11th and Washington

11th and Washington: April 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Shades of Mays

There's been a lot of talk about Fred Wilpon's dual homage to the ballpark of his youth, the Dodgers' Ebbets Field, and Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in the design of Citi Field. Some Mets fans hate it; some Giants fans wonder where the love is.

As a fan of history -- particularly baseball's -- I have little problem with either nod to the past. To me, it's honoring New York's baseball history. The Rotunda celebrates Jackie Robinson and the ballpark resembles Brooklyn's old yard. In a way, the Dodgers left both behind.

But so far, it appears that Citi Field is playing a little more like another former New York ballyard -- the Polo Grounds. The outfield dimensions -- 277 feet to left field, 455 to center, 258 to right -- aren't anywhere close, of course, but with what seems like Death Valley in center field and a haven for triples in right-center (the Mets have 11 home runs this season and eight triples), there are some similarities beyond the green seats.

The Mets, who have been known for good pitching through much of their existence, are going to have to become known for their center fielders, too -- particularly those with above-average defensive skills, like Carlos Beltran. Citi Field gives the outfield captain a lot of room to roam, and if they're going to have any chance of competing year in and year out, they're going to need a skilled center fielder who can run down long fly balls that don't get over the wall.

This point was highlighted for me watching Gary Sheffield's potential double become an out in the glove of Marlins center fielder Cody Ross on Monday night. When I watched it again later, it reminded me a lot of Willie Mays' famous catch in the 1954 World Series.

In no way is Cody Ross equal to Willie Mays, and catching a fly ball in April is nothing compared to running down a drive in October -- plus turning to make the throw to prevent a runner from advancing -- but the two catches did look a little similar to me.

I'm sure it won't be long until Beltran drops our jaws with a play of his own. He's definitely done it before.

When Sheffield hit that ball, my initial thought was that he might be the first player to sink one in the Home Run Apple's bucket. He fell short, but David Wright also came close later with his triple. And Austin Kearns was the first to hit a homer into the batter's eye around the apple when he did so on Sunday.

So that's the pool: Who will be the first player to drop one inside the apple's hideaway? My money's on Carlos Delgado.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Now batting, numbah two ...

Derek Jeter tied Mickey Mantle on Sunday night for the most at-bats in Yankees history: 8,102. That minor milestone doesn't really do much for me.

Next year is when it will be interesting. To this point in his career, Jeter compiled those 8,102 at-bats in 9,173 plate appearances. As this season progresses, he'll pass Babe Ruth (9,197 plate appearances) and probably Lou Gehrig (9,660) to move into second place on that list. And then, sometime in 2010, Jeter will step to the plate for the 9,910th time in pinstripes (or in gray polyester -- or CoolBase, if the Yankees are on the road) -- and pass Mantle. At that point, no player will have stood in the batter's box as a Yankee more than Derek Jeter.

And that will be something. Think about it: In all of Yankees lore, from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Yogi to Mantle to Reggie to Mattingly to Jeter, of all those Hall of Famers and legends, it will be Jeter -- the most recent icon -- with more Yankees experience than any other. Ruth and Gehrig, Joe D. and Yogi, they're all larger-than-life. Many of us have seen only black-and-white photos or old footage. But Jeter is in HD (though his haircut somehow remains stuck in the early 90s). Yankees history books will literally have to be rewritten, because No. 2 will be greater than 3, 4, 5 or 7 in many ways.

They'll have to do more than just retire his number, but I'm sure they planned for that when they laid out the new Monument Park.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

A black mark

6:42 p.m. ...

We knew it couldn't last.

Alas, tonight Citi Field is sullied by the 2009 debut of the Mets' black jerseys. Gag.

It's a shame they couldn't bring out the blue hats before the black.

3 a.m. update ...

And it figures. The Mets wear the black. Gary Sheffield pinch-hits, hitless thus far as a Met. They're down one run, seventh inning. Sitting on 499 home runs ...

BAM. Long drive down the left-field line, and Gary Sheffield is the 25th member of the 500 home run club.

Fade to black.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hello Citi

The Mets' home opener this year was a night game because the team preferred to play the game on a Monday and leave Tuesday open, probably for two reasons: To hold its annual Welcome Home Dinner and to have the flexibility of pushing the game back one day in the event of rain. That way, fans who bought tickets specifically for the home opener would have them, rather than those who bought tickets for Game 2 of the season lucking into the first game at the new ballpark.

