The last time I was at Citi Field, it was July 22, 2017. The Mets were taking on the Oakland Athletics and it was Thor Bobblehead Day. It was over 90 degrees and I lathered on the sunscreen to make sure my pale skin did not fry in the sunlight while waiting close to two hours to get the coveted bobblehead.
The game itself became exciting when the Mets rallied from a 5-0 deficit and Wilmer Flores walked it off in the ninth with a home run. It rained, but I drank it all in. It felt good after sweltering in my seat for hours. It had rained earlier during the game, too, but it only served to create a palpable mugginess within the Citi Field walls. I didn’t care. The Mets won in dramatic fashion, I secured a Thor bobble, and I got to see both Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda in person as Mets one last time. Life was good, for that day at least.
Fast forward to January 1, 2018. Citi Field had undergone a dramatic transformation, and fans were again arriving in droves, but this time the typical blue and orange attire was replaced by blue and red and, in some cases, blue and gold. Long gone were the 90 degree temperatures and they were now replaced by temperatures in the teens but feeling so much colder.
yo it is COLD#WinterClassic pic.twitter.com/FzXRmRLEAP— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) January 1, 2018
The Jackie Robinson rotunda also underwent a change. It now featured the Rangers and Sabres logos, and the usual Mets banners on the lightposts surrounding the area held Winter Classic banners. The parking lot closest to the rotunda had been transformed into a fan fest area. We just briefly did a lap of the area, sneaked a quick picture of the Stanley Cup and Rangers great Rod Gilbert, and got out as the wind started to pick up.
Yes, it was cold. I had five layers of clothing on top to go along with a hat, scarf, mittens, two pairs of fuzzy socks, Ugg boots, hand and foot warmers, and a big, pink, fuzzy Mets blanket. I was ready to brave the cold, or so I thought.
Once inside the transformation of Citi was complete. The “Let’s Go Mets” chant was replaced by “Let’s Go Rangers,” skates replaced cleats, hockey sticks replaced bats, and dirt and grass became ice. The atmosphere, however, remained the same. Fans were in good spirits despite the cold, and the same excitement and frenzy I felt in 2015 after the Mets finished the sweep of the Nationals at the end of July, was once again reverberating around the stadium. It was nice to see Citi Field so alive again especially after the disappointing finish to 2017.
Buffalo was technically the home team but that was never directly acknowledged. The overall feel was more New York-esque than Buffalo. The outfield was made to look like a city street complete with old timey taxis. During the teams’ introductions, Ace Frehley rocked “New York Groove” while wearing a Rangers jersey. Fire and fireworks were shot off which was effective in ramping up the energy level in stadium.
After the introductions, a children’s choir made up of children all born in 2008 - the year of the first Winter Classic - sang the National Anthem, replete with more fireworks, and finished off with a live eagle flying over the crowd, and a flyover over the stadium.
Time to start the game. There must have been microphones near the ice because you could clearly hear every shot, every skate blade flying down the ice, and every hit along the boards echo throughout the stadium. At one point one unhappy player’s curses were also heard by everyone in the stadium. Seeing the game up close is incredible. My seats were down the third base line and I never realized just how big and fast some of the players actually are.
I’ll admit it. I was annoyed fourth-liner Paul Carey was granted the honor of having David Wright’s locker. Not Ryan McDonagh the Rangers’ captain. Not Kevin Shattenkirk the local kid and Mets fan. Not even Rick Nash, Marc Staal, or Mats Zuccarello the alternate captains. Even the Tampa Bay Rays realized the significance of the locker and gave it to Evan Longoria. So who should score the first goal of the 2018 Winter Classic? Fourth-liner Paul Carey. The goal horn sounded. The crowd erupted. The Rangers’ goal song was sung and the cold was forgotten.
Just before the halfway point in the first period Michael Grabner gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead on a gorgeous pass from Kevin Hayes. Once again the goal horn sounded. It is the natural order of things for anyone who has been to a Rangers game at MSG, but this was not MSG. The Rangers were not even the home team yet once again the stadium erupted for the goal song.
HEY HEY HEY! The #NYR goal song sounds great at the #WinterClassic! #NYRClassic pic.twitter.com/XkMyhR81ea— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) January 1, 2018
Goo Goo Dolls performed at the first intermission and were ok. They did not rock like Ace Frehley, but most of the crowd took the opportunity to warm up in the bathrooms, or get up and get the blood circulating through the extremities again. I had bought a hot chocolate in a novelty cup and at that point chocolate ice crystals had formed around the lid.
The most popular vendor was not the beer guy but instead the hand warmer guy. He ran out of his wares quickly and when leaving the stadium the hand warmer wrappers littered the aisles.
In the second period the Rangers started taking penalties and Buffalo scored to cut the lead 2-1. They played the Buffalo goal song for the Buffalo fans so in that way there was no true home team since both teams were honored when they scored. The Sabres fans were noticeable but not obnoxious. They were there to see their team and cheer them on but not overly so.
Buffalo scored in the opening seconds of the third period and we had a tie game. The crowd got noticeably tense but also appreciated Henrik Lundqvist’s efforts to keep the score where it was. “Hen-rik” chants were heard multiple times throughout the game and especially in the third.
Alex Anthony, the Mets longtime Public Address speaker, was here again to handle all announcements. He informed the crowd to stay in their seats as there would be no intermission between the third period and overtime, which was where this game was now headed.
About halfway through the five-minute overtime, Buffalo was called for a penalty and the Rangers received the man advantage. Everyone in my section was on its feet and a buzz went up through the crowd in anticipation of what was to come. Mets’ fan Kevin Shattenkirk took the shot that set up the rebound for J.T. Miller to slam home for the overtime winner, or essentially, a walkoff.
The 41,821 frozen souls watching let out a collective a roar which was enough to give a person goosebumps that had nothing to do with the cold.
Even the NBC commentators went quiet and let the crowd noise capture the moment.
J.T. Miller wins the #WinterClassic thriller!!! #NYR #NYRClassic pic.twitter.com/2tH3f96I0a— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) January 1, 2018
The pink blob to left of Mats Zuccarello’s hand is me as a pink Mets burrito in my blanket.
I was frozen. I was exhilarated. I was so happy I went and proud that Citi Field shined on the big stage. A snippet of conversation I heard leaving the stadium was between two men who said “You know this is actually a really nice stadium.”
Yes it is. It is home. It has an atmosphere unlike any other when a collective joy erupts from the crowd. Citi Field witnessed an amazing start to 2018 -well for Rangers fans at least. I can only hope that same feeling can be repeated when the boys of summer take the field for another season of Mets baseball.