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A tale of two new Stadiums

George Steinbrenner, the most famous owner of the free agency era, was at the new Yankee Stadium on Opening Day. When he was introduced, his daughter Jenny, sitting next to him, gently raised his right arm so that he could wave to the crowd. His roar may be gone, but the old lion was able to see his palace open. I watched Steinbrenner choking back emotion on the scoreboard TV from the concourse behind home plate. Next to me, a Yankee fan in a Paul O'Neill jersey had a homemade sign hanging from a string around his neck. It read: "The House that LOOT Built."

The Mets and Yankees have opened their new baseball megalopolises during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and yet have priced them so that they're inacessible to the average fan, a slap in the face to the taxpayers who helped foot the bill for the parks' construction as well as the emergency bailouts. The storylines all year will be about the drop in attendance -- in New York and around the country. Given the outrageousness of ticket prices (the average price at Yankee Stadium is $72.97, compared with the MLB average of $26.64), many fans will prefer to stay home and watch baseball in high definition. In the meantime, the lounges and bars and upscale restaurants at both the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets' Citi Field will remain half-empty at best.

Both parks are big and bright, garish, blinking monuments to sensory overload. If the new Yankee Stadium is still the Palladium, then Citi Field is the State Fair on steroids. The sheer volume of advertisements in both places is breathtaking, the scoreboard TVs enormous, the exclusivity pronounced.

The telling difference between the two new parks is that the new Yankee Stadium still attempts to evoke the spirit of its predecessor, a sensation that is alternatively reassuring and disorienting. Citi Field, however, is a complete departure from Shea. There are no more blue and orange seats, barely a trace of the Mets' previous home, which is now a parking lot. (There is one reminder: the red apple that pops out of a hat in centerfield when a Met hits a home run. The new apple is so comically large that it resembles the giant produce in Sleeper.)

The divergence in the two clubs' approaches was inevitable. "Shea was old when it was new and the old Yankee Stadium never got old," said Fox analyst Tim McCarver last week. "You could have gone on and on and on with the old Yankee Stadium. You could not have done that with Shea."

Many Mets fans will tell you they are happy to have a new, updated park, even if some miss Shea, but I spoke to a lot of Yankee fans over the winter who are so repulsed by the idea of the new Stadium and its prices that they hate it even before they've even seen it. There's no reason for a new Stadium, they say, upset on principle. And yet, there is no arguing that both facilities had become functionally outdated, even if, at least in the case of Yankee Stadium, the building remained aesthetically pleasing. It's the execution of the new buildings, encompassing pricing as well as design, that has the power to engage and disgust.

I've heard the new Yankee Stadium compared to the gaudy, hyperthyroid feel of video games like Grand Theft Auto. The analogy is apt, with perhaps the closest real-world equivalent being a baseball game held on the Las Vegas strip. The same goes for Citi Field; both parks most resemble being inside a gigantic pinball machine. Busy and distracted, they feel as uncomfortable and indulgent as brand new pair of kicks fresh out of the box.

The first thing you see when you step off the subway at 161st street and River Avenue in the Bronx is Yankee Stadium -- the old Yankee Stadium. It is still there, the immense, impersonal gray structure that had long seemed indomitable. It is fated to be taken apart, piece by piece over the next year and a half.

Look across the street, a block north, and you see the new coliseum, the words "Yankee Stadium" in towering Roman letters high above on the facade. The old grey is now a light brownish color. It almost sparkles in the sunlight, like an old city apartment building after a scrubbing. A Hard Rock Cafe sits on the corner of the stadium, a Yankee Team Store next to it.

There are three newly designed crosswalks where police herd waves of predominantly suburban masses across the busy roadway of 161st Street (most of the parking is to the south). Only a few look back at the old building. Some have their pictures taken with it in the background. On the uptown 4 train, you can look inside the old place between the gap of the right field stands and the bleachers. The seats are still there but there is no grass on the field. The floor is a carpet of dirt. The hum of conversation in the subway car comes to a halt as people look inside the ghost town. They make quiet remarks like "whoa," "weird" and "empty."

The Yankees use their history to great advantage. As you walk through the turnstiles, you enter a large, open hall with enormous posters of Yankee greats hanging from high above. The sound of radio announcer John Sterling narrating a Yankeeography echoes through the air. Stadium employees ask if they can help you. The openness is pleasant and inviting, a change from the non-existent approach to customer service of the old building.

The first view of the field, that dramatic moment that reminds us of being kids, has been altered. At the old place, you climbed through a maze of concrete ramps and then up a narrow walkway before you see grass. Now, once you approach the wide concourses on the field or the upper deck level, the first thing you notice is the space. There is nothing confined about it -- your eye is immediately greeted by light and openness. In the process, some of the suspense and mystery of that initial panorama is lost.

