IT'S OPENING DAY at Citi Field, and the centerfield grandstands feel like the student section at a college arena. Hundreds of fans in matching orange shirts are standing on their feet, chanting "Let's go Mets" at the top of their lungs while banging thunder sticks together. From the first row, 32-year-old Darren Meenan leads the chorus, voice blaring.
The energy appears spontaneous, but it actually took Meenan four years to coordinate this scene. In fact, this is now part of his job, surely one of the coolest in sports. Flash back to 2009. At the end of another hugely disappointing season, Meenan wore a T-shirt he designed to a Mets game. The front read i survived, which was above a list of the many calamities Mets fans have endured. When fellow diehards commiserated and asked Meenan where he'd bought it; he sensed a business opportunity.
The Queens native had learned how to print T-shirts in a high school art class. So after that 2009 game, he used an old press he bought on eBay and started creating textile tributes to his favorite team, working out of his parents' basement near the ballpark. He named his fledgling operation the 7 Line, after the subway branch to Citi Field, and he designed a few more shirts, making sure not to use the word "Mets" to avoid licensing issues. After Meenan appeared on TV holding a sign with his website, 7 Line shirts began springing up all over the ballpark. "I was seeing people I didn't know wearing them," he says.
Sales picked up, so he relocated his operation to a nearby warehouse and expanded into hats, sunglasses and a 2013 calendar. The former bartender's hobby became a full-time job as revenues climbed: The 7 Line has sold more than 50,000 shirts since 2009 to customers from Astoria to Australia. Meenan still makes every shirt himself, by hand, but has hired a friend to help with mailing.
Both of Meenan's grandfathers worked at Shea Stadium, so he admits, as one of his earlier designs bemoans: "I was Born Into This Mess." But the shirts don't just lament; they also commemorate and celebrate. After former Mets catcher Gary Carter died of brain cancer in 2012, Meenan memorialized the Hall of Famer with a shirt that features a No. 8 with a teardrop. That shirt became one of the line's top sellers after pitcher Johan Santana wore it to a news conference. (Meenan donated all proceeds to the Gary Carter Foundation.) During warmups, other players regularly sport new releases, with slogans like, "The Duda-Bides," a Big Lebowski-inspired play on the name of outfielder Lucas Duda.
Creativity and wit are certainly keys to the customers' hearts. But a few beautiful women don't hurt either. Arguably the most hyped The 7 Line product is its calendar, displaying a different model each month in flattering-fitting T7L shirts. True to the company's "For the fans, by the fans" mantra, the women aren't professionals -- they're fellow Mets fans, self-submitted and then handpicked online by voters. Not shockingly, the players approve: Several players hang the merchandise in their lockers.
Despite his ambitiousness, Meenan has no plans of expanding the brand. For a while, he extended it to the Jets and Knicks, but he backed off pretty quickly. "It really didn't make sense," he says. "The 7 Line is just Mets, and that's all it's ever going to be." He's clear on this final point. In the FAQ section of his website, the final question reads, "Do you sell Yankees shirts?" The answer from Meenan, with no risk of confusion: "No."
Meenan dubbed his newfound fan following the 7 Line Army and organized a group outing last September. He bought out two full sections in centerfield and packaged the tickets with a T-shirt. The Mets office was so impressed, it agreed to sell him all 860 centerfield seats for several 2013 games, including the ones on Opening Day, which sold out within 23 hours.
"It's pretty cool to see them all wearing the same shirts and being loud," says Mets infielder Justin Turner. "They spark some energy into the stadium that wasn't there before."
All by design.