Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2010

Better Than An Iowa Cornfield

As a distinctive means of getting to a game, it’s hard to beat the Staten Island Ferry. I think it’s one of the great tourist attractions in the City, offering as it does a free ride with stunning views of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, the arches of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges spanning the East River in the distance, and of course Lady Liberty.

But I’m not out on this late Friday afternoon for a tour. My destination is the ponderously named Richmond County Bank Ballpark At St. George, which sits adjacent to the ferry terminal on Staten Island. It is home to the Staten Island Yankees, and this is Opening Night for the defending New York – Penn League champions.

The ferry docks and in two minutes I am passing through the right field gate into the park. A single deck of seating runs in an ellipse from foul pole to foul pole, with a dozen or so group suites on either side of the press box above and behind the main seating area. A tad over 7,000 fans will fill the park to capacity, and there are nearly that many here this evening. It may be minor league baseball, but the setting is anything but. For $16, or just slightly more than the price of a bleacher seat at the big Stadium two boroughs to the north, I am directly behind home plate. In truth though with little foul ground and the single deck of seating, there is not a bad seat in the park. Wherever one’s seat the view over the center field fence is stunning. All of New York harbor is spread out before me. In the distance the aforementioned skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan reflect the setting sun. Massive container ships slide by the field, seeming close enough to touch.

The New York – Penn League’s 14 teams play a short season, beginning in mid-June after the parent major league teams have signed their amateur draft picks to contracts and ending in September. Once known as the PONY League, it traces its roots back more than seventy years. In addition to New York and Pennsylvania, teams come from Maryland, Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. This Single A minor league is entry level professional baseball. League rules stipulate that each team’s active roster of thirty players can include no more than three with multiple years of major league service. In reality few if any of the league’s players have spent any time up at The Show. This is a league of young, raw talent, here at the very beginning of a multi-year process of learning their positions, refining their skills, and maturing both their games and their personalities as they hopefully climb the minor league ladder toward an ultimate call-up. While most will never make it, some will, as evidenced by displays around the park showing photos of current and former Yankees in their major league uniforms side by side with pictures of them looking younger and wearing the Staten Island jersey.

So it is no surprise that when the entire rosters of both teams are introduced as part of the pre-game ceremonies, the only name I recognize is that of Wally Backman, the manager for tonight’s opponent, the Brooklyn Cyclones. Backman spent a decade and a half as a major league second basemen, most productively with the New York Mets. Now he is back with the Mets organization, starting his first season as manager of the Cyclones. Yes, even as the Yankees and Mets begin the second installment of their annual interleague Subway Series this evening up in the Bronx, here on Staten Island the Single A representatives of the two organizations will square off.

But here the game is not really about impassioned rivalries. It is about a great American sport played in front of local fans that know and love the game, and it is certainly about family entertainment. With affordable ticket and concession prices it’s no surprise that family groups make up most of the 7,000 on hand.

This being opening night, the pre-game festivities include the raising of the championship banner from the previous season. The borough President is on hand for the occasion, brought onto the field by the Staten Island Hogs, a local motorcycle club. The choppers make their noisy way around the warning track to the delight of young and old alike. Once play begins, between each half-inning two local radio personalities run onto foul ground, joined by three workers wearing oversized cartoon animal costumes that are the team’s mascots. They bring a few fans with them to stage a brief skit or game. Some are funny, most are corny, and all are simple and pure entertainments. As for the mascots, my personal favorite is Phil the Holy Cow, an amusing play on the name and favorite expression of long-time Yankee shortstop and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto.

The game itself is entertaining as well. While these young men are still far from ready for the majors, they are deadly serious about their work. Staten Island strikes first with three in the bottom of the first. But Brooklyn eventually comes back with two runs in the third and then three more in the sixth. Tonight it is the visitors turn to prevail. But whatever disappointment the crowd feels about the result is quickly assuaged by the fact that this is a Friday night game, meaning that win or lose the contest is immediately followed by an impressive fireworks display.

As the ferry takes me back to the glittering lights of Manhattan, I know that tomorrow afternoon I will be back in my seat at The Stadium, watching the Great Game at its highest level. But that level could not exist without all of the minor league structure beneath it. From my home in New Hampshire, in less than an hour’s drive I can see the Spinners in Lowell, the Fisher Cats in Manchester, or the Sea Dogs in Portland. Drive a bit longer and the Pawtucket Red Sox come into view, at AAA just one small step below the majors. On this Friday evening at little ballparks all across the land, young men work hard to earn that first chance, and somewhat older ones work just as hard for one last chance. As I said earlier, most will not get it. But “most” is not “all.” Tomorrow at The Stadium I will see Robinson Cano. In the midst of an outstanding year both offensively and defensively, he leads the balloting for AL second basemen by almost 2-1, and is virtually certain to earn his second All-Star berth. He’s certainly not old at just 27, but my didn’t he look so very young wearing his Staten Island jersey in that 2002 picture I saw earlier this evening. It was right there on the wall at a real life field of dreams.

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Responses

  1. Wow, I’d love to see a game at this stadium. I used to live in Maine, and attended many SeaDogs games. Back in 1995, I went on a minor league baseball roadtrip, and visited the ballparks in Pawtucket (McCoy Stadium, Red Sox), Norwich, CT (Navigators) and New Britain, CT (Beehive Field, the Hardware City Rock Cats.) Here in Greenville, SC, another Single A affiliate of the Red Sox play at Fluor Field, a beautiful little park with its own Green Monster.
    I love minor league baseball, and I appreciate your excellent post educating me about yet another great place to see pro ball played at an affordable price.
    Nice work, Bill (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate your memories and have been to some, but by no means all of those places. Having said that, the Staten Island park, with its view of the Big City, is the most amazing minor league place I’ve ever been to, for sure!

      Thanks again,

      Michael

      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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