Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 1, 2012

A Million Dollar View And A Roster Full Of Dreams

On a steamy early summer evening in Gotham, a trip on the Staten Island Ferry provides some respite. Out on the water the heat relents a few degrees, and as the ferry churns across New York harbor, the breeze even offers up the occasional hint of the water’s chill. But I am not riding the city’s best free tourist attraction for relief from the heat, nor for the close-up view of Lady Liberty. As the towers of lower Manhattan recede my destination gradually comes into view; Richmond County Bank Ballpark, home of the Staten Island Yankees.

These Yankees play in the New York-Penn League, a short-season Class A minor league that begins play in mid-June, after the annual amateur draft, and wraps things up by early September. I am old enough to remember when it was called the PONY League, an acronym that reflected the fact that all of its teams were based in Pennsylvania, Ontario, or New York. These days the league’s fourteen teams are scattered across seven northeastern and Midwestern states. It is the entry level of the professional game. Of the thirty active players on each squad’s roster, no more than three can have as much as four years of minor league experience. Yet despite the fact that the roster is almost certain to be new every year, the residents of the city’s most remote borough love their Baby Bombers, who arrived on the island in 1999. Attendance has topped 200,000 each of the past two seasons, or nearly 5,500 for each of 38 home games. That’s more than the capacity of a majority of the league’s ballparks.

The Staten Island Yankees’ home sits right beside the ferry terminal at St. Georges, and I am by no means the only fan who arrives at the game by way of the big orange water taxis. Less than five minutes after stepping off the ferry I am in my seat in the fourth row along the third base line, right behind the home dugout. It’s a modern and comfortable facility, with a single deck of nearly 7,000 seats ringing the field from foul pole to foul pole. Above, on either side of the press box behind home plate and above the main concourse, a suite level offers eighteen private boxes for groups as large as twenty fans. There’s a picnic area by the right field foul pole, and a kid’s play area in the same area down the left field line. But what truly sets this ballpark apart is its setting. There are more than 240 little fields in the network of leagues that make up MLB’s official farm system. They are old and new, situated in small towns and big cities, scattered across North America and on down into Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican. They knit together different regions, different languages, and different ways of life with a common love for the Great Game. But only here on Staten Island, hard by the ferry terminal, does one look out on the diamond and see, between the scoreboard in left field and the flag poles in right, the skyline of New York.

Through the early innings of tonight’s game, the skyscrapers in the distance reflect the glow of the setting sun. Rising above all the others now is the new construction of One World Trade Center, which surpassed the Empire State Building as the tallest in the city just two months ago. Even as construction continues on its upper reaches, fully two-thirds of the giant is now sheathed in glass, and its western side glows like a searchlight. Meanwhile the giant orange ferries beat their regular path between the two boroughs, and massive container ships slide silently across the harbor. It is an optical illusion, but some seem close enough to reach out and touch.

Of course, I have not come merely to admire the view. For little more than the price of a beer at any big league park, I have a close-up view of the action as young men wearing the pinstriped uniforms of Staten Island and the road grays of the Hudson Valley Renegades pursue their common dream. The Renegades are an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and after making the two-hour drive down from their home in the village of Wappingers Falls, they quickly draw first blood. They begin the game with a walk and a double, plating a run before recording an out. The Yankees make two fielding errors and catcher Isaias Tejeda allows two passed balls. By the time the top of the first is over, Hudson Valley leads 4-0.

The Renegades tack on another run in the second off Staten Island starter Gabriel Encinas, and it is not until the 4th inning that the Yankees muster some offense. Twenty-year old center fielder Ravel Santana strikes out to open the frame, but the ball gets away from the catcher and rolls all the way to the backstop. Santana races safely to first on the passed ball. Staten Island catcher Tejeda then atones for his own 1st inning miscues behind the plate with a hard double to left. One out later third baseman Matt Duran, the youngest player on the Staten Island roster having just turned nineteen, lifts a sacrifice fly to right field. Santana scores to put the Yankees on the board as the right fielder tries to gun down Tejeda, who is running to third. Instead the ball gets by the third baseman and bounds into the Staten Island dugout. Tejeda is waved home to make the score 5-2.

In the end the home team will play from behind all night long and never be able to catch up. But that doesn’t stop the enthusiastic crowd from cheering on their local heroes. The fans also delight in a series of skits and games performed between innings by the team’s cheerleading squad; nine young men and women clad in red jumpsuits who call themselves the Pinstripe Patrol. With the home team coming to bat for the final time in the bottom of the 9th the Patrol members exhort the crowd one last time, and the fans respond with an enthusiasm that belies the reality of the scoreboard, which reads 8-4 in favor of the visitors. Families that have been largely priced out of major league stadiums are enjoying the action, regardless of the final outcome. Responding to the cheers, Staten Island batters open the final frame with three straight hits; but while that narrows the score to 8-5 the rally then stalls.

No one is leaving after the final out, because this is a Friday night and after every weekend game the team puts on an impressive fireworks display. In the few minutes of waiting for the rockets to launch just beyond the center field fence, the skyscrapers in the distance offer their own display, thousands of glittering, glimmering lights.

Not long after the last rocket explodes over center field, the ferry churns through the now-dark waters of the harbor, taking me back to Manhattan. Most of the players who I saw tonight, indeed perhaps every single one of them, will never enter a major league park but in the same manner that I do; by buying a ticket. It is two boroughs and a million dashed hopes from the little field of dreams on Staten Island to the big Stadium in the Bronx. Most youthful dreams ultimately yield to a harsher and less romantic reality. But as the ferry prepares to dock what had been a vague glitter of light from the distance resolves into thousands of windows in scores of buildings that serve to remind one that we humans dream greatly, even daring to build structures that challenge the sky. The lit windows in the towering buildings are a reminder that some dreams come true. On the same night that I have traveled to Richmond County Bank Ballpark, 24-year old Adam Warren was the starting pitcher for the Yankees in the Bronx. Called up from AAA to fill in for the injured CC Sabathia, Warren began his professional career in 2009 on the mound of the ballpark next door to the ferry terminal. He is the 42nd Staten Island alumnus to make it to the show; and while most may not, one thing that is certain is that he will not be the last. Dare to dream, Baby Bombers.

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