Friday, April 24, 2009

The long-dead Brooklyn Dodgers still haunt New York

What an opening week in baseball this turned out to be, here in New York. Two new stadiums for the city's teams, the Yankees and the Mets, and more media hype than anyone thought possible. Along with a lot of angry fans!

Hardly had the final "Out" been called at the end of the first game in the Mets new home, misnamed "Citi Field," on April 13, than Mets fans began to inundate with phone calls the main radio sports station, WFAN, and the local ESPN radio station. They could hardly contain the anger, outrage, and even disbelief at what they considered the disrespectful treatment of the Mets team by its owners. This was dissing, big time!

The explosive outbursts continued for almost 24/7, with bewildered hosts first trying to field the bitter comments, then empathizing with the callers, all week long. The complaints were not just about preposterously inflated ticket prices for seats that offered obstructed views of the field, or outrageously over-priced food at upscale in-park restaurants and concessions. Those gripes were not even half of what aroused the explosive anger of Mets fans.

No, their ire was aroused by the fact that their beloved team had been used to act as a foil for a long-dead Brooklyn Dodgers team, that hardly any fan under 70 years old had ever rooted for. Today's teenage fan, or the 25-year-old or even the 30-year-old fan, carries not the vaguest memory of cheering a team in a place called Ebbets Field. Most of them, however, have learned of this revered episode in New York history from older relatives and through history lessons in school, that tie the career of Dodgers' player Jackie Robinson to the civil rights movement. This knowledge is considered a fact of life and is not disputed.

As described by disgruntled fans, to walk through the entrance of Citi Field is to walk into a mock-up construction of Ebbets Field, and then into an almost religious homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers – the team that was put to rest in the late 1950s. This main entryway leads into a 160-foot diameter space called the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which houses giant photographs and memorabilia dedicated to the late Dodger ballplayer. There are words by and about Robinson etched into the surrounding walls, along with continuously playing loops of film footage of Robinson. There is an 8-foot sculpture of Robinson's number "42," a number that has been retired by every major league baseball team.

"Where are photos and films and visual images of the Mets players we grew up cheering?" fans angrily inquired of anyone who would listen. Since Robinson never even played for the Mets, never wore a Mets uniform, how is it possible that management would elevate this player above all others, here in the entrance of the new stadium built expressly for the New York Metropolitans? Where in the world, fans protested repeatedly, was the homage to the heritage of the Mets – you know, the team that is expected to play ball in this place for possibly the next half-century? Where is recognition of their first half-century of accomplishments, which began in 1962, and where, at least, are the plaudits to their spectacular World Series wins in 1969 and 1986? Is that all just chicken feed?

No fans had any problem with a section of the park being dedicated to Robinson, the man who "broke the color barrier" in baseball, as an addendum, but not as the central feature of the stadium. Having never played on the Mets team, his achievements belonged to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

On the whole, most radio hosts caught on to the sincerity of the grievances of Mets fans, and allowed them to vent their rage. None of the WFAN hosts had yet visited Citi Field, so they were taken aback when one caller after another verified previous callers' depictions. One benighted host, whose name I don't remember, seriously accused fans of taking a "blasphemous" position against the icon in the Rotunda. [Dictionary definition of blaspheme: to speak irreverently of a god or sacred things.] Hmm.

And, of course, there are always those "good" whites, who are so eager to detect anything that can be interpreted as smacking of "racism." Steve Somers, late night host of WFAN, who also had not yet seen the new stadium, could not resist using the suggestion of racism against callers who expressed perfectly legitimate gripes. Tony Paige, however, WFAN's black host, said he was disappointed not to see celebrations to other great Dodgers, as well as Mets. It's okay for the rotunda to be named for Robinson, he maintained, but why not make it a general homage to all the great ballplayers of both teams?

WFAN's main sports announcer, Mike Francesa, ultimately just tried to shut up fans. Without resorting to name-calling, he first expressed genuine surprise over the vehemence of the complaints, and then became protective of Mets management, insisting that the owners were certain to "make some adjustments," once they were clued into fans' responses.

He was right about that. By April 16, the third day of the storm, fans were calling in to tell of giant posters of Mets ballplayers that were being affixed by stadium staff to the exterior of Citi Field. Are they now putting up posters of Casey Stengel, the Mets' first manager, or pitcher Tom Seaver, or Willie Mays? With my own eyes, I can attest to the fact that appropriate graphics already decorated the new Yankee Stadium, from day one. No one had to nudge those owners into public recognition of Yankee history.

Over and over, radio hosts and callers felt obligated to repeat something like, Not to take away from Robinson's greatness, or Not that I don't respect what a pioneer he was, or Not that I don't understand how much he did for our society, yaddah, yaddah. Only after carefully reciting such platitudes did they feel safe to voice their opinions about Mets' owner Fred Wilpon's gross negligence, perhaps even contempt, of the Mets own heritage.

