right there, in the center of the infield is the mound that Mike Pelfrey fell off.
The legend begins. The legend continues.