What Do I Look For in a Ballpark? Well…You

by Sean Lilly

Sean Lilly went to his first baseball game on July 4, 1980 at Shea Stadium and has been driving everyone he knows bonkers with the Mets ever since. After writing and performing with Committee for Creative Enactments as an undergrad at Boston College,  he worked as a sketch comedy performer and stand-up comic and now teaches elementary school (he’s as surprised as you).  He currently lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts with his with his wife Kelly and they are expecting their first child in October.  He has promised his father-in-law that he will raise his child a Red Sox fan, but has duly warned him that we all tend to follow our fathers in these matters no matter what.

CitiField FlagNot everybody likes the Mets’ new home, Citi Field. I guess because it looks a little bit like Ebbets Field from the outside, it somehow betrays Mets history in favor of Dodgers history. Supposedly there isn’t enough Mets-related signage to make you feel like you’re in the home of the Mets once you get inside (I would’ve thought that the guys all sitting together in one dugout wearing Mets uniforms would’ve been a dead giveaway, but apparently I’m wrong). The food is supposed to be great and in plentiful supply, but even this is a point of contention since apparently baseball parks are really only allowed to serve hot dogs, beer, pretzels, and soda. Ever since Citi Field opened for regular-season business this past week, this is what Mets’ fans have been talking about around water coolers, on the airwaves, and online.

The conversations about the merits and flaws of Citi Field have led to other debates about what makes any park good or bad. I’ve looked in on threads with serious analyses of the size of seats, the convenience of parking lots, how hot the hot dogs, how green the grass, how organic the organ music, and such. People engaging in these commentaries have clearly spent a lot of time organizing their thoughts, reviewing their ideas, and going back over their many and varied experiences at ballparks from one end of North America to the other.

I’ve only ever been to two major league parks in my life: Shea Stadium where I grew up as a fan, and Fenway Park, which is near where I live now in Marblehead, Massachusetts. My memories of Shea are somewhat wistful now that she’s no more, but they still make me smile and they always will. I’m not a Red Sox fan, but I nevertheless enjoy a trip into Kenmore Square and a day or night at Fenway. From what I’ve heard in some circles however, I was really having a miserable time at both places. There were all sorts of terrible things going on that had to do with uncomfortable seats, bad sightlines, cold hot dogs, jerky fans, and restrooms that weren’t in absolutely pristine condition. The conditions at Citi Field are quite good on all of these scores from what I hear, but I’ll still hate it—or at least I should. It might make a decent hamburger but there’s no innate “Mets-ness” to it, no character, no uniqueness, no quirk.

None of that was ever the reason why I was at the ballgame.

Now don’t get me wrong, especially if you’re the owner of a baseball team. I like comfortable seats more than uncomfortable ones. In almost every situation I find myself, at a ballpark or otherwise, I’d rather be within sight of a baseball game than not. I like good hot dogs, dislike jerky fans, and dig nice restrooms as much as the next guy. And when I go to the Mets’ new park, I would love to see a few pictures of the likes of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Carter, and Keith Hernandez hanging in the hallways. You can’t just stick a team in an empty railroad yard and figure everyone will still come anyway just out of loyalty.

That said, if you want me to come and see the Mets, just make sure the Mets are there. I won’t need much more.

The ballgame was why I was at the ballgame. That’s all I ever really needed to have a good time at Shea or Fenway. It’s all I’ll ever need to have a good time at Citi Field or anywhere else they play baseball. I’d love to get a hot dog and a beer while I’m there, but no one need kill themselves making the perfect incarnations of either. I probably won’t notice how good or how bad the food is any more than I’ll notice how comfortable or uncomfortable the seats are. Just give me the game please and put as little between me and it as possible.

And looking back over my ballpark experiences, a lot of time I don’t even really need the game. I saw some games at Shea that I will never ever forget. I’ve been very very very fortunate. And it’s good that I’ve been very very very fortunate because I’ve also seen some really terrible games too. I haven’t kept track, but it’s reasonable to figure that I saw more wins than losses over the years at Shea Stadium. Probably a lot more. My most treasured memories of seeing baseball live involve capacity crowds and thrilling endings. My most numerous memories of seeing baseball live involve lots of empty seats and disappointing endings.

