Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 4, 2013

Down By The Boardwalk, Dreaming Of The Show

Four different subway lines make the transit from Midtown Manhattan to the southernmost reaches of neighboring Brooklyn. But if one is going all the way to the end of the line it matters little what letter is on the side of the train one boards. All four make local stops in Brooklyn, so in every case it’s a long trip.

On this early evening the Q Train emerges from below ground just in time to make the slow climb up onto the Manhattan Bridge for the trip over the East River. Yellow cabs share the crossing to the left, while out the window to the right the older and more famous Brooklyn Bridge sits in the middle distance. Descending off the river crossing the train returns to subterranean depths for its first two stops, the second of which is beneath the Barclays Center. The great rust-colored arena, current home of the NBA’s Nets and future residence of the NHL’s Islanders, is the latest symbol of the rebirth and economic growth of a once downtrodden but always fiercely proud borough.

Now the Q comes above ground again for its long winding run to the sea. Passengers come and go at station after station and as the distance from Manhattan increases the height of the buildings moves in inverse fashion. High-rise structures give way to four and six story apartment buildings, which in turn yield to orderly rows of brownstones and leafy neighborhoods of single family homes. At last the train makes a sweeping right turn and high-rise condos reappear through the windows on the car’s left side. In the gaps between them one can glimpse the blue Atlantic. For its final few stops the Q parallels the beach before pulling into the last station, where all remaining passengers must disembark. The long journey to Coney Island is complete.

If the Barclays Center represents a new era for Brooklyn, then surely the subway has carried me back in time. As it pulled into the station the train rolled past the Cyclone, the great ancient wooden roller coaster that still stands as the symbol of this seaside playground. Directly across the street from the station is the brightly lit home of Nathan’s Famous. Multiple lines of hungry customers snake out onto the sidewalk, waiting their turn to purchase hot dogs and crinkle cut French Fries. Around the corner workmen put the finishing touches on elaborate staging. At noon on the 4th thousands will gather and ESPN cameras will roll for the benefit of millions more, all eager to see which of twenty competitors can devour the most hot dogs in ten minutes time.

I pass on the franks for this evening, for my destination is a short two blocks further down Surf Avenue. Here at last is MCU Park, the 7,500 seat home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Short-Season Single-A minor league affiliate of the New York Mets. All across the land there are hundreds of similar little real-life fields of dreams; but few have a location quite like the Cyclones’ park. From my seat behind home plate the roller coaster that gives the team its name is visible over the left field fence. Past the batter’s black in center field stands the giant Wonder Wheel ferris wheel, and the glimmering lights of all the other rides in Deno’s Amusement Park and neighboring Luna Park. The Coney Island boardwalk divides the midway from the wide expanse of sandy beach, and winds its way down past the right field grandstand. Just beyond the right field foul pole, seemingly close enough to touch, the steel framework of the old Parachute Jump reaches 250 feet into the sky. Though the ride has been closed for decades the elegant structure, once called the “Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn,” is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Throughout tonight’s game multi-colored lights will dance up and down the tower, often in seeming rhythm with the music blaring over the loudspeakers between innings.

The crowds were thick along the sidewalks as I made my way from the subway station, and the stands stretching from one foul pole to the other are full this evening. Coney Island, like much of the area, is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. It is as if local residents are determined to display their resilience on this steamy summer night. MCU Park itself was scarred by the storm, the field flooded and sod destroyed by the onslaught of the sea. So in a rare sight for the minor leagues the park now boasts an artificial turf surface. The only dirt on the field is in the circle around home plate and on the pitcher’s mound, with everything else appropriately painted synthetic.

Tonight’s contest is an inter-borough affair, a minor league version of a Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees. The Staten Island Yankees have made the bus trip over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that serves as the gateway to New York harbor. The Baby Bombers and the Cyclones are two of the fourteen teams that comprise the New York-Penn League. In the twelve years that both teams have been in existence they have accounted for eleven McNamara Division titles and six league championships. That mutual success has come despite constant player turnover. In part that’s the nature of minor league ball, where every player is hoping to move on to the next higher rung on the ladder of success, with an eventual call to the big leagues the shared dream of every player in every little ball park. But it is especially true in an entry-level league like the New York-Penn. The teams play a short season because rosters are not set until after MLB holds its First-Year Player Draft in early June. Less than a month ago most of the players who take the field tonight were wearing college or even high school uniforms. At the first sign of sustained success they will win their first promotion in a long and uncertain journey to Citi Field or the big Stadium in the Bronx.

