Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2022

Chasing A Dream, Down By The Sea

Two hundred years ago, when its current name was first used, Coney Island was, in fact, an island.  Centuries earlier, when the Lenape, the Indigenous people that were the area’s first human inhabitants called this corner of the future Gotham “Narrioch,” it was a series of smaller islets that together formed an outer barrier along the southern edge of what modern New Yorkers know as Long Island.  The local geography shifted and changed with the weather, the tides, and the seasons, until eventually man, as is his wont, decided he knew best.  Even as the beach became a vacation destination for Manhattan city dwellers, inlets and tidal pools were filled in, and in time a major landfill project turned the island that nature had formed from smaller islets into a man-made peninsula firmly attached to the rest of Brooklyn.  Even in recent decades the human management of the area hasn’t slowed down.  Jetties and seawalls control the area’s current shape, but also require the beach to be occasionally replenished with deposits of sand hauled in from afar rather than washed up naturally.

Changing seascape into landscape ended the need for the ferry service that was once the main access to the increasingly popular oceanfront destination.  In its place, Coney Island became the terminus of one of New York’s early subway lines, running on tracks originally laid down for a predecessor steam railroad.  Today, Coney Island – Stilwell Avenue station, with its eight elevated tracks, remains the southern endpoint of the D, F, N, and Q lines.

From the first warm days of spring to the arrival of autumn’s chill, passengers head down the ramps from the train platforms and out the station’s doors.  Just across the street lie the reasons most of them boarded the subway up the line in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, or Queens.  There to the right is the home of Nathan’s famous hot dogs and site of the company’s annual eating contest, while to the left is the venerable Cyclone, one of the country’s oldest wooden roller coasters still in operation.  Dead ahead are Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, both crammed with rides and games.  In the adjacent blocks are several other stand-alone thrill rides, and on the other side of all those entertainment options is broad Riegelmann Boardwalk, which fronts the even wider beach for more than two-and-a-half miles.

In the nearly two centuries since the first hotel was built, Coney Island’s fortunes have waxed and waned.  There have been periods when it was an enormously popular destination.  Through the first half of the 20th century, long before Disney, it was the largest amusement area in the country.  But there have also been times when it was overrun by gangs as in the 1870s or fell into disrepair and decline as in the late 1960s.  The current popularity of Coney Island can be traced to major redevelopment efforts that began somewhat fitfully in the early 2000s, accelerated ten to fifteen years ago, and redoubled after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in October 2012.

One element of that revival’s first phase was a minor league ballpark, built between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk on the western edge of the amusement district.  It opened in 2001 as Keystone Park, with the naming rights transferred over the years from the energy company to a local credit union in 2010 and then to Maimonides Medical Center, a non-profit Brooklyn hospital, just last year.  Through the name changes the 7,000 seat, city-owned Maimonides Park has been home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the big league club that plays less than fourteen miles away as the crow flies, at Citi Field in Queens.  The Cyclones franchise originated fifteen years earlier than, and in a different country from, the team’s current ballpark.  The St. Catharines Blue Jays were a Toronto farm club, eventually moving to New York in 2000 to play for a year in Queens, the team’s final season of affiliation with the Blue Jays.  The following spring the franchise opened its new home, with a local major league affiliation and a name drawn from the iconic roller coaster which can be seen in the distance out beyond left field.  From the club’s founding in Ontario through 2020, Brooklyn played in the Single-A short season New York-Penn League, which had brought professional baseball to small cities throughout the northeast since 1939. 

But a rich history was of no value when MLB flexed its might and took over Minor League Baseball in 2020.  Forty minor league teams lost affiliations with big league clubs as MLB pared its farm system back to four teams per franchise, one each at the Low-A, High-A, AA, and AAA level.  Just three of the fourteen New York-Penn League clubs were offered MLB ties, with the Aberdeen Ironbirds (Orioles) and Hudson Valley Renegades (Yankees) joining Brooklyn as High-A affiliates in the reconstituted South Atlantic League.  Some of the less fortunate New York-Penn League franchises continue to play in independent or collegiate leagues, while others, like the old league of which they were a part, folded.

Those changes mean that Brooklyn’s natural rivalry with the Yankees’ affiliate in Staten Island, where the ballpark sits next to the ferry terminal with New York harbor and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as an outfield backdrop, is no more.  But last weekend, Hudson Valley, formerly tied to Tampa Bay but now the High-A squad for the Bronx Bombers, traveled down from its home turf sixty miles north of Gotham in Fishkill, New York, to renew the Mets versus Yankees competition at the compact little park that now looks out not just at the old Cyclone in the distance, but also at the new Thunderbolt right beyond the outfield wall, and at a half dozen other roller coasters between the two.

It was steamy in Manhattan, at the other end of a long subway ride, but an ocean breeze made for a pleasant Sunday afternoon at Maimonides Park as the two clubs played a double header.  About a third of the crowd arrived in time to score a free Brooklyn Cyclones beach towel, given away to the first 1,000 fans through the turnstiles.  For the price of one admission, everyone got to watch not one, but two games of professional baseball at the field of dreams level.  For the record, the home team swept both ends of the twin bill, but the most memorable aspect of the afternoon was the salutary effect of the pitch clock.  While the games were limited to seven innings by the silly double header rules, both proceeded crisply, with the second contest, a pitchers duel eventually won 3-1 by Brooklyn, taking a tidy hour and twenty-four minutes from first pitch to final out.  The sooner the pitch clock migrates to the majors, the better.

Most of the young men on the field will only set foot in a major league stadium the same way the folks clutching their beach towels in the stands do, by buying a ticket.  But for a season, or two, or five, at this level, and for some, further up the minor league chain, they get to pursue a lifelong dream.  And maybe, just maybe, someone who on this day was known only by the number on his back will one day have his name shouted by thousands of adoring fans.  However long the odds, they have been given the chance, and so would be foolish not to try.  Like the rubes who partake of the various midway games packed in among the roller coasters and rides visible beyond the outfield wall, most will fail.  But occasionally, somebody goes home with one of the big stuffed animals from the top shelf of prizes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: