Cavernous Citi Field could use some tweaking
NEW YORK -- The Mets-paranoia of George Steinbrenner ran deeper than Death Valley in the old, old, Yankee Stadium. The man lived in everyday fear of the team in Queens, even after his team had won successive World Series and the Mets had lost Tom Seaver and 194 games in a two-season sequence. And when the Mets began their renaissance in 1984, the flagship in American Shipbuilding listed to one side. George trembled.
How would the "Big Guy With The Boats" -- Reggie Jackson's phrasing -- compete? Though not yet the see-all, know-all Boss, Steinbrenner nonetheless was well-aware of the Mets' emergence and how difficult it would be for the Yankees to maintain their standing in the New York market. He recognized the magnetism of young players developing in a system. He understood that Strawberrys didn't grow on trees. And his premature promotion of Jose Rijo early in 1984 hardly had the desired effect of offsetting the brilliance of Dwight Gooden. What to do? What to do?
Less than a month after Gooden had won the 1984 Rookie of the Year Award -- Darryl Strawberry had won the '83 award -- Steinbrenner figured the Yankees' acquisition of Rickey Henderson had reaffirmed their intra-city supremacy. The Mets weren't done however; and five days after Rickey was reunited with Billy Martin in the Bronx, the Mets acquired Gary Carter, prompting Madison Square Garden to chant "Let's Go Mets" during Knicks games. Turned out Steinbrenner wasn't done, either. He learned of the Mets' deal before it was announced and sprang into action, ordering the release of news he had been holding for just that sort of day, a day when the Mets would make a splash.
Steinbrenner believed he controlled the tabloids. (He should have recorded Dylan's "My Back Pages.") He unwisely thought he would reduce the impact of the Mets' big deal by creating one of his own. So he reduced the acreage of Death Valley, took some of the peril from left center for the benefit of Henderson, Dave Winfield, Don Baylor and every other Yankee with a right-handed bat. He moved the left-center-field wall closer to the plate.
The Garden, incidentally, never responded to the renovation.
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Now, I've retold that story, so I can offer this suggestion to the Mets. As a means of distracting their followers and baseball connoisseurs in general from their untidy performance on the field, the Mets ought to make the field smaller, i.e., reduce the acreage of the playing field at Citi Field.
This is not a novel thought. And coming as it has, on the heels of a 9-1 Mets' victory on Thursday in a game in which they hit three home runs and executed properly, it's even poorly timed. But the time has come to change the Citi. Call it urban renewal.
Some reconstruction might keep the public eye from perusing the standings.
Right field at Citi need not be Yankee Stadium-esque, but it needs to be smaller and more inviting to men who swing the bat. The tall wall in left-center could be moved a tad closer and perhaps shortened. But as is, it facilitates extra-base hits and, as Shea Stadium did in all directions, legitimizes the home runs that are hit. Leave it alone.
Right field is the rub. The club isn't about to turn away from the advertising revenue the Mo Zone generates in right. Its less-than-stuffed pockets need all available pennies. But the Mets ought to eliminate, adjust or move the Zone and make life easier for their best player and most recognizable face. Eliminate Mo, add some seats -- they may be necessary again one day -- and give David Wright a fighting chance to hit 30 home runs.
The Zone does little to enhance the place, and never was any sort of architectural necessity caused by the cramped quarters of neighborhood blocks and buildings (see Wrigley and Fenway and some decommissioned arenas). It merely is a contrived quirk, a barrier in more ways than one. It's not poppycock to suggest Wright's career, if it is to be spent in Flushing, will be significantly squeezed by an advertising alcove. And the benefit of that would be what?
Ike Davis wouldn't be undermined by a more reachable set of right-field stands, nor would any of the other home run aspirants. But Wright is the one most affected by what has become a No Zone for him. He can hit the ball out in any direction. His rocket home run to left-center in the fourth inning Thursday reaffirmed that. Joe DiMaggio, playing in the old place in the Bronx, wouldn't have had the time -- even if he had the space -- to catch up to that one.
But how often can Wright hit a pitch to the left side of second base when he sees so many pitches on the outer third of the plate or off the plate altogether? He can't reach some of them, hence his 23 strikeouts in 73 at-bats. And when he can reach them, he can rarely can reach the area beyond the Zone. He has big league power to right-center and right, but opposing pitchers need not concern themselves with it because of an alcove, an ad and picnic seating.
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Wright, Jason Bay and their colleagues (of course, pitchers don't qualify as colleagues in this discussion) never will condemn the building. They're above public whining. But they will privately chastise the blueprints and the thought behind them. "From what I understand, they wanted a pitcher's park," Wright said Thursday. "They've got it."
After Carlos Beltran hit two home runs in one game the previous homestand and people clamored for a third, Wright said, "Hitting two out is an extraordinary feat in this place."
That's what you get from him and the others, acknowledgments that the place is unkind -- even unfair -- to sluggers and others with occasional home run power. Wright noted the one ball he hit in the last homestand -- it was the final out of the first game of last Thursday's doubleheader against the Rockies -- "could've gone out in 29 other parks." And he made the point that "I hit two others well. We could have had two more wins."
Moreover, the Mets would have a few less exasperated players on their roster, players who talk to power-hitting first basemen, third basemen and outfielders on opposing teams who may someday become free agents and inquire about Citi Field. The park, as is, has multi-dimensional issues that opponents notice. They need only consult Bay's numbers of last summer. He was a proven slugger all but silenced by the Citi.
The park can't be changed during the season. Charlie Finley, a maverick owner before Steinbrenner, saw to that by fiddling with field dimensions in Kansas City in midseason in the 60's. On-the-fly renovatons have been prohibited since his attempts. But who knows? Perhaps the Commissioner will make an exception if the Mets' power production and revenue promised to increase.
If not, the Mets could correct a mistake come October. Chances are the Citi won't be in use then. Expense is not to be overlooked, particularly at this point. But extending the plane of the existing wall in the right-field corner until it passes the Zone -- even if it were chain link fence -- would put some fly balls in the seats and some suspense in the other fly balls.
The games might be more enjoyable. After all, what sells the game of a team that is struggling? Home runs and strikeouts. Dave Kingman provided both. Wright shouldn't be put in the position to do so. So far, these Mets aren't hittin' 'em out -- all evidence to the contrary Thursday aside -- and their pitchers ain't strikin' 'em out either.
Those at Citi on Thursday night were delighted by Wright's home run, and the ones Davis and Mike Nickeas hit as well. Wright has three this season, two at Citi and another three flies that might have changed the outcomes of three other home games if The Zone didn't hadn't interfered.
So, did it feel particularly rewarding to tame the place as he did in the fourth? Did Wright whisper "Take that, you big oversized whatever" as he took his victory lap?
"No," he said, "this place can take 'em away real quick on you. You never want to get too sassy."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.