But player turnover does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the fans. On this night on Coney Island the Cyclones’ fans cheer on their team with unfeigned enthusiasm. MCU Park is the largest stadium in the New York-Penn League, and 7,500 throats can make some noise. Though they need no encouragement, they are urged on by the public address announcer. Between innings the crowd is entertained by the Beach Bums, an all-woman dance troupe; and by the team’s official mascot Sandy the Seagull, named for the legendary left-hander Sandy Koufax of Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers’ fame. Several times young fans are brought onto the field to try their hand at various games and races; while between other innings the Beach Bums toss logoed T-shirts into the stands. It is an evening of innocent family fun that is both dramatically less expensive and of a fundamentally different nature than the experience of a big league game.

The contest itself is a taut pitchers’ duel. Through five innings each team manages but a pair of base hits. Finally in the home half of the 6th a bunt single and a walk put two Cyclones on base with no outs. Then Staten Island pitcher Caleb Smith starts a move toward first before thinking better of the pickoff attempt. The field umpire immediately calls a balk, and the runners move into scoring position. One out later Brooklyn left fielder Jared King lifts a fly ball to center, and shortstop Juan Carlos Gamboa just beats the throw home to score on the sacrifice fly.

Staten Island knots the game at one in the very next inning. Designated hitter Kale Sumner leads off with a double and scores on a throwing error two batters later. The score remains tied through the regulation nine, and as the game goes to extra innings the P.A. announcer declares “free baseball!” Staten Island is set down in order in the top of the 10th, but with one out in the home half Patrick Biondi walks and Gamboa doubles to right. The crowd is roaring as 22-year old L.J. Mazzilli comes to the plate. Taken by the Mets in the fourth round of the recent draft, the University of Connecticut product is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father, who called Shea Stadium home for all or part of eleven seasons during a 14-year big league career. But with first base open and only one out, the son will have no chance to play hero on this evening. After the intentional walk to Mazzilli, the fourth Staten Island pitcher of the game is brought in to face first baseman Matt Oberste. Having just traded in his University of Oklahoma uniform for a Cyclones’ jersey, Oberste brings the night to an ecstatic conclusion as he lifts a fly ball deep enough to left field to ensure that Biondi has time to race home with the winning run.

With the victory complete the happy crowd settles in for a free fireworks show. The night sky lights up even as I make my way back onto the sidewalk, past the still-bustling Nathan’s and towards the subway station. From the platform I watch the show’s brilliant conclusion before stepping aboard a D Train for the ride back to Midtown. While MCU Park and Richmond County Bank Ballpark over on Staten Island are the physically closest fields to their parent clubs’ homes in Queens and the Bronx, they are the furthest possible distance away within the hierarchy of the Great Game. Most of the young men I have watched tonight will never get called up to the Show.  They will only ever get into a big league ballpark the same way I do; by buying a ticket. Most, but not all. The Yankees’ star second baseman Robinson Cano began his career in Staten Island; and the Mets’ Dillon Gee, who will pitch seven strong innings at Citi Field the afternoon after my trip to Coney Island, is one of four former Cyclones to have his number honored with a plaque in front of MCU Park’s press box. Like the chances of success, the ballparks are small. But every season, for a few young men, the dream of a big league career still comes true.  Because of that truth, in the mind of every player I watched tonight, the dream lives on.

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Responses

  1. That’s some serious writing, my friend. You leave me jealous and virtually speechless. (But I could hear the theme-song from the movie “The Warriors” in my head as I read the post.)
    -Bill

    • Thanks so much Bill. It’s the same game, as you know, but just a whole different vibe down in the minors. I think that’s especially true at the lower levels.

      Thanks again,
      Mike

  2. Reblogged this on The On Deck Circle and commented:
    This is some serious writing, my friends. Enjoy.


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