PLAY BALL: A LOOK AT CONEY ISLAND’S PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL TEAM, THE BROOKLYN CYCLONES

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We are at MCU Park* in Coney Island, my wife and daughter and I, where the hottest days turn into the coolest nights thanks to the breeze drifting in from the sea. The hometown Brooklyn Cyclones–named after the landmark Coney Island roller-coaster–are playing their inter-borough rivals, the Staten Island Yankees.  We sit far down the left field line, past third base, only a couple of rows from the field. So close that when a ball is hit our way, I’m tempted to reach out and snag it myself.  The field is green, clean, immaculate.  It used to be grass, but now–in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which damaged the ballpark considerably–it’s artificial. It still looks great, though. It still looks real.

We’re in the bottom of the third, no score, and each team has had only one hit.  A pitcher’s duel, they’re probably calling it, high above us in the TV/radio booth up on the press box level.  We’re used to seeing
low-scoring games here.  Our team has always been strong on pitching, weak on hitting,

The Cyclones finally break through.  First and second, nobody out.  The Yankee pitcher balks; a cheer goes up as the runners advance to second and third.  Pre-recorded announcements blaring from the loudspeakers urge us to clap, cheer, even scream.  My daughter–she’s eleven–elbows me in the ribs and starts a “Let’s go, Cyclones” chant.  I oblige and join in.  So does my wife.  We chant and clap and chant some more. Soon, the fams around us are followng suit.  “Let’s go, Cyclones…Clap! Clap! Clap-clap-clap!”

Big league teams don’t have cheerleaders but the Cyclones do, and now they’re on top of both dugouts, pretty girls in short skirts and tight tops dancing and waving their pom-poms.

The Cyclones’ batter hits a fly ball, the Yankee centerfielder catches it, uncorks a long throw to home plate to try to nail the runner from third, and…safe! It goes down as a sacrifice fly, and our side is winning, 1-0.

We don’t score again for the rest of the inning, but at least we’re ahead.  Between innings, I climb up to the concourse level to buy my daughter some ice cream.  Down below, King Henry–a local entertainer in a big red-and-white suit that reminds me of Santa, with a funny little crown on his head–is introducing a kid he’s plucked from the stands to participate in a ball-toss game: if the kid hits the target he wins two hundred dollars, courtesy of a neighborhood bank.  (All the kid-oriented, between-inning games are sponsored by local businesses.) The boy’s arm, unfortunately, isn’t quite up to snuff,   and after a “Good job!” and a handshake from the perpetually cheery Henry, he’s sent off to join his mom and dad, smiling and taking pictures nearby,

The Brooklyn Cyclones play in the New York-Penn League.  Like most teams in the minors, the Cyclones are affiliated with a big league club: the New York Mets.  (Staten Island, of course, is affiliated with the Yankees.)

When the Cyclones and Yankees joined the league together in 2001, the Cyclones became Brooklyn’s first professional sports team since the Dodgers fled to Los Angeles in 1958.  They were an instant success, drawing seven or eight thousand fans per game, from Brooklyn and beyond.
Their first season–in which they squared off against the Williamsport Crosscutters for the championship–was arguably their best,  After 9-11, however, with Brooklyn leading the series one game to none, the rest of the games were cancelled, and the two teams were declared co-champions.

Since then, like all sports teams, they’ve had their ups and downs: the playoffs in some seasons (eight, to be exact), nothing in others.

More than one big leaguer has started as  a Cyclone: Angel Pagan, once with the Mets and now with the Giants…Ike Davis, the Mets’ slugging first baseman, who has had some ups and downs of his own but is starting to find his swing again with the parent club out in Queens…Mike Jacobs, who hit some moonshots for the Mets in 2005 before being traded to the Florida Marlins…and Dillon Gee, Lucas Duda, Bobby Parnell and Josh Satin, all of whom currently play for the Mets.

