Citi Field was etched in Fred Wilpon's mind long before the groundbreaking in November 2006. It was embedded in boyhood memories of a time when Ebbets Field, the ballpark of Wilpon's youth, galvanized his Brooklyn community.
"Beyond what is hard to understand today,'' the 76-year-old principal owner of the Mets said. "A ballpark you could get your arms around.''
Citi Field's role model was Ebbets Field, long lamented even decades after the Dodgers' move to California after the 1957 season and subsequent demolition in 1960. "Devastated to this day,'' said Doug Van Buskirk, a former Freeport resident whose grandfather, Clarence, was the chief architect of Ebbets Field.
All of that emotion went into Citi Field. "We wanted a ballpark; we didn't want a stadium,'' COO Jeff Wilpon said. "In our minds, there was a big difference.''
Now the Mets' ballpark is hosting the All-Star Game 100 years after the opening of Ebbets Field. Feelings are stirred by a ballpark that opened in 2009 that is reminiscent of the one etched in fans' memories. "The terrazzo flooring, just like Ebbets Field,'' former Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca said. "That was Fred's will.''
The tangible similarity to Ebbets Field is the exterior facade, and that tugs at the heartstrings for those who remember.
"There's something about Citi Field,'' said Joan Hodges, whose husband, Gil, played most of his career at Ebbets Field, then managed the Mets to their first World Series title in 1969 at Shea Stadium. "Something at Citi Field makes you feel good. Ebbets was our home, our everything. It wasn't like we were moving to Long Island. We went to California.''
Martha Skinner, great-granddaughter of Charles Ebbets, who built the field bearing his name for $750,000, lives in the state of Washington but is anxious to see Citi Field someday. She was at Ebbets Field as a child.
"It's a legacy that just doesn't seem to die,'' she said. "I don't know if other ballfields that have been torn down and shoved aside have the same feeling.''
Fred Wilpon initially took some criticism from those who thought Citi Field was a bit too Dodgers-centric with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Wilpon said he had far more than the Dodgers in mind. Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, understood what he meant.
"Our history is linked to the Mets and to New York,'' she said. "For me, the tribute being paid to Jackie actually acknowledges his historic career in baseball and, just as important, his impact on our society. So it's the man, not just the ballplayer, that is being celebrated there.''
Still, Wilpon later added a museum and other items celebrating the Mets. "I misjudged the fans' passion," he said. "I love the Mets and I revere their history.''
This generation of Mets fans will fill its memory banks on what its team accomplishes.
"People constantly are telling our people that they love coming to Citi Field,'' Fred Wilpon said. "They're very critical about the teams that we've had. We've had good teams that didn't finish, and that was very disappointing. We haven't had great teams, and that's what we have to get back to. When you are not doing well, it's not easy. It was easier in the early 1980s when there was no anticipation.''
For a generation of fans, Citi Field someday will be the ballpark of their youth. Author Bob McGee captured the essence of Ebbets Field in "The Greatest Ballpark Ever.'' He sees Citi Field taking the same path.
"It's a throwback and an acknowledgment, which is what you would like to see from something like that,'' he said. "It brings up wellsprings of feelings for anyone that has either their roots in Brooklyn or who experienced that time and place.
"Fred Wilpon is a very sensitive man. I could see how important this whole thing was to him. I could see how much he cares about the legacy of Brooklyn and also the legacy of the National League in New York.''