And yet I still have such warm memories of Shea. Even though (I’m made to understand) the seats were crummy and the food was lousy. I’m very much looking forward to a trip to Citi Field this summer but I know I’m not supposed to because even though the food is better and the seats are wider, it allegedly has no uniqueness or character because there isn’t something saying Mets crammed into every available square inch of the place. I’d like to go to Fenway Park again this year but that’s also an insane impulse because Fenway is dark and cramped and has awful hot dogs (or so I’m told).

So how is this possible? If the parks are bad for such a variety of reasons and the games I’ve gone to have ended in disappointment so many times, what exactly is there at the ballpark that keeps me coming back?

Simple. If you’re reading this, it’s most likely you. Or at least someone like you.

As any of the poor souls who have lived with me (everyone from parents to college roommates right on up to my wife) can tell you in excruciating detail, every moment of every Mets’ game is an exhausting emotional experience. I can scream, yell, and carry on with the best of them. This is often the result of the game naturally, but a healthy slice of the mania also comes from another source: with few exceptions, no one around me seems to understand.

I’ve gotten reactions from bemused tolerance to impatience stemming from concern over the potential disturbance of neighbors. For the most part, these reactions are perfectly reasonable. What bothers is me that the reaction that seems to happen the least however is: we get it. You’re right to be upset. Or you’re right to be elated (depending). You’re right to be this completely focused on this game.. That’s rarely the reaction of those around me while a game is going on.

When I go to actually see a game however, I’m surrounded by people who know exactly how I feel. They jump out of their seat and punch the air in jubilation just like I do. They collapse back in their seats and throw their hands up in the air in disappointment just like I do. They love to talk at the game, but it must be about the game, not about work or celebrities or friends. They barely notice anything one way about the seats or the food or any of the signs on any of the walls unless they’re retired numbers or the distances posted on the outfield fences.

Their experience is solely about the game. They are the ones that ultimately make going to a game fun, regardless of the outcome. They are the ones that ultimately give a stadium any character, flair, and uniqueness that it might have.

I can remember high-fiving total strangers after big strikeouts and game-winning hits. I can remember talking about Gil Hodges with some old-timers sitting across the aisle. I can remember the groans and the proclamation of “it’s going to be a looooong game” as five runs crossed the plate in the first inning before I had even sat down. The people with whom I’ve shared these experiences are at least as important to my memories of ballparks as anything that happened on the field. Again, I’ve been very lucky: I’ve only ever seen major league games at Shea Stadium and Fenway, meaning I’ve only ever seen major league games with Mets’ fans and Red Sox fans. That means I’ve only ever seen games with people who don’t merely watch the game, they study it.. They’re people who don’t see going to a game as a chance to sit outside in nice weather, eat summer food and socialize; they don’t mind those things, but they can do those any place. What really matters at the game is the game and nothing else. They scream with glee and howl with rage all game long and why not this is baseball, this is important. They’re not just fans. They’re not even just knowledgeable passionate fans.

They are what make a ballpark. They are in large part what make a team’s history and heritage and character. And as long as the Mets and the Red Sox and any other team lucky to have people like this do have them, they needn’t worry about their ballparks’ food, seats, and parking (although again, it would still be nice to do a good job with these). They needn’t worry about atmosphere and character and quirkiness. Statues to former players, interesting angles of outfield walls, everything that supposedly makes a park special, while all very nice, simply aren’t what make a park special.

You make the park special. As long as you’re there with me and ready to talk about why the lineup is stacked with lefty hitters today or ready to tell me a story about all those arguments about who the greatest centerfielder in New York city was in the 1950s. As long we’re there cheering pitchers for laying down good sacrifice bunts, groaning at that ridiculous caught stealing call at second, and clapping for all we’re worth to encourage that inning-ending strikeout, there will plenty of atmosphere, plenty of character, and plenty of reason to keep coming back, even we’re at a game being played in an empty warehouse.

You want atmosphere? You want unique? You want character? You want a fun place to see a game? You’re the one who provides all of that. We’re the ones who provide all of that.

I’ll see you at the game some time.


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