March 30, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

NEW YORK – To nearly all of the thousands of fans sitting in the dreary and soggy stands Sunday afternoon, the tinny, metallic sound reverberating throughout the expanse was foreign, but you could excuse the ballpark for not knowing any better.

After all, Citi Field, the latest, greatest cathedral in baseball, opened its doors for the first time over the weekend. And the Mets, the park’s owners and builders, were not the ones taking the field.

Instead, the honor was bestowed upon another Queens institution, one that’s been around a lot longer than the 47 years the Mets have.

St. John’s, from nearby Jamaica, Queens, had the honor of taking the ballpark’s first hacks as the Red Storm finished up a three-game set with Georgetown. Those hacks were followed by pings rather than cracks as the Big East schools christened the borough’s newest attraction, a week before the Mets step into the batter’s box with their lumber.  

“It was a nice gesture,” St. John’s head coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “I think it went two-fold. Obviously there are some kinks I’m sure they want to work out. And certainly from a playing standpoint, they wanted to see how the field plays so they gave us that opportunity. We’re very appreciative.”

"The only thing I could think of was `awesome."
Georgetown outfielder Tommy Lee

Plenty of players from both rosters have played in minor league parks and fields that are snazzy in their own right. But none have ever had the chance to play in something like Citi Field.

Everything in the park was new – and plenty was still under construction – as the Red Storm and Hoyas test-drove it all. From the clubhouses to the bullpens – strangely configured back-to-back with only a wire mesh fence separating the two – they put it all to good use. Including the massive scoreboard in centerfield that looked larger than the infield.  

“The only thing I could think of was ‘awesome,’” Georgetown outfielder Tommy Lee said. “I think most of the guys had a similar feeling.”

There wasn’t much pregame talk from either side about the magnitude of the event. They were more concerned about taking the third and final game of the series. St. John’s and Georgetown had split the first two games down in D.C. before hightailing it north to Flushing to finish out the crucial Big East conference series.

In the end, the Hoyas – the designated home team – prevailed, with a 6-4 victory in front of the seventh-largest crowd to ever see an NCAA baseball game. The 22,397 who came through the turnstiles were mostly Mets fans who desperately wanted to get a glimpse of their new park and didn’t exactly stick around to watch the game. The stands were relatively sparse as the game wore on, thanks in large part to the weather. Chances are had it been a nice day the park could have approached its approximately 42,000 capacity. But the cloudy skies and persistent drizzle didn’t dampen the spirits of the diehards.

The “home” Hoyas heard their fair share of cheers and Queens jeers as they held St. John’s scoreless over the game’s final five innings. A four-run, five-hit seventh turned out to be the difference. Georgetown’s Tim Adleman went eight innings for the win. Jack Bender pitched a perfect ninth for the save.  

But as important as the game was in the standings, its overall significance was lost on few.

“I’m going to remember this until the day I die,” St. John’s centerfield Brian Kemp said in defeat. “Once we got into the stadium we were like little kids going crazy with our cameras and just taking dirt, stuff like that.”

Admittedly, it took a few innings for most of the players to get over the grandeur of the stadium. Citi Field may very well rank right up there with any of the new ballparks that have flooded Major League Baseball over the past decade.  And the Hoyas and Red Storm were singing the new park’s praises afterward.

They loved the intimacy, the quirky dimensions, the overhang in right field and quite possibly more than anything else, that massive scoreboard that displayed their stats and mugshots for all to see.

Kemp, like all the rest, couldn’t take his eyes off it. Upon walking up to one of his at-bats, he was staring at the screen, admiring his picture and numbers, and he started to smile. A few seconds later, the scoreboard cut to a live picture of Kemp walking to the plate. There he was, smiling, now watching his grinning face along with everyone else.

But maybe no one came away from the experience with a bigger smile than Georgetown third baseman Sean Lamont. In the third inning, and with two out, Lamont got behind a pitch and sailed it over the left field wall. He became the answer to a trivia question, pinging the ballpark’s first home run.

Citi Field figures to see plenty of those over the course of its life, only time will tell if it’s a hitters’ or pitchers’ park, but you only have one first. And history will show that Cit Field’s first came at the hands of collegian.

On Sunday, before the adults move in next week, the kids had the run of the house.