Dog Day Afternoon

I caught my first Mets game of the season today. Despite the staggering disappointment of the past three seasons, I was actually excited about heading back to Citi Field. It was a perfect day for baseball — sunny and 75 degrees. I can remember some pretty cold April days at the ballpark, so this was a real treat. Attending my first Mets game each year — something I have done without fail since 1969 — is for me,  the one true sign that spring has arrived. Even if the season goes terribly wrong — as it did in ’09 — it’s still early enough for me to hope. Although what I saw on the field today left me wondering.      

But first, the good stuff. I had heard so much recently about how the Mets actually infused more “Mets” into their new field of dreams in Flushing.   As well received as the stadium was when it opened last year, it was curiously lacking in Mets  history and tradition. After taking much heat, the Mets vowed to correct matters during the off-season. And I will say, they did  a pretty good job of atoning for their historical shortsightedness.

The moment I walked down the stairs from the 7 train I noticed the difference. Large color posters of Mets stars past and present  now adorn the lightposts running parallel to the right and left field sides of the park. The old home run apple from Shea Stadium, which last year was hidden behind the bullpens of Citi Field, is proudly displayed outside the park, surrounded by colorful flower beds and carefully laid stones.

And, oh yes, a panhandling bulldog wearing a David Wright jersey and Mets cap. And fake nose and glasses and a corn cob pipe in his mouth. Put a dollar in the bucket and he gives you his paw or licks your nose. Whoever left the poor pooch there seemed to be in hiding, unless of course the dog set up shop on his own. Regardless, it was a sight both funny and sad but apropos considering how the Mets fortunes have unfolded. Have they really gone to the dogs?     

Rgeradless, it has not clouded their sense of history. Along the concourse, interspersed amongst those bricks that fans buy to have their names immortalized in the cold, hard ground of Queens, were plaques commemorating great moments in Mets history. The VIP entrances along the left field side of the park were renamed for Tom Seaver and Casey Stengel with large, heroic black and white murals of  Tom Terrific and the Old Professor towering over the glass doors of each entrance.

But this was all window dressing compared to what awaited me inside: the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, accessed through a glass doorway to the right of the magnificent Jackie Robinson Rotunda. It’s exactly what I thought should have been there last April when Citi Field first opened — an homage to Mets history to complement the shrine for Robinson.  The museum is a modest and engaging display of artifacts, photography, memorabilia, and plaques of  Mets Hall of Fame inductees. Everyone from Stengel to Strawberry. One thing that caught my eye was a vintage 1960’s Mr. Met bobblehead — which would make a great addition to my collection.

Up the escalator from the Rotunda, another welcome change — the former Ebbets Club had been renamed the Champions Club.  Good move.  The Brooklyn Dodgers’ beloved old park was welcome inspiration for Citi Field’s appealing exterior, but there was no reason to carry the Ebbets Field nostalgia inside.

It was still about and hour to the first pitch when I made it inside, so I headed to the plaza behind center field for some pregame chow. If nothing else, Citi Field is a paradise for ballpark foodies. The smell of grilled meat and onions is everywhere, thanks largely to the abundance of concessions stands and the warm breeze off Flushing Bay. First stop would be Shake Shack. It’s no stretch to say I looked forward to the new season more for the Shack Burgers than for the Mets. But on this summer like day in April, the mosh pit at the Shack was to be predicted (just as it was at the original Shack in Madison Square Park  yesterday when I sauntered by craving for some grilled meat and buttery bread). And for  second straight day, my impatience and hunger led me elsewhere. Shake Shack would have to wait, maybe for  Wednesday night game in May. So today it was Blue Smoke, lonely and line free but just as tasty. I ordered up something new on the menu: a bologna sandwich. Not your average Oscar Meyer on white bread variety. This was thick, juicy and smoky, and grilled to perfection. I must say it was the first bologna sandwich I ever had in a ballpark, and it was worth waiting 40-plus years for.

What I saw on the field was not. My seats were terrific — down the leftfield line, right along the rail, close enough to converse with the Mets’ new slugger, Jason Bay. But Johan Santana was not so terrific. He got roughed up in the first against Washington, lowlighted by a grand slam from Mets killer Josh Willingham. That was the game right there as the Mets could muster little against ex-mate Livan Hernandez, who deteriorated so quickly last season that the Mets cast him aside before summer’s end.   Now in his second tour of duty with the Nationals, he shut the Mets down for seven innings, ultimately posting a  5-2 victory.

Despite the Mets’ lackluster effort, I left the ballpark feeling satisfied. The weather, the food, the general ambiance of the ballpark and its appealing new features, left me anxious for my next trip to Flushing. That’s something I never got from Shea.

As I headed toward the steps to the 7 train, my little bulldog friend was still attracting curious onlookers. Was he just an amusing oddity or  a portent that the dog days of summer would arrive early and linger long for the Mets?

The former, I hope.

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