- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - Citi Field was nearly empty when New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel popped out of the dugout and strolled toward the first-base line.

A light mist was falling on the white tarp covering the infield, yet Manuel stood in one spot and soaked in the new place as it glistened in the rain. All those dark green seats hugging the warning track, the crooked angles of the outfield fence.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Manuel said with a wide grin.

About 90 minutes later, the Mets opened their $800 million ballpark with an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox. Carlos Beltran hit an RBI single, new closer Francisco Rodriguez earned a save and New York rewarded its soggy fans with a rain-delayed 4-3 victory Friday night.

Manuel and several players came away talking about the spacious gaps in the outfield. It’s 415 feet to the fence in right-center and 384 to left-center. New York’s Fernando Tatis hit a double off the high, padded wall in left-center, a drive that would’ve gone out of Shea Stadium.

“We’re going to have to pay a lot more attention to our defensive alignments,” Manuel said, adding that the Mets might need to bunch their outfielders. “Once the ball hits in that gap, it’s almost like an automatic triple.”

There are nooks and crannies to navigate as well.

With little room in foul territory, Mets second baseman Luis Castillo tumbled over a short fence after chasing a popup down the right-field line. The ball glanced off his outstretched glove and went for a first-inning double.

“Everybody knew they wanted a pitcher-friendly ballpark,” New York third baseman David Wright said. “Who knows? I think the bigger the field plays, the more it is to our advantage.”

An enthusiastic crowd of 37,652, almost certainly diminished by the weather, turned out for the Mets’ first game since moving out of dingy Shea Stadium, their home from 1964-2008.

New York also made a splash away from the field, agreeing to a contract with 40-year-old slugger Gary Sheffield three days after he was released by Detroit. The outspoken Sheffield is expected in New York on Saturday and the deal is contingent on him passing a physical, general manager Omar Minaya said.

Play was halted by rain for 67 minutes in the sixth inning, sending most of the crowd home. When the game resumed, every regular had been pulled.

But that didn’t spoil the party.

Fans filed in through the grand Jackie Robinson Rotunda and wandered throughout the cozy ballpark, checking out the various eateries, vast concourses and roomy seats.

Citi Field was designed to be an intimate venue that invokes the warmth of Ebbets Field, beloved home of the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1957.

“Everything was as good as advertised and better,” Wright said. “I think this is good for us mentally, too. You get a clean slate.”

The new place seats 42,000, down from about 57,000 at big Shea.

“It feels like you’re almost on vacation, in another town,” 57-year-old Gary Gardiner of Massapequa said as he watched from the pedestrian bridge in right-center field. “Just hanging out and watching over here. It’s nice.”

The asymmetrical dimensions at Citi Field are a major change from Shea. The outfield walls change height seven times, and a section of right-field stands hangs over the lower deck, with the porch extending 8 feet into the field of play.

Because of the rain, neither team was able to take batting or fielding practice outdoors.

“It’s definitely big, as far as the hitters are concerned,” Red Sox slugger Jason Bay said.

In the late innings, the Mets played this one as though it mattered. They showed off their revamped bullpen, with J.J. Putz allowing a run in the eighth before Rodriguez worked a perfect ninth.

“It feels awesome out there,” said K-Rod, who received a loud ovation from the remaining fans. “I feel comfortable in my new house, and hopefully we can get it done.”

No. 5 starter Livan Hernandez was sharp, yielding only a bloop double and two walks in three scoreless innings. He struck out three.

All in all, not a bad test run.

The Mets begin the season with a six-game road trip before returning to Citi Field for their home opener April 13 against San Diego.

“It looks gorgeous,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “I think it’s stating the obvious, when it’s a level above Shea.”

Across town, the Yankees also played their first game in a new ballpark, drawing 48,402 to their $1.5 billion palace for a 7-4 exhibition win over the Chicago Cubs.

Notes:@ Red Sox starter Jon Lester struggled with his command, walking five in four innings. He allowed one run and three hits, throwing 83 pitches. … Boston 1B Kevin Youkilis was scratched from the lineup because he wasn’t feeling well. … Francona said RHP Brad Penny is slated to go back to Florida to pitch in a camp game Tuesday as a tuneup for his first scheduled regular-season start next weekend at the Los Angeles Angels. … The teams play again here Saturday. Tickets for both exhibitions ranged from $6 to $50, a deep discount from regular-season seats that top out at $695.

___

AP Sports Writer Howie Rumberg and Associated Press Writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report.

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