Citi Field hosts first baseball game

March 29, 2009 4:01:38 PM PDT
Citi Field opened its shiny steel gates for a big test run, hosting a wide-eyed crowd that got its first glimpse of the New York Mets' new home. While the Mets finish up spring training in Florida, 22,397 fans - many with cameras in hand - ignored the wet and chilly weather Sunday to explore the new stadium and watch Georgetown use a four-run seventh inning to beat St. John's 6-4 in a college baseball game.

The schools were hoping to break the NCAA attendance record - 40,106 at Petco Park in 2004 for a game between San Diego State and Houston - but the raw weather likely kept many fans away.

"It was a great turnout," said former Mets reliever John Franco, who pitched for St. John's from 1979-81. "The crowd is a little bit closer to the field, but I think the players are going to enjoy it and I think the fans are really going to enjoy it."

The Mets get their first taste of the new ballpark on Friday and Saturday when they host the Boston Red Sox for their final two exhibition games. The regular-season home opener is April 13 against San Diego.

Tim Adleman (2-3) allowed two earned runs in eight innings and Sean Lamont homered into the first few rows of left-field seats for Georgetown (10-15, 3-3 Big East), which won twice in the three-game series. Jack Bender pitched a perfect ninth for his second save.

"I don't know what to say other than it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life," Adleman said. "To be the answer to a trivia question is pretty cool."

Nick Cenatiempo (1-2) took the loss in relief, and Joe Panick drove in two runs for St. John's (13-9, 4-2).

"The loss doesn't take anything away from the day," said Red Storm starter Brendan Lobban, who grabbed a handful of dirt from the mound after the game. "Today was just phenomenal."

From the intricate brickwork of the stadium's exterior to the elegance of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda that greets fans as they come through the front gates, there was plenty to check out at the ballpark that stands in what once was Shea Stadium's parking lot.

"I'm just glad that they got a new ballpark," Franco said. "It was about time they had one. Shea Stadium was a great place, but things were starting to fall apart there. This is a state-of-the-art place."

Shea isn't completely gone just yet. A few large piles of rubble still remain as a work-in-progress reminder of the park where Tom Seaver, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza once played.

"Shea was a party place and it was great, but this is like we grew up and now we're in a new house," said Dawnrose D'Aloia of Corona, N.Y.

Franco got things started by throwing out the first pitch to a standing ovation. The former reliever, who pitched 15 seasons at Shea, took the mound wearing a blue and orange Mets jacket, but took it off to reveal a red and white St. John's jersey with his familiar No. 45 before tossing to Red Storm catcher Danny Benedetti.

"I bounced it, but I bounced balls for 20 years," Franco said with a chuckle. "It was a real thrill for me."

St. John's took a 3-1 lead in the third and led 4-2 after four innings, but Georgetown, playing as the home team, scored four times in the seventh, started by Dan Capeless' go-ahead, bases-loaded single.

The game was originally scheduled to be played at Georgetown as the first two games of the series were, but was switched to Citi Field when the Mets approached St. John's several months ago about moving it.

"I thought to myself, 'What are you going to remember in 10 years? Are you going to remember Game 3 against St. John's in D.C, or are you going to remember this?"' Hoyas coach Pete Wilk said. "After I thought that, it was a no-brainer."

The stadium seats 42,000 and the Mets put 30,000 tickets on sale for $5 each online. The tickets sold out in 45 minutes, and the remaining 12,000 were distributed to schools, businesses and community groups.

The crowd was the seventh-largest for a baseball game in NCAA history.

The Mets were still working out some kinks. The monstrous video board in center field went out briefly in the fourth inning, the press box microphone wasn't working, and the distance markers on the outfield walls and retired numbers of Seaver, Robinson, Gil Hodges and Casey Stengel still hadn't been displayed.

"This was a great opportunity to open the building, get the college kids out there and have the thrill of a lifetime and play here and help us learn a little bit more about how the building operates," said David Howard, the Mets' executive vice president of business operations.

In the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, the stadium's centerpiece, two large video screens play highlights of the former Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman's career. Large photos of Robinson also hang along the high walls. Fans can also take photos with the large, blue "42" statue - in honor of Robinson's retired number - located between the escalators that lead up and into the stadium.

Gone are the bright blue and orange seats of Shea, replaced by dark green ones that give the stadium a retro feel. A neat addition is a section of right-field seats that hang over the lower section, jutting into the field of play.

"They grabbed all the best aspects, I think, of all the new ballparks around the major leagues," St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch said.

The beloved but weather-beaten Shea Stadium apple is here, on display in the bullpen concourse. It has been replaced by a juicier version nestled in center field that could make its debut next weekend; it didn't rise after Lamont's homer.

The outfield walls are a lot higher than Shea's were, and the bullpen area is shared by both teams in right-center field, instead of being separate in left and right fields. The airy concourses - where many fans filed through, particularly in center field, for most of the game instead of staying in their seats - were another welcome sight for fans.

"I was sad to see Shea go, but it was time," said Mark Savino of Corona, N.Y. "I wanted to be here, no matter what type of game it was, to be able to say I was here for the first one."