By choosing Monday, the Mets were told it had to be a night game because their opponent, the Padres, played on the West Coast on Sunday. MLB or the Players Association (or both) would not force San Diego to play Sunday afternoon in California, fly to New York that night and play the next afternoon.

Too bad -- it probably would have worked out better for the Mets if they had.

So it didn't quite feel like Opening Day in New York on Monday. I didn't have to get up too early after working Sunday night; I didn't have to be ready to go when my mom arrived at the house. The Mets were opening the gates at 4:30, two and a half hours before first pitch, so we were in no rush. Figures that we arrived in Manhattan with no delays and found free street parking on the first block I turned onto. Our wait on the 74th St. platform in Queens was long because we just missed a departing 7 train, but we still arrived at Willets Point at 4:10, and the crowd outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda was already filling up the fanwalk.

Of the 42,000-plus fans who attended the sold-out opener, probably half that arrived before 6 p.m. When we walked in, we made our way around the field level concourse to make our way to Danny Meyerland behind the scoreboard in center field. Mom wanted a Shake Shack burger in her first Citi Field experience, and who was I to suggest otherwise? We crossed the Hell Gate Bridge, gazed upon the old Home Run Apple, and waited a mere 10 minutes for a pair of perfect burgers, fries and two beers. We shared a picnic table with an older father and son and, once finished, continued our walk around the field level.

The temperature hovered in the 50s, but the warm sun made it feel like a pleasant 60-something. If only it had been a day game. In the end, though, whether it was a truly mild night, or the roof over our heads in the upper reaches of the Promenade level kept some body heat in, or the park's construction cuts down on the wind gusts coming off the bay, I walked out of there at 10:30 feeling the warmest I can remember after attending every Mets opener -- all of them day games -- since 2000.

Overall, there was a weird feeling to the game. Yeah, it was the Mets' first official game back in New York since last September, but with the St. John's-Georgetown game (which I attended) and the two Red Sox-Mets exhibitions at Citi Field (which I did not go to), this one didn't feel quite as significant. Maybe the late date played a part, and the fact that Spring Training went so long and included the somewhat meaningful games of the World Baseball Classic put me in midseason form back in March. But despite the significance of the game, I didn't have the Opening Day butterflies of anticipation I usually have.

Yet at the same time, once Mom and I climbed up to our seats, I didn't want to leave. I got hungry later, but didn't bother to go get the nachos I was interested in trying. We had peanuts with us, but I didn't feel like waiting in line for a beer. I didn't want to miss much of the action, so I'll save more exploration and taste testing for future games.

It wouldn't be a Mets game, though, without the bitching. Fans behind me, fans in the bathrooms, fans on the concourse -- they all found something to whine about. Yeah, the concourses were a bit crowded, but that's to be expected for the first game in history. Not many of the 42,000 tickets went unused, I'm sure. Now imagine 15,000 more people at Shea, where you couldn't see the field from any of the concourses (with the exception of behind home plate on the limited-access field level), and Citi's walkways are boulevards.

Exiting is a bit cramped, with thousands of people making their way through relatively narrow doorways to descend switchback stairways, but again, nearly 42,000 people waited until the last out, not wanting to miss the potential for a comeback. There won't be too many games in which 98 percent of the people in attendance go the distance. There are always the early exiters, those who want to beat the rush to the subway, the LIRR, the parking lot. That's the only thing about which I would raise even the slightest gripe.

I'm sorry -- as much as I enjoyed going to games at Shea, the new place is better. It was needed. It was time.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Classy Kalas

One of my friends didn't believe my sincerity when I expressed my condolences on Harry Kalas' passing and added that I considered him the classiest member of the Phillies organization. Coming from a Mets fan, he said it was an empty expression.

I said I was sorry if it came off that way, but it's true. Of all the people I met covering the BlueClaws, Kalas was the one I was most excited to come across. (OK, maybe top two, because Tug McGraw was pretty sweet, too. But Tug was more the guy's guy -- I'm not sure too many people would put him under the "classy" column, and I'm not saying that is a detriment to his character.) But somewhere, I still have the mini cassette with the Kalas interview on it.