Much is made of Wilpon's passionate love of all things Dodgers. His fondest memories supposedly consist of his trips with his father to Ebbets Field. One would think, however, that he would be able to separate his childhood attachments from the reality of the business of baseball. Unless, of course, his fixation is more of a psychosis. It might be fair to question whether Wilpon has an obsessive attachment to a long-dead team, or harbors a fixation for a revered ball player, or is it a preoccupation with a particular civil rights episode?

Wilpon actually displaced the "Hall of Fame" that commemorated Mets players in their old Shea Stadium, and substituted, instead, the Robinson-Dodger shrine in Citi Field. Word has it that the exhibits (busts, banners, statues) from Shea's glory days are "currently in storage." One Mets blogger observes, "It's like Mets history was carted away on a flatbed with the last piles of rubble from Shea Stadium." With the blessings of Fred Wilpon, apparently.

As another blogger puts it, due to the overpowering fame of the New York Yankees, "the Mets have always had a problem with being treated as if they were secondary. ... Citi Field is a reminder that for many old Dodger fans, the Mets are a consolation prize."

One might ask why the Robinson Rotunda is not a fixture in the stadium of the true heirs of the Brooklyn Dodgers, namely, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It's not as if Robinson has been forgotten and relegated to the dustbin of history. On the contrary. He could arguably be called the most celebrated baseball figure ever, superseding even Babe Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle. There are schools named for him, streets and highways named for him, youth parks and college stadiums named for him.

And it's not as if young people do not get a full dose of the civil rights story and, therefore, need to be educated in the Robinson legacy. When being taught, it is not unusual for civil rights propaganda to move from Martin Luther King, Jr. straight to Jackie Robinson. Robinson's life is a thoroughly covered chapter in school history texts and classrooms.

In major league baseball, every year, an entire day, April 15, is set aside to honor Robinson. As stated above, his number 42 can no longer be worn by any player on any team, except on this day, when all players, coaches and managers are expected to wear it. Some people consider this a rather excessive encomium to one man. Why not have an annual day set aside to honor a different player every year? Why not a Ted Williams Day, where his number 9 is worn, or Joe DiMaggio's number 5 is honored?

One is left with the suspicion that it is not Robinson's skills as an outstanding athlete that are being commemorated, but there is a greater desire, in some quarters, to keep alive the memory of the social conditions that prevailed in the country at the time. As if Americans are not badgered with the civil rights theme at every turn – Justice, Equality, Humanity. We must now attend baseball games for yet more lecturing about our nation's past wickedness and the triumph over Evil. If this is, indeed, the heart of Fred Wilpon's attachment to the Brooklyn Dodgers, would it not be more fitting for this Jackie Robinson Rotunda to be set up in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial soon to be constructed on the Mall in Washington, DC?

When the bleak days of persecution were finally over for Robinson, he was feted and celebrated as a sports figure, businessman, and much-sought-after public speaker. His career with the Dodgers began in 1947, and, in 1950, Hollywood was already producing a film of his life, in which Robinson played himself. He lived many good years basking in the public's adulation and appreciation of his talents, and he, apparently, never viewed himself as a "victim."

After recovering from the shock of the epithets hurled at him by indignant Mets fans, Fred Wilpon claimed that, although the new Citi Field "does not have room" to set up commemorations to the Mets, he will, nevertheless, put up some "banners and placques." Days later, he claimed there will be a Hall of Fame, after all. "We think it will be out in the food court, where so many people will get to see it," he added.

And still days later, the Mets V.P. of Business Operations, David Howard, began the public relations task of clean up. He could not deny that, until the loud fan base spoke up, there was little consideration of Mets history by management. But all that's going to change, he insisted. In an interview, after first sermonizing on the civil rights achievements of Jackie Robinson and "all he did for America," Howard expanded on Wilpon's promise to show greater recognition for the Mets team. "We'll roll out additional elements," he declared, referencing mementos and such.

I suspect that, after all this furore, Mets management will be falling all over itself to do more than just "roll out" some memorabilia. We can probably expect placques and friezes and statues galore of Mets luminaries. No doubt, extra-special attention will now be given to former Met Dwight Gooden, who initially was chastised by Mets management for responding to a fan's request to sign his name to a wall in the stadium's "Ebbets Field Club." (What else would it be named?) After being subjected to yet more outcries from the fan base, for insulting Gooden, management reversed itself and decided, not only to preserve the Gooden signature wall, but to request other Mets, such as Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza, to add their signatures as well.

Sometimes, it takes a lot of hollering to wake up the clueless.

See also:
Welcome to CitiField... home of the Mets and shrine to the Dodgers

An Addendum

And then there's the New York Yankees, and the scandal of their newly built (and totally unnecessary) stadium, conceived in greed, and built on avarice. This is a shopping mall pretending to be a sports stadium, built primarily to cater to corporate megamillionaires. Management's irresponsible financial miscalculations just might be their undoing. They might live to be sorry that they trashed the house that Ruth built, which I still view every day on my ride on the elevated #4 subway train. Two giant stadiums, side by side – one, a place that ordinary fans could afford, and the other, an extravaganza of luxury suites, exclusive clubs, and $2,500 seats.