The Cyclones have also figured prominently in two of the most memorable games in New York-Penn League history: on July 20, 2006, they played the Oneonta Tigers in the longest New York-Penn League game ever, a whopping twenty-six innings that lasted six hours and forty minutes and ended with the Cyclones losing 6-1; and on August 23, 2009, pitcher Brandon Moore threw a seven-inning no-hitter against the Aberdeen Ironbirds, still the only no-hitter in team history.

(Mets fans might also be interested to know that no fewer than five members of the 1986 World Series team have managed or coached for the Cyclones: Bobby Ojeda, Howard Johnson, Tim Teufel, Mookie Wilson, and Wally Backman.)

Nowadays, sadly, the Coney Islanders are in third place in their division, 19-20 as of this writing (they play a 76-game, “short season” schedule) and only a game ahead of the Yanks.  Will their fortunes improve? Will they go on a winning streak? Will the Staten Island Yankees co-operate and take a nosedive?

No one knows for sure–not even the players–but maybe, just maybe…

It’s the bottom of the ninth.  The visitors have tied the score, which now stands at one apiece.  The Cyclones batter makes contact, sending a foul ball into the stands.  A little girl behind us, sandwiched between her mother and father, cries out: “Look! Look! Someone HIT the ball!” They remind her–as we sometimes had to remind our own daughter when she was a tot–that the idea is to hit the ball FAIR.  “Oh…” says the little girl, nodding.

The Cyclones’ mascot, a giant bird named Sandy Seagull, squeezes into a seat across the aisle.  He’s been with the team since Day One–thirteen years–and someone came up with the ingenious notion of helping him celebrate his bar mitzvah recently.  (Thirteen–get it?)  His avian buddy, a little fella named Pee Wee, has stationed himself on the other side of the park, in right field.

My daughter is still talking about the nightly hot dog race, sponsored by (who else?) Nathan’s, which was run right in front of us, down the left field line, and went to Mustard, easily winning over Relish (her longtime personal favorite) and Ketchup.  She also can’t seem to take her eye off the long-out-of-service parachute jump, its multi-colored lights flashing on-and-off, on-and-off just beyond the right field fence, or the giant ferris wheel, gleaming like a beacon in the night, one of the centerpieces of the refurbished, post-Sandy amusement park, far beyond the fence in left.

Pretty soon, though, her attention is back on the game.  Everyone else’s is, too.  We’re now in the bottom of the tenth–the game has gone into extra innings–and the score is still tied at one.  A renewed energy, a fresh wave of excitement, has begun to work its way through the crowd. A Cyclone walks.  Man on first.  A double sends him to third.  Two men on, second and third, only one out.  “Let’s go, Cyclones…Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap! Let’s go, Cyclones…Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!”  I find myself sitting on the edge of my seat.  My wife, too.  (My daughter? She’s already standing.)

No one–except perhaps for the Staten Island Yankees and their fans–wants the game to go on for much longer.

Then: the batter belts a long fly ball.  The Yankee left fielder catches it cleanly, snatching it out of the air two-handed, the way he’s been taught.  The runner on third tries to score.  The left fielder rears back and fires.  The runner slides–the catcher slaps on the tag–he is…SAFE!

The crowd erupts! The Cyclones win, 2-1!

The team pours out of the dugout.  They jump up and down at home plate, schoolboys all,  pounding each other on the back, laughing, yelling, whooping it up.

Hot day.  Cool night.

Great game.

My advice: head out to MCU Park.  (The F, N, and Q trains can get you there from midtown Manhattan in umder an hour.)  Take your kid.  Enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere–the pitching games, the batting games…heck, your little one might even be asked to join King Henry down on the field!

Coney Island was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, but it’s bouncing back. Stop by this summer, and see for yourself.

(NOTE: Not counting the playoffs, the Cyclones’ season concludes at the
end of August.)

* Municipal Credit Union Park (original name: Keyspan Park)

SPORTS by Stuart R. Brynien