It's almost all gone now, almost completely vanished from sight if not from memory. A few square feet of the rubble of what used to be Shea Stadium is visible not far from the glittering Jackie Robinson Rotunda of the Mets' new home at Citi Field. That rubble is all that remains from the stadium's collapse this offseason, a destruction that was far more welcome than the one enacted the last two Septembers by the club that had inhabited the aging ballpark. All other traces of the monstrosity that was Shea Stadium have almost magically disappeared, and if the Mets are quickly trying to bury their past then who can blame them? They opened a spectacularly beautiful new ballpark on Monday night, and in so doing, hoped that they were opening a new chapter in their checkered history. If Shea Stadium closed with heartache, then Citi Field opened with hope. Indeed, the $800 million facility might be a gleaming, 21st-century edifice that allows the Mets to compete -- and, presumably, win -- in baseball's increasingly expensive modern era, but at is core it represents simply this: a fresh start.
Well, not quite, at least if Monday night was any indication. The Mets lost the first game at Citi Field the way they lost far too many games at Shea Stadium: stupidly, ineptly, comically. Although for the sellout crowd of 41,007 and the players who so desperately wanted to please them on Monday, there was nothing funny about the 6-5 loss to the Padres that will forever stain the promising history that is in store for this ballpark. Where Marv Throneberry and his amzin'-ly bad brethren could elicit a chuckle or two from their famously loyal fans, such unsightly miscues as the starting pitcher surrendering a lead-off home run on the third pitch of the game, then stumbling off the mound in the second inning, and the winning run scoring as a result of a dropped fly ball and a balk -- a balk! -- brought only jeers.
Can't anybody here play this game?
They can, of course, and eventually they will. This Mets team is still very good, and is certainly capable of making the first season in Citi Field a championship one. But on this night, which was supposed to be as much about showing off their shiny new ballpark as it was about playing a game, it became too much about the home team making all too familiar mistakes. Their starting pitcher let them down (Mike Pelfrey gave up five runs in five innings), their bullpen gave the game away (Pedro Feliciano balked in the winning run in the sixth), and their offense couldn't deliver late (when Jose Reyes flied out with the bases loaded in the sixth inning he became the first of 10 consecutive batters retired by Padres relief pitchers to finish the game).
"We've got a certain reputation out there and we need to prove [people] wrong, that we can play good baseball form start to finish," said third baseman David Wright. "Winning will do that a lot more than the park."
It is the Mets' fate, or curse, play the same game in the same city as the most successful professional franchise in the history of American sports. If there is a blessing, it is that unlike the Yankees, who moved into a similarly sparkling new palace this season, the Met will have a much easier time meeting or even exceeding the standard of excellence in their new ballpark that they had in their old one. After all, when the most famous play in your old home was an error by the opposing team, what have you really lost?
Case in point: The most famous Met of all, pitcher Tom Seaver, threw out the first pitch Monday night, and when asked later if he was surprised to be given such an honor, he said, "Were they going to ask the other Hall of Famer?" Seaver, a man still known to the Flushing faithful as the Franchise and wearing a windbreaker vest with the Hall's logo and the word 'MEMBER' on it, knows all too well that he is the only Met enshrined in Cooperstown. His retort was accurate, if a bit snotty, but it also underscored an inescapable truth: the Mets don't actually have a particularly glorious history, at least not one that is impossible to match.
"We can not be thinking about what happened in the past," said centerfielder Carlos Beltran. "We have to think about what we can accomplish this year."
The hope that the Mets can, in fact, accomplish a great deal this season has not been doused by this one loss. But for this one, historic night at least, the promise of Citi Field gave way to the ghosts of Shea Stadium, and the fear that those ghosts, much like the ballpark that produced them, may not yet be completely buried.