05/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ebbets Field, Redux

Superlatives ran amok at last night's opening of the Mets' new ball yard in Queens, but ironic was not among them.

A pity, really, because there is a wonderful, if little known tale that explains a great deal about the new and handsome Citi Field -- how and why it came to be, and why it looks and feels as it does.

The new park has risen in what was the parking lot of the late and barely lamented Shea Stadium, which when it opened in 1964 represented the apex of stadium design: airy and modern and with only the vaguest hint of brick.

Shea is gone, as is the Vet in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers, Cincinnati's Riverfront, even the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. Do I spot a tear? I think not.

In their place, of course, are ballparks that are meant to transport us back to a simpler time, when men wore straw skimmers to the ballpark, and neckties, too. The new parks are smaller than the big bowls they replaced, a downsizing in scale -- though not in ticket price -- designed to create a sense of intimacy, ironic (there it is) in that that was the very quality that places like Shea were built to eradicate.

The Shea-to-Citi connection is juicy stuff from an anthropological point of view. In the beginning -- which is to say, in the early 20th century -- there was Ebbets Field (there was also the Polo Grounds, but it is hard to take seriously a ballpark with a center field so deep that it ended with a ladder that led to the clubhouse). Ebbets Field was small and cramped and it had no parking, and it was these deficits that compelled the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Walter O'Malley, to search for new digs. Preferably in downtown Brooklyn -- yes, Brooklyn sentimalists, the old SOB really wanted to stay; I read the letters; it's no lie -- and failing that, Chavez Ravine.

When O'Malley departed, taking the pliable Horace Stoneham of the crosstown Giants with him to California, New York was left without a National League club. The city fathers, chagrined at losing not one club but two -- ah, what Oscar Wilde would have done with that one -- dispatched an emissary, William Shea, to scour the land for a National League club that might want to relocate.
Shea set out bearing a gift: the promise that the city would build a new ballpark in Queens. Emphasis on the new. Because in the late 1950s new is what people wanted. New homes in new towns built near new highways.

Long story short, Shea found no takers. But he did gain enlightenment. The owners had no intention of moving, or of expanding. Rather than return home empty-handed, Shea sought out the wisest counsel in the land, Branch Rickey, the most forward-looking executive in the history of the game.

Rickey, then in unwelcome retirement after five losing seasons in Pittsburgh, preached boldness. Don't go begging for an extra team or two, he advised. Better to start a whole new league, with clubs in New York and seven cities that had tried and failed to secure membership in the big leagues.

The story of that league -- the Continental -- and how the owners worked feverishly until they killed it, will wait for another day. But suffice it to say that the key to the whole enterprise was New York, and that the key to New York was that new ballpark in Queens. And that the key to the ballpark in Queens was that it look and feel nothing like Ebbets Field.

Yet here we are, 50 years later, and standing hard by the Grand Central Parkway is a ballpark that approximates the look and the feel of -- don't all shout out at once -- Ebbets Field.
Tastes do change. But that misses the point. Fifty years ago the prevailing view was that Americans wanted nothing more than to get away from each other -- a little space, a little green, life looking not out from the stoop, but to the backyard. But in the years that followed, baseball did not blossom in those big new parks.

Indeed, something was lost in the move to places like Shea -- and here is that word again: intimacy. Shea was selling the park that was to bear his name as something altogether different than what had come before: he was not merely selling grand (because, yes, parks like Yankee Stadium were grand). He was selling was selling space and air and distance.

Last night, in an arena where Shea's name fittingly joins the retired numbers of Seaver, Stengel, Hodges and Jackie Robinson, baseball witnessed a return to the past.

We're back where we started, in Ebbets Field, rotunda and all.