The new Yankee Stadium is simultaneously bigger and smaller than before. There is more space but fewer seats (Opening Day attendance was 48,271; last year, it was 55,112). The outfield dimensions are similar but there is less room in foul territory behind home plate. Monument Park is now in a smaller, interior space beyond the centerfield fence, just under the Mohegan Sun sports bar, a box of tinted glass in the batter's eye (the inside of the bar suggests a soundproof fish bowl that was dropped in the middle of the bleachers).

Charm was not a word that readily applied to the old Yankee Stadium but if it had any it was because of the forced intimacy that it imposed on the crowd. That doesn't exist anymore. The seats are more spaced-out; rows in each section are shorter and more compact, accentuating a stacked look. The upper deck is not as steep or as tall as it used to be, so the claustrophobic feeling of being huddled on top of each other and on top of the action is gone. They are also pushed back, receding approximately 30 feet further from the action. The upper deck is also split in two, divided by a concourse, which conveys more openness and light -- and is possibly the cause of the wind patterns that have vaulted the ball over the fences in during the Yankees' first home stand.

One of the results of the new configuration is that the stadium is not nearly as loud. When the old place got to rocking, it was an awesome experience, inspiring and terrifying at the same time -- it really did feel like it was going to collapse in on itself. But the M.O. of the new Stadium (this holds true at Citi Field, as well) is pointed in the opposite direction, oriented toward an isolated, nomadic -- rather than communal -- experience. Why stay in your seat when you can walk the concourses, have a drink at the Hard Rock and check out the Stadium Store? There's even a window where you can stop and watch a high-end, Zagat-rated butcher at work. If you like what you see, you can order a $15 steak sandwich (the food at the stadium is diverse and expensive if not always memorable).

At any given time, thousands of fans are out of their seats strolling around the park, distracted. The wide concourses are tougher to navigate, especially with a large amount of folks walking and texting at the same time. Sound is evenly piped throughout the stadium, omnipresent and even. There is no room to think.

Though the game is no longer the thing, you can still follow it. Standing room is available throughout the park. Conceivably, if you had the worst seat in the house, you could still scope out some great views simply by spending the entire game on your feet, moving from place to place. Again, this emphasis on mobility and variety diffuses the crowd's focus and compromises any sense of etiquette. People think nothing of getting up and walking past you in the middle of a pitch. They aren't always being jerks; they are just clueless -- doing what the ballpark invites them to do.

Flat screen TVs are everywhere, none more captivating than the huge HD screen that is the centerpiece of the scoreboard in center field. The image on the screen is so impossibly clear that it dares you not to watch it. How can you look away from such perfection? Most of us don't have the courage or the Ritalin prescription. A friend suggested that when Derek Jeter appears on the screen the impulse is to kneel. The entire scoreboard, a huge band of color and technology, wraps around almost the entire outfield, enclosing the stadium. It is so commanding that in many areas it serves to compress the length of the field.

You can still see the 4 train in the gap between the scoreboard and the right field upper deck and apartment buildings behind it. A thick white apartment complex stands in the distance behind the very center of the scoreboard, where the Criminal Courts Building, its gold vertical strips reflecting the setting sun, used to be. The park is almost completely insulated (you are practically forced to spend all of your Yankee dollars inside the stadium), but you can still sneak peaks of the neighborhood.

On the western stairwells you can look west on Jerome Avenue and see beautiful art deco apartment buildings. Standing at the corner of Jerome and 161st Street, looking past the blank white sign at the top of the empty old Yankee Stadium, you can see the Manhattan skyline, the Empire State building standing tall in the distance. At Yankee Stadium, you are surrounded by the city.

You can see the Empire State building from Citi Field as well; the landmark forms a compass that connects the two parks. But Citi Field, like Shea, is located on a wide-open expanse of land, Willet's Point, that is anything but a residential neighborhood. About the only traces of urban life around Citi Field are the muffler stores and auto part garages that line 126th street, parallel to the outfield.

Although this has been a well-known business community since Shea opened in 1964, these unsightly galleries -- some housed in corrugated tin shacks -- can only be an eye-sore for the Mets' owners, the Wilpons, who have made their fortune in the real estate business. The team offices are located directly across the street from the oil slicks, and from inside the stadium, you can catch a glimpse of the scene of urban blight from the pedestrian bridge in right-center field. Standing on the bridge, if you turn one direction, you look out onto the spiffy new field. But if you turn the other way, you see the dirty-faced mechanics.

Citi Field is an agreeable theme park featuring baseball. Long Island is in the air. Mets fans still wear personalized jerseys -- Scalaferri No. 38; Wienberg No. 52. Hundreds of personal messages like "I might live in Los Angeles but my heart is in Queens, Go Mets!" are engraved in the bricks in the front of the building, a nice, populist greeting. There are plenty of wide open spaces and concourse areas, no lack of good food and lots of great angles to catch the game. The upscale lounges and restaurants are spiffy. The staff is courteous and helpful. It looks like a ballpark, but it is big like a Stadium. "Lots of walking," a Citi Field employee told me one day during a smoke break. "They should have a bus to take us from the subway to our entrance. It takes 35 minutes to get there on foot."

