NEW YORK -- An old-style black sedan limousine -- not a decked-out Hummer, as is fashionable nowadays -- passed through the guarded gates of Citi Field almost four hours before the start of the first game at the new park. The limo door creaked open to reveal Dwight Gooden, a relic from the Mets' golden times, wearing a worn-down leather jacket, and with a pock-marked face.
Gooden's hair spread out in several directions, and although he was not completely disheveled, he was not spotless. Gooden, who has battled drug addiction and legal troubles during the latter part of his life, has had better days. This also could have been said of the recently turned-to-rubble Shea Stadium, which housed the New York Mets for the majority of their existence.
Not too long ago, Shea was deemed unfit for the Mets, so a new edifice was built. That new $800 million palace debuted Monday in New York's 6-5 loss to the San Diego Padres. A beautiful ballpark, with a rounded structure that echoes Ebbets Field and a rotunda that honors Jackie Robinson, stands adjacent to where Shea used to stand.
What history will be made there?
History, in all its celebration, can be glorious, but it can be prickly, too. Shea was where the Mets won two world titles -- one of them in large part thanks to a clean-cut, baby-faced Gooden. More recently, Shea was where the Mets collapsed in 2007 and 2008 in bids to reach the playoffs. Shea was where Carlos Beltran took a called strike three in the ninth inning of the 2006 NLCS. Shea meant success but also massive failure.
There is no better reminder than the troubled Gooden that history is twisted.
So how will people remember Citi Field years from now? Will it be a place where New York's NL franchise established a glorious legacy and vanquished those thoughts of the stumbling, bumbling Mets?
"I think winning will do that more than the park," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "We have had a rough go at it the last few years to the point where we've gotten kind of a reputation, and we need to prove those guys wrong."
If a winning tradition is established here, then let them forget the first game, which in large part was memorable only because of a tumble on the mound from starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, a wild sprint to the backstop in the middle of an inning by a rambunctious cat and a flop in the outfield by Ryan Church that led to the Padres' winning run.
The Mets, only moments after a pregame celebration that included Tom Seaver's throwing out the first pitch to Mike Piazza, were put on the defensive when Padres leadoff hitter Jody Gerut smacked the third pitch of the game over the right-field wall for a home run. With one swing, Gerut recorded the first hit, home run, run and RBI at the new park. An inning later, the Padres scored three more runs to race to a 4-0 lead.
For those counting at home, it took just an inning and a half for Mets fans to lose patience. At the end of the top of the second, Mets fans serenaded Pelfrey with boos.
"That's the way it is here; you can't let it get into your head," Beltran said of the boos. "[The fans] came here to have fun, and that's the way they have fun."
Fans remember this is not a new ballclub, but simply a new ballpark. These are the same old Mets, good and bad. They have a history, and not all of it is good.
"Just because you move 100 yards away, those thoughts about what's happened the last couple of years will still be with the fans," catcher Brian Schneider said.
In many ways, the club that plays at Citi Field will help establish the ballpark's identity, whether it will be a winning place or a losing one. But Citi Field will help define a part of the team. For example, the ball does not seem to carry very well to center field in cooler weather. Both Wright and Beltran hit drives to straight-away center that stopped at the warning track.
Beltran noted there was no wind at the start of the game. Toward the middle innings, Beltran saw that the wind began to circle in the outfield.
In the sixth inning, Padres shortstop Luis Rodriguez hit a drive to right field that befuddled Church. The outfielder scrambled one way and then another, until quite suddenly, the ball tumbled past him for a three-base error. Rodriguez scored the Padres' sixth and decisive run moments later on reliever Pedro Feliciano's balk.
Although Church did not blame the park or the elements, it's hard to imagine the new setting didn't play a part.
"I think it's going to take some time for us to get comfortable here," Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran said. "Maybe it's going to take the whole year to get used to this place."
The Mets, who have a 3-4 record, certainly aren't in any danger yet. It's early in the season, despite what the anxious fans might think. Certainly the fans are demanding, but even they realize this team's potential.
Before the game, the Mets took infield practice, something they did not do very often last year. That action perhaps showed renewed dedication. And had it not been for Church's miscue, the Mets' new-and-improved bullpen would have pitched four scoreless innings in relief of Pelfrey. So perhaps in that there is hope.
The Mets know that even through history's twists and turns, fans always remember winners.
It was less than an hour before game time when Gooden finally made his way to his seat. A door near the ground-floor elevator sprang open, and several police officers escorted Gooden past a crowd of fans. Trailed by an entourage, Gooden smiled as he swiftly passed them.
"Hey, Doc!" one man yelled.
"Good to see you, Doc!" another said.
"We love you, Doc!" yet another barked.
Soon a smile crept onto Gooden's face, which suddenly appeared youthful again. Fans had not seen a disheveled Gooden. Instead, they remembered the history.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.