As Matt Taibbi puts it, as the consequences of the economic recession take hold, there will be nothing more entertaining than watching this Yankee management "choke on their own greed." Greed, aided and abetted, that is, by the unwitting taxpayers of New York.


Greekgeek said...

Meanwhile modern Dodgers fans, schooled by Vin Scully who was calling the games Jackie played in and still tells us about the Brooklyn Dodgers (and Jackie) in our nightly broadcasts, are mystified and miffed.

Commissioner Bud Selig said on this year's Jackie Robinson Day how nice it was that there was finally a "fitting" place to honor Jackie Robinson, since, you know, Dodger Stadium isn't the place. No, he did not play here... except while growing up in Pasadena, attending UCLA, and meeting and marrying Rachel RObinson. Yes, Jackie Robinson transcends teams and stands for more than the Dodgers.

But he was and remains a Dodger, not a Met. Why are they pretending to be the Dodgers?!

I suppose the crurent Dodgers should be flattered. The Anaheim Angels are so ashamed of their own past that they've affixed Los Angeles' name to their team, although they play sixty miles away in Orange (not Los Angeles) County. The Mets are so ashamed of their own past that they've rebuilt Ebbets Field, Disneyland-style, in an effort to borrow glory by osmosis.

The Mets have actually been doing this since they began -- claiming Dodger history and getting it wrong! Their uniforms fuse Dodger blue and Giant orange. That is the one color barrier Jackie refused to break -- he retired rather than be traded to the Dodgers' arch-rival. Every time a Dodgers or Giants fan sees a Mets uniform, we are reminded that the Mets have coopted someone else's history without understanding a thing about it.

So, I suppose this is more of same, and like the ghastly mistake of combining blue and orange, after a while people will stop noticing the emperor not only has no clothes, but his underwear is on inside out.

Still, I hope the Mets fans keep clamoring for their own team to be recognized. Despite the silly uniforms, I think they've achieved a few things in the last 50 years.

Jeff Kallman said...

File this under better late than never---I hadn't seen your splendid essay until today, oddly enough. I'm not thrilled about the Citi Field rotunda being that big a monument to a player who was never even close to being a Met . . . but then I'm even less thrilled with the name. Surely there should have been some thought given to naming the park Stengel Field . . . ?

p.s. GreekGeek: I once lived in Orange County. Angel Stadium isn't quite sixty miles from Los Angeles. (I've gone to games in both Angel Stadium and Dodger Stadium. It only seems like a sixty mile difference because of the chronic traffic jams in southern California!) The Angels were born the Los Angeles Angels; if they were so ashamed of their past they'd have remained the Anaheim Angels, under which name they won the franchise's first World Series rings.

I wouldn't be too hard on Citi Field's deriving its design from Ebbets Field. Remember---the Original Mets (I'm old enough to have seen them live and in person) began their lives in the Polo Grounds. Perhaps their grafting the colours of the Dodgers and the Giants had everything to do with honouring New York's National League past and, at least, honouring the team in whose former home they were playing their home games while waiting for Shea Stadium (which sat on the site Robert Moses tried to jam down Walter O'Malley's throat) to be finished.

Elizabeth Wright said...

Jeff Kallman wrote:
... but then I'm even less thrilled with the name. Surely there should have been some thought given to naming the park Stengel Field . . . ?

I am in complete agreement here. In fact, I think it's appalling that every athletic field is not named for a hard working player or manager. It seems unbelievable that some corporation overrides in importance the actual labor of the athletes themselves, without whom there would be no game. There's plenty of space inside and outside the stadium to sing the praises of the corporate funder/owner. You would think that, out of respect, these companies would gladly commemorate some outstanding player -- and there are plenty of them.

Actually, I wish there was a movement afoot to have the new stadium, that they have the nerve to call "Yankee Stadium," given its rightful name, that is, "Steinbrenner Stadium." And the House that Ruth Built would be just a memory of the past, as with a great many long-gone monuments. I'd rather see it respected that way. Did you see my post:
George's new edifice

... wouldn't be too hard on Citi Field's deriving its design from Ebbets Field. Remember---the Original Mets (I'm old enough to have seen them live and in person) began their lives in the Polo Grounds. Perhaps their grafting the colours of the Dodgers and the Giants had everything to do with honouring New York's National League past

I love this idea. I think the two ancestors of the Mets (Giants and Dodgers) should certainly be memorialized, and I love the use of the two colors -- one from each club -- on the Mets' uniforms. I thought that was a classy idea, and actually found it touching. And I like very much the idea of savoring the spirit of Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. I didn't mean to give the impression that the past should not be celebrated at all. They just should not have "disappeared" the Mets.

The over-stressed, pandering, condescending Robinson nonsense has nothing to do with this sensible approach to the past. To me, it's become something of a psychosis. I am sick of it! And next season it will start all over again -- with everybody forced/coerced to wear his number -- among other idiocies throughout the season.

What were Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, et. al? Chopped liver?

[Note to readers: Click on Jeff Kallman's name in his post above to discover, as I just did, his two wonderful nostalgic blogs about sports and radio.]