Citi Field is state-of-the-art nostalgia (which brings to mind George Carlin's old routine about "jumbo shrimp"), an amalgam of similar urban ballparks like Camden Yards, the Ballpark at Arlington and Progressive Field, though its spiritual predecessor is Ebbets Field. The results are appealing but also generic. The creative decisions seem arbitrary, like the nooks and crannies in the outfield wall, which don't serve any other purpose than to add an eccentricity to the playing field. The older ballparks, like Fenway, had such features because they were conforming to a limited urban footprint, not because they deemed them a source of amusement. It is designed like an urban ballpark even though it is sitting in the middle of a wide-open parking lot (talk to the people in Arlington about that incongruity).

The main entrance takes fans through the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, a grand civic gesture to one of the game's true pioneers. It is an airy room, with staircases and escalators on each side. The tribute to Robinson is earnest, handsome and impressive. "It feels like social studies homework," one fan, an intelligent, liberal New Yorker told me. A giant blue number 42 sits in the middle of the room, the ideal photo op.

And there's the rub. As tremendous as the Robinson Rotunda is, it seems out of place, even indulgent, because of the lack of corresponding Mets tributes. This is not to suggest that the Mets build a similar monument for Tom Seaver. Yet the lack of balance has left many Mets fans grumbling. The Mets have a history worth celebrating, but its invisibility at Citi Field underscores the organization's inferiority complex. Perhaps it is a great Freudian slip, Fred Wilpon saying that his team is just a poor stand-in for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team he'd really want to own.

Curiously, there is no tribute to the other former New York baseball team, the Giants. The Giants had more direct ties to the Mets, who played their first two seasons in the Polo Grounds. Yes, there is a bright orange stripe that runs along the outfield wall, and the foul poles are painted orange too, but this seems accidental. The lack of any tribute to the Giants, who had a greater history of winning than the Dodgers ever did, is glaring in the context of the Robinson tribute.

Beyond the Rotunda, the most impressive part of Citi Field is the food, highlighted by a food court that features outposts of acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer's burger-themed Shake Shack and barbeque-oriented Blue Smoke, never mind the delicious pork tacos and the surprisingly good brick oven pizza. During the game, the smoke from the barbeque joint drifts back across the field. A heavy-set security guard working behind home plate said, "It's unbelievable, I'm hungry all night long smellin' that."

The prices are not unreasonable, all considered. This is only fitting because the ride out to Citi Field on the 7 train takes you past Sripaphai (the best Thai restaurant in the city) and Jackson Diner (the Indian food Mecca), while Sweet and Tasty is one of the many choice Asian spots just one stop beyond Willet's Point in Flushing. (If those places ever get their own booths at Citi Field, it's on!) The Mets deserve kudos for distinguishing themselves with their food.

Stepping out into the stands, the place looks deceptively smaller than Shea, despite the vastness of the playing field. The seats, 14,000 fewer than at Shea, are dark green, a theme maintained throughout the park (stadium personnel wear green and auburn jackets, "one team, and one family," an usher explained). Some Mets fans miss the blue and orange seats of Shea, but Citi Field is already so alive with lights and color that if the seats were blue and orange it would be like being tickled incessantly for three hours.

Reflecting the contrivances of the field of play, the seats are put together in odd fragments; angles going every which way -- they look like Legos clicked together (there have been complaints about obstructed views, but most seats offer good sightlines). It's as if you've stepped into giant toy model of a ballpark. It is all of a piece, the work of a child's imagination, a high-tech fantasy. The upper deck is now called the Promenade; the mezzanine, the Excelsior level. The main scoreboard towers over center field -- it is tall like a skyscraper. A second, smaller scoreboard structure stands adjacent in right-center field. There are even smaller name advertisers, like BUY U.S. GOLD, or Spongetech.com, that give the place an amusing, low-budget flair.

The only reminders of Shea, other than the home-run apple, are the planes and the cool breezes that flow through the place. In the early evening, with the sky hot orange turning to purple high above, the building has the look of a more cheerful Blade Runner set. Airplanes land and depart overhead during the magic hour, flying low to the ground and feeling very much a part of the show. The departing planes emerged from behind the scorecard like the Jaws spoof in the opening scene of Airplane.

A man happily stuffed his face with a Shake Shack burger and looked up at a plane. "Same old, same old," he said. Music blared from the sound system as the plane roared overhead. He waited 20 minutes for his burger and said that it was worth every minute of it. "This place is nice," he said, as ketchup dripped onto his shirt. "I'd like it even better if I was a rich man."

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