There's a lot that happens in half a season of baseball and this year is no exception. We've seen a no-hitter and an inside-the-park home run, just in the last week. There have been two steals of home, one major PED-related suspension, one Cuban defection, and the biggest potential American draft prospect of all time, so big he might be in the Majors by September. Basically, pretty standard stuff. Of course, depending on your team and their performance during these past 85-odd games, you might feel that this season so far is really great, really crappy or absolutely horrible. That's the camp I find myself in, since I happen to support the New York Mets. But this isn't going to be about how awful they've been playing for the last month or an attempt to explain away those troubles by looking at how they've been decimated by injury (which is true). Instead, let's look at the bright side of things.
I went to Citi Field a few weeks ago and holy crap is it nice. Like most Mets fans, I was attached to Shea Stadium even though I'm well aware of what a shit hole it was. Citi Field is just the opposite, without a doubt the worst thing about it is the name, I prefer to refer to it as TPD (Tax Payer Dollar) Stadium, but that's really neither here nor there. Actually, for a while there, I was on the "yeah but it's our shit hole" side of the argument and wasn't getting behind a new stadium. Then, a couple of summers ago, I was out in the Bay Area and took my girlfriend's nephews to a San Francisco Giants game at their relatively new insert-corporate-sponsor-here stadium, one of the first in the recent line of retro stadiums, of which Citi Field is as well a member. I was totally blown away by the structure of that stadium (I think it's At&T Park this season), and it took me about ten minutes to be convinced that it was time for Shea to be torn down. I went to Citi Field for the first time a few weeks ago, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and even though the Mets lost a game that included a two hour rain delay in the middle of the seventh inning, I really enjoyed the outing.
The first thing one notices when entering the stadium is that it has an actual entrance. Instead of going in a gate designated on your ticket and heading straight up a flight of stairs or an escalator, Citi Field's entrance, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, is a beautiful space, open and airy and designed to accommodate fifty thousand people a night. The second thing one notices are the incredibly spacious walkways and the proximity to the field. It's not quite like Shea, where you literally sat on top of the field, but you can see and feel the field from the walkways behind the seats on each level and that's tremendous. You never find yourself walking around in a concrete tunnel and forget that you're there to see a baseball game.
What I found most surprising, however, was the prices of things. Yes, it's a baseball game and things will be expensive, but two hot dogs and two beers (plus two small bags of chips) for twenty bucks seems really reasonable to me. Of course we're talking Bud Light, but all the same. It's literally twice that much at the brand new Yankee Stadium 2: Home Run Boogaloo. Also, there's a "premium beer" bar in the fanwalk section behind Left-Center field that features some really great beers for $8-12 per bottle, including a certain prize winner. Totally worth it.
As I mentioned, because of a lengthy rain delay, I had plenty of time to walk around the stadium and give it the old once-over. I found the stadium to be the exact inverse of how I've found this season; while Citi Field exceeds all expectations (and even makes up for all the baggage that its name carries), the team has done quite the opposite. The Mets have most certainly lived up to their name this season, the same team that came into the league only to redefine incompetence hasn't really come too far forty-seven years later. Because of the extensive injuries to the A lineup, it's hard to go all out and claim that there's no belief left, and for as many games as they've let slip away, they're still within shouting distance of the division lead, but it's hard not to look at this as a lost season. It's a season where all the flash and hope of the mid-Aughts has faded and the organization is hanging onto a window that may have closed two years ago.
What I can't stop thinking about is how quickly this team has evolved. The Mets were at a peak in 2000, reaching the World Series and bitterly losing to a Yankee team on its last legs. The 2001 season saw the end of the Bobby Valentine era and the team moved into a three year funk, only to re-emerge in 2005 with the additions of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, and of course that was the first season that David Wright and Jose Reyes sniffed the Majors. The team was heading for a big change, and you cold feel it. 2006 was the year everything came together, and the first of the painful collapses that might only stop this season because they aren't in position to collapse, you have to be leading to do that. Management mortgaged everything for that season, and it's been a free fall ever since; the Mets have been floundering, continually trying to fix the problems that the previous year exposed but never moving in a real direction towards achieving more.
I was thinking about the many phases of the Mets in the last ten years as I watched tonight's Home Run Derby wondering about how long we would keep up this charade of moralism and hypocrisy. I freely admit that I'm what some would call a purist, and that makes watching the sport stop and admire the feat of a home run a little problematic. I mean, how are we supposed to maintain any outrage over the use of steroids in the game when we all stop and take part in the thing that people use steroids for? I think it's pretty widely understood that the summer-long Home Run Derby of 1998 made baseball relevant again, and the goodwill from that allowed Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to skate through the haze of suspicion for a while there. But that was a long time ago, and now we wring our hands at the thought that someone could have violated the sanctity of our beloved national pastime. And yet, tonight, Steve Phillips, the former Mets General Manager who put together the playoff teams of 1999 and 2000 who now is a staple on ESPN, told his fellow ESPN-ers Chris Berman and Joe Morgan, that he would like to see David Wright back in the Home Run Derby (he finished second in 2006 and hasn't been in it since) because Wright now "swings too much for contact." Could anything be more hypocritical? It's exactly this sort of thinking that led the entire sport, from the Commissioner all the way down to clubhouse attendants, to foster cheating. If Wright is making too much contact (he lead the league in average for most of the first half, before having a bad two weeks and dropping his average to .330) and not hitting enough homers, how can we ever tell kids that we value doing things the right way?
I'm not saying that the Home Run Derby should be abolished, it's a fun time and it's stupid to think that people don't enjoy seeing the ball leave the yard. But there's something dicey about it, if you ask me. During the NBA's All-Star break, we get more than one event, there's the Dunk Contest and the Three Point Shooting contest (and the recently added HORSE competition) because there's more to basketball than just one thing, just one skill. Similarly, there's more to baseball than home runs. And as we progress into the second half of this season, and later into a new decade of baseball now almost thirty years removed from the first onslaught of performance enhancing drugs, maybe the sport at large will start to realize that, truly. And realize it not just on the pages of the millions of sports columns and sports blogs that exist, but realize it and act on it in a substantive way that makes a change from the start. Or just forget the whole thing and give these guys an extra day off to heal a bit. Lord knows, the Mets could use it.
Come on, Eldrick.