Plus, as my Yankee fan boss will tell you, I'm a baseball fan first and a Mets fan second. I certainly appreciate the game's history and icons, and Kalas certainly was that. Among the others I met who I'd consider classy are Ryan Howard, owner Dave Montgomery, former assistant GM Mike Arbuckle, former Lakewood manager Jeff Manto, Marlon Anderson and the late former pitching instructor Johnny Podres.

The Mets put Kalas' image on the video screen before the home opener on Monday and mentioned the death of Mark Fidrych ("Moments ago we also learned of ..."). They were a sadly recent addition to the annual moment of silence the team has to start the Opening Day festivities each year honoring those who have passed away since the last game.

I've got much more to say about what was a mostly pleasant return to baseball in Queens, but just didn't have the chance today, mostly because I focused on the photos first. That post, I hope, will come tomorrow.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Mets moniker madness

The Mets open their new ballpark tonight, and Mom and I plan to be there a few hours early to enjoy the place in its bunting-adorned glory.

This is the new beginning. The old, multi-purpose stadium is gone, the rubble -- I expect -- cleared away and the parking lot paved. The subway stop has been renamed and the dominant color you see on the approach shifted from a cool blue to a warming brick red. It is, we Mets fans hope, the beginning of a new, successful era on the field, as well. The ghosts of 2007 and 2008 -- even 2006 -- went down with that final section in February.

There's a lot of talk about what to call this grand new home, and since the name was announced, I've tried to overlook it. I'm no fan of corporate names -- calling it Brendan Byrne Arena felt much more homey than Continental Arena or the IZOD Center, and I'd hoped that Lakewood's local Pine Belt Auto Group would come forward with the cash to name the minor-league ballpark there so that people outside the Jersey Shore area would realize that Pine Belt Park was actually the result of a naming rights deal.

But when Citi Field was announced, I focused on the bright side. For one, if you didn't see it written, you could think of it as City Field -- a generic moniker that could have been home to a club in the Dead Ball Era. And at least it doesn't have the work "Bank" in the name, like in Philadelphia, or an acronym. One early guess by a colleague was HSBC Bank. That would've been worse. And at the time, before all the requests for additional tax breaks and bonds, it looked like the Mets were footing the bill --at least the bulk of it -- and not directly getting taxpayer money, in the form of higher taxes, the way some cities have done to build their parks. (As such, I hope the Nationals never find a corporate sponsor for Nationals Park.) My feeling was that if the Mets were paying for it, they could decide how to name it. Maybe if the Yankees weren't so arrogant and had sold naming rights to their ballpark (instead of just every restaurant, bar and half the sections inside), they wouldn't have had to ask for so much money from New York City. (Or they could have not signed three players in one month for half a billion dollars, either.)

But now, with the economy in shambles and the banks unable to manage themselves, Citigroup is not in anyone's good graces. I still find myself saying, "When we went out to Shea" when talking about the St. John's-Georgetown game two weeks ago. A co-worker came up with "The Shea After" as a nickname. One fan wants to essentially put David Wright's face on the place (which also has a historical reference). And in the comments over at Uniwatch, someone refered to it as Debbits Field, which is so appropriate, considering the similarities.

A part of me is definitely hoping that Citigroup's struggles will lead to a removal of the name, though only if the loss of revenue from the naming rights deal doesn't hinder the franchise's operations and player acquisitions. If they have to take the Citi off, they won't be able to go with City Field, because that will be too close to the failed original name. Mets Field would surely only be temporary in that instance, so hopefully it wouldn't come to that. But maybe they'd go back to what works and call it Shea Field. Don't do what the White Sox originally did and put the exact old name on the new stadium -- new Comiskey Park was more stadium than ballpark -- but continue to honor the man and the family who brought the Mets to New York.

Or maybe -- just maybe -- they'd go the final step in honoring one of New York's greatest heroes and name the whole place after Jackie Robinson. Should they do that, go for the inside-the-park home run instead of settling for the triple, we'd know that it was here to stay. You can't put Jackie's name on the ballpark and then take it away.

But for now, like many others out there, I think I'll stick with the alternatives, either Shea or, in print (or bytes), City Field. Or maybe I'll just sing Barenaked Ladies lyrics whenever I talk about the ballpark. As clever as Debbits Field is, that only draws attention to the black eye.

Tonight, though, I'm just ready to call it "home."

