Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 21, 2014

Anonymous All-Stars For Now, But Perhaps Not Forever

It is two hours until game time. The Metro North express train I boarded a few miles east in Stamford pulls out of the Greenwich station, its only stop before it charges down the tracks to Gotham. As the engine gathers speed, I glance out the window as downtown Greenwich passes by. There is a stone building housing an auto dealership. High on the façade bronze signs announce the makes for sale, “Rolls-Royce” and “Bentley.” Adjacent is a brick building advertising a more contemporary luxury line. The competition next door is a Lexus dealer.

While not every citizen of the leafy Connecticut town drives a luxury sedan, Greenwich is certainly known for its wealth, regularly ranked at or near the top of Money magazine’s listing of locales that are home to America’s top earners. The money that is abundant in the homes passing by my window makes for a standard of living and a lifestyle profoundly different from the one that is common where I am heading. My destination is but 45 miles away, but by measures other than geography it is on another planet.

Only an hour remains until the cry of “play ball!” I am hustling down Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by more symbols of wealth. These are not automobiles but soaring skyscrapers that in their reach for the heavens proclaim the accomplishments of the real estate developers who built them and the businesses that occupy their floors. With the end of the work day at hand the office buildings have disgorged their occupants, who now clog the sidewalks.

It has long been said that on the streets of New York only the tourists look up, while the locals take the vertical majesty of their city for granted. The old adage still holds true, but should be amended to reflect the fact that now almost to a person the newly freed workers on their way home look neither up nor straight ahead. Instead their gaze is down at the miniature screens of smartphones held in their hands. Guided by either instinct or luck, each is lost in a private world of texting and apps. I am in the midst of a great mass of humanity made up of individuals utterly disconnected from one another. Yet I am but a dozen miles from my goal, where I will watch a game built on teamwork.

The 6 train carries me south to Union Square, and from there the N climbs from subterranean depths to cross the East River on the Manhattan Bridge, with its more famous twin named for the borough to which I’m headed spanning the waterway just to the south. The subway goes briefly back underground for a stop or two before emerging again into daylight for the long run of local stops down to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn. At last comes the end of the line, and the train car that had been jammed when I boarded it discharges a final few passengers at Coney Island.

With but minutes to spare I hurry past the garish lights of Luna Park and the neon yellow and green of the original home of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. A sleek new rollercoaster has arisen since my last visit here, set to do battle with the ancient wooden Cyclone two blocks distant. The Thunderbolt’s white support stanchions and orange track occupy a long and narrow lot running from Surf Avenue down to the beach, right next door to my destination. I find my seat behind home plate at MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, just as tonight’s home team takes the field. It’s the South in their blue jerseys preparing to host the red-clad North at the 10th annual All-Star game of the New York-Penn League.

While this All-Star tilt marks a decade of play, the league itself is celebrating its 75th year of continuous operation, making it the oldest Class A league in organized baseball. Founded in 1939 as the Pennsylvania – Ontario – New York League, which was quickly shortened to PONY, the league switched to short-season ball for more than four decades ago. That means the 14 teams are home each year to players just beginning the long and unlikely road to a big league stadium. Many have been selected out of college or even high school by major league clubs in June’s amateur draft. Others, especially from Latin America, have been signed as undrafted free agents. For all of them a chance to play for Brooklyn or Staten Island or for teams from Auburn, Maryland up to Burlington, Vermont is the first time they can call themselves professional ballplayers.

Only a couple of weeks remain in the New York-Penn League season, and tonight nearly 60 of the league’s best prospects have gathered hard by the Atlantic Ocean surf and the bright lights of Coney Island’s amusements to put their promise on display. With a capacity of 7,500, MCU Park is the league’s largest stadium, and tonight an appreciative crowd has nearly filled it. Six members of the Cyclones are on the South squad, and they are accorded special ovations. But this is a league in which every season brings a new roster, so the fans are used to cheering for strangers. They are here to enjoy the atmosphere, the between-inning entertainments, and most of all the surprisingly high level of play.

The game is a pitcher’s duel from the start. The North squad is able to record some hits, but is unable to string enough together to plate a run. Meanwhile the pitchers in the red jerseys are handcuffing the South’s batters, assisted by sparkling defensive play. Then in the top of the 5th the North puts runners on first and second with two outs. Designated hitter Nick Tanielu, a 21-year old taken in the 14th round of the recent draft by the Houston Astros, strides to the plate. Tanielu has already stroked two clean line drive singles to the outfield. This time he hits a soft blooper to short right that just eludes the leap of second baseman Ty McFarland. Bralin Jackson of the Rays’ affiliate in Wappingers Falls, New York, races home with the contest’s first run.

The lead stands up until the bottom of the 7th. That’s when Luis Torrens, an 18-year old playing for the Staten Island Yankees, rips a one-out double into the gap in right-center. It’s just the second hit of the night for the South team. Torrens moves to third on an error and then scores on a sacrifice fly.

The game is slated for nine innings regardless of the score. With every player on both rosters seeing action, it ends as the first tie in the league’s All-Star history. But as an impressive fireworks display gets underway shortly after the last out, no one seems to mind. For the fans it’s been an enjoyable night of good baseball at a very reasonable price. For the players it’s been a chance to call themselves All-Stars.

The working class carnival atmosphere of Coney Island is light years from the wealth of Greenwich, and the teamwork required in baseball is far removed from the lonely crowd in Manhattan. So too the New York-Penn League, while part of the fabric of the Great Game at the professional level, is impossibly distant from the two massive stadiums that sit not so very far away, up in the Bronx and Queens.

More than 1,000 players are taken in the annual amateur draft. All share the same improbable goal, of becoming one of the 750 on big league rosters. Yet as unlikely as it seems, some will make it from this short-season Class A league all the way to the show. Randy Johnson did, along with Kenny Lofton, Robin Yount, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, and Robinson Cano, to name but a few. They were All-Stars one and all, and not just of the New York-Penn League variety.

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Responses

  1. Nice.

    Sent from my iPad

    >


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