Not so long ago (2009), the New York Mets opened a new stadium in Flushing. It was supposed to be a classy, exposed-brick-and-green-steel tribute to the franchise's ascendance. Instead, Citi Field has been a monument to the Mets' modern futility and clumsiness.
First there was the sightlines problem. (Well, I should start even earlier: There was the problem with the stadium's naming rights, purchased for $400 million, belonging to a federally bailed-out corporation.) Then there was the broken home run apple. There were all the Dodgers tributes sprinkled throughout the place, with few Mets counterparts. And there were the weird outfield walls. The team had nearly a billion dollars to spend, and they got most everything wrong.
When, on Monday, the Mets announced that they would move in Citi's outfield fences (and paint them Mets blue, instead of their current generic Olde Ball-Parke olive-black), folks were pleased. The once-obstinate Mets brass is trying to give the fans what the masses seem to want, more home runs.
"Offense is exciting for many fans. Maybe it will be slightly more entertaining," general manager Sandy Alderson said.
The new walls defer to players too. Homer-stifled righties Jason Bay and David Wright are already elated. Never mind that Bay can't hit anymore—whatever the ballpark configurations—and that Wright may be on his way out of town shortly. Said chief executive and owner-spawn Jeff Wilpon, who would have been born on third base thinking he hit a triple if Citi weren't being rejiggered to stifle triples: "We can make a lot more money if Jason Bay and David Wright hit a lot more home runs."
Hooray? Wilpon further blamed punching bag emeritus Omar Minaya for the field dimensions—"Omar spoke about pitching, speed, and defense all the time." (The Mets' winning percentage under Minaya: .521. In Alderson's first year, it was .475. When Omar took over in 2005, the team improved its record by 12 games from the prior year. Under Alderson, the Mets got two games worse.)
The Mets are swapping one marketing theory for another. Fans were supposed to be drawn to the wacky ballpark, but that didn't work. So now they're supposed to be drawn by 359-foot home runs.
But it's not Citi Field, or its quirkiness, that makes Mets games boring and under-attended. (It's certainly not an excessive devotion to pitching.) It's the Mets. Only one Mets starter—knuckleball whiz R.A. Dickey—had an ERA under 4.00 this year. At the plate, outfield tandem Willie Harris and Jason Pridie combined for 519 plate appearances. That two-headed creature managed to hit even less than Bay did. Winning drives attendance, and the Mets don't win.
Playing with the fences is practically part of the ritual of opening a new-generation ballpark. Of the 13 parks opened since 2000, five have tinkered with their fences: Citi Field, San Diego's Petco Park and Detroit's Comerica Park moved their fences in, then-Enron Field in Houston made its left-center wall higher, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia moved its left-field porch back. Other ballparks of similar vintage have prompted similar complaints from players—Justin Morneau wants the Target Field fences moved in and Mark DeRosa wants the ATT Park fences moved in.
The firm behind all the problem parks—the quirky-design factory Populous/HOK Sport—continues designing stadiums, unthreatened by the design failures. Game play is a low priority. The term "state-of-the-art stadium," which we see often nowadays (particularly in the prose of Sports Fella Bill Simmons) perniciously fudges the question of what "art" these stadiums are devoted to. It implies that luxury boxes and expensive burger counters are enhancements, rather than sideshows. Comfortable seats and HD replay boards seem vaguely related to aiding spectators, although not too much else does.
But, in keeping with the modern ballpark-as-carnival strategy, ownership is talking as though the baseball team's success is incidental to the fan's experience. Jeff Wilpon would have the public believe that home runs are an amenity—whether the Mets or their opponents are the ones exploiting the new walls—one that fits nicely with Pat LaFrieda's double Shackburgers and the Home Run Apple in center field as reasons to attend games at Citi Field.
What would really make the game experience better would be the Mets re-signing Jose Reyes, the triples superstar who's slugged better at Citi than at Shea. The formerly cavernous right-center gap suited him well. If Reyes winds up leaving after the fences come in, the Mets really will have an architectural symbol of the franchise: a shrunken field for their shrunken ambitions.