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Opening Day tickets still available

Leading up to Friday's A's and Braves home openers, each team still had tickets available. The Pirates and Nationals open on Monday and are still pushing tickets. The Nationals are so hard up for buyers that the team president has gone on the radio in nearby cities like Richmond, rival Baltimore and even Philadelphia -- their opponent on Opening Day -- encouraging fans to take the day off and come to Nationals Park.

For Pittsburgh and Washington, it's understandable that a Monday afternoon game would have trouble selling out. It's bound to be cold and those teams haven't shown much promise in recent seasons, this offseason, or the first week of this season (Pittsburgh's Opening Day rally and two-out-of-four start in St. Louis only a slight exception). But Atlanta? A team that won 14 straight division titles and has some promise for this year (though still ranks behind New York and Philadelphia in terms of "on paper" prospects for this year)? Even Oakland is surprising -- considering that it now ranks last in the Majors in capacity since the A's closed off the upper deck.

That's kind of sad. As a fan, I hope it's a result of the recession. I don't want to think that there are fans so put off by the game or their teams that they won't even get excited for the start of a new season. With the Braves, though, it's a longtime problem. Their core fans are loyal, but they're not a big ticket, even in the postseason. At least not during the height of their dominance, when October baseball was a foregone conclusion in Atlanta. Maybe that will change the next time they get back to the playoffs.

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The improbable start

Who would've thought that after two starts -- at least the one by hard-throwing CC Sabathia, if not the one by ground-ball specialist Chien-Ming Wang -- the Yankees would have zero strikeouts in eight innings by their starting pitchers?

Who would've thought that the defending World Series champion Phillies could be down seven runs, on the verge of going 0-3 at home, and then stage an eight-run seventh-inning rally without hitting a home run in their bandbox ballpark?

Who would've thought that the Major Leagues' home run leader would be 5-foot-11, 190-pound Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge?

And who would've thought that after Opening Night and three days of baseball, the Orioles, Rangers and Marlins would be three of the four undefeated teams in baseball. OK, maybe we all would've thought the Marlins, since they opened at home with the Nationals.

That's what's so fun about the first few days, the first week of the season. It's not going to end this way, and we know that, but it's fun to see while it's there.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Acing Opening Day

After losing their first eight Opening Days from 1962 to 1969, the Mets finally got their first W on the season's first day in 1970, when they beat the Pirates, 5-3, in 11 innings. From that day forward, they're 31-9 on Opening Day following today's game in Cincinnati, and that .775 winning percentage is baseball's best in that span. Add in those eight losses for a 31-17 mark, and the .646 winning percentage still leads MLB.

Unlike some won-loss records in baseball, this one has some weight to it. Whereas some team-vs.-team records (or pitcher-vs.-team records) are a bit hollow -- because the players on both sides change, rendering the numbers little more than uniform-vs.-uniform -- the Mets' Opening Day mark is an indication of just how strong the front of their rotation has been over the past four decades. If the franchise has come to be known for developing a certain type of player over its nearly 50-year existence, starting pitching is it.

A look at their Opening Day starters shows a few Hall of Famers or potential Hall of Famers (and one who was believed ticketed for Cooperstown before derailing his career with substance abuse): Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Tom Glavine and Johan Santana among them. Seaver started 11 openers, including 10 straight from 1968-77; Gooden had eight scattered from 1985-94; Glavine took the ball for four of the five from 2003-07, with Pedro Martinez getting the other one; and Santana has had the last two.

Those five hurlers account for 26 of the 48 openers including today, and with this afternoon's win, the Mets' record in those 26 games is 19-8. Also scattered in there are starts by Bobby Ojeda (a win in 1987), David Cone (a win in 1992), Al Leiter (a loss in 1999, wins in 2001 and '02) and Mike Hampton (a loss in 2000). Those arms don't belong to journeymen, at least not at that stage of their careers (particularly in Hampton's case, who was an ace when he arrived via trade but quickly fell to journeyman status when he signed with Colorado). They were all considered solid No. 1 starters, if not traditional aces, and their Opening Day starts led to a 4-2 mark, bringing the team's record in this selection of games to 23-10.

With that kind of pedigree on the arms the Mets have sent to the hill for the first pitch of the season, it's no wonder they've won more than 75 percent of their season openers since 1970 and 64 percent overall.

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