- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

The Fabric of Summer

Eighteen years ago, I added a new team to my consciousness.

The Brooklyn Cyclones weren’t actually a new club. They were the old St. Catharines Stompers, and spent the summer of 2000 as the Queens Kings, affiliated with the Blue Jays but owned by the Mets and playing before basically nobody at St. John’s. That was a mild farce, but for 2001 their ballpark was ready, their organizational migration was complete, and they became a sensation.

Fans flocked to KeySpan Park, nestled under the Parachute Jump at one end of the raucous, ragged Coney Island strip. Emily and I were often among them that summer. We loved baseball in Brooklyn; we loved being able to opt for an experience that was cheaper, faster and easier than heading out to Shea; and we loved getting to see players near the beginning of their journey to the majors, even if that was a destination most would never reach.

The team’s first star was Angel Pagan [1], a heartthrob center fielder with a name that belonged to the shoegaze band your kid hoped you hated; Danny Garcia [2], Justin Huber [3], Lenny DiNardo [4] and Mike Jacobs [5] would also make the majors from the ’01 squad, which we’d later understand was a pretty good crop. Their coaches were Howard Johnson [6] and Bobby Ojeda, and the manager was a semi-familiar face. Edgar Alfonzo wasn’t a typo — he was Edgardo Alfonzo [7]‘s older brother, a former minor-league infielder.

The Cyclones were a draw — that first summer the stands were filled with young Manhattanites and slumming hipsters — but they were also good. They won their first home game after being down to their last strike and two runs in arrears. They stomped the rest of the New York-Penn League in the regular season, beat the Staten Island Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, and won the first game of the championship round against the Williamsport Crosscutters. After an off-day, the Cyclones would play for the title at home.

That game was scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001. It never took place. With New York and the nation reeling, the rest of the series was called off and the Cyclones and Crosscutters declared co-champions. That’s utterly unimportant, given the lives lost on 9/11 and in the geopolitical aftershocks that are still going on … and yet it isn’t nothing. A summer of walking-on-air bliss ended with the Cyclones robbed of their reward, left with an asterisk that would remind both them and us of far greater losses.

After that giddy first season, the Cyclones became part of the fabric of our summers. Joshua was born in time for the 2003 season — I still smile to remember the look of stunned delight on his face when he learned banging on KeySpan’s metal bleachers and making as much noise as possible was not just OK but actually encouraged, provided you timed it right — and several times each year we’d make the trek down to Coney Island to see the new crop of Cyclones.

KeySpan’s light stanchions were adorned with neon hoops that glowed faintly at dusk and became circles of radiance once night fell. It had pretty good food, clever musical choices, and was, dare I say it, a lot cooler than Shea — there was a sense of giddiness and a certain ironic detachment well-calibrated for bush-league baseball in the big city, and the people who ran the Cyclones were smart about switching between the two. Here’s a snapshot of a typical between-innings moment from the early days: The in-stadium dance troupe, the Beach Bums, are working up a sweat to “Apache” accompanied by a jiggling Sandy the Seagull, who’s basically the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” turned into a mascot. Meanwhile, opposing players used to empty parks far from the bright lights are gaping at the noisy full house surrounding them.

We’ve now been attending Cyclones games for a baseball generation, which has been both an education and an evolution. We’ve adjusted to the fact that the ideal fate for a Cyclone is to go away, with a new roster each year, and we’ve learned that beneath the good times, the low minors are a cruel caste system. That new June roster consists of a handful of valued prospects who will be carefully watched by the Mets and given every chance to fail, and 20-odd teammates who are there to fill out the team and will have to do extraordinary things many times over to get anyone’s attention.

The Cyclones have changed, too. KeySpan is now MCU, with the bleachers turned into seats and turf replacing grass submerged and ruined by Hurricane Sandy. The rough edges have been sanded off — Sandy the Seagull has been slimmed down and genericized, the skits are less raucous, and the Beach Bums have become the more sedate, less-booty-shaking Surf Squad. The crowds are thinner and quieter now, though still impressive for short-season A.

But it’s still baseball by the beach. The Parachute Jump now has neon trappings that make it a nightly vertical light show. There are still goofy uniforms and tongue-in-check giveaways. With the wind off the ocean, it’s still almost impossible to hit it out to right. And of course there are still players with big-league dreams, some of which will come true: Michael Conforto [8], Brandon Nimmo [9], Seth Lugo [10], Paul Sewald [11], Chris Flexen [12], Amed Rosario [13] and Pete Alonso [14] were all Cyclones.

Missing for all those years, though, was a title — one without an asterisk. And so, with the Cyclones in the finals and the wild-card chase driving me batty, I decided to play hooky from the Mets on Monday and get a $5 ticket to see the Cyclones take on the Lowell Spinners on Coney Island.

Monday’s game didn’t go well — the Cyclones (now managed by Edgar Alfonzo’s little brother Edgardo) came out flat and were beaten 3-1 to even the series at one game each. It was cool on the beach, chilly even, and the house was two-thirds empty. But I decided to double-down on Tuesday, recap duties be damned. The Cyclones were playing for the title and I wanted to be there.

And so I was. I wore the Mookie shirt I’d made back in 2005, when Mookie Wilson [15] was Brooklyn’s manager. I changed out my Mets-colors BC hat for my old, sun-faded one in the classic navy and red and white. And armed with a new $5 ticket, I hopped on the F train and rode out to Coney Island. The house was still less than packed, but all of Monday’s eccentric, leather-lunged diehards were in their same seats, it was a warmer night, and anything was possible.

I had resolved not to be a completely irresponsible recapper, so while the Cyclones took the field behind starter Nathan Jones, I had Zack Wheeler [16] and the Mets in one ear.

I’ve kept tabs on multiple baseball games at once, but I don’t recall trying to follow simultaneous games closely, and I wasn’t very good at it. I kept getting the audio and the visuals confused, leading to people looking at me in puzzlement as I clapped for something good the Mets were doing while something bad was happening for the Cyclones, and vice versa. In my ear, Wheeler was holding the fort and the Mets were jumping on Todd Frazier [17]‘s back in an effort to put the Diamondbacks behind them in the wild-card scrum. Before my eyes, the Cyclones were up 2-0, lost the lead on a single by Lowell’s burly Joe Davis [18] and a defensive gaffe by Ranfy Adon [19], and fell behind 3-2 when Mitch Ragan [20] served up a home run to Marino Campana [21].

But all was not lost. In the bottom of the seventh, Jake Mangum [22] singled, Antoine Duplantis [23] tripled Mangum in to tie the game, and Yoel Romero [24] spanked a single to left for the lead. Pitching for the title in the ninth, Andrew Edwards [25] surrendered a leadoff single and then a one-out walk. But Edwards fanned the next hitter, and then struck out Lowell’s Alex Erro [26] for the title [27].

That was Brooklyn’s first title since 2001, its first ever if asterisks aren’t your thing, and the first pro-baseball crown in the borough since 1955. After a whole lot of “wait till next year,” next year was now. I stood in the stands, taking incompetent pictures and grinning at the sight of young men hurling cheap bubbly on each other. Edgardo Alfonzo thanked God, his players and the fans and got a Gatorade bath. King Henry mugged and Sandy and Pee Wee capered and the hoops glowed against the dark ocean and the Parachute Jump coruscated and if you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of fun, yes, it was.

And then it was time to go — and to worry about the Mets. As the F train trundled back across Brooklyn, Wheeler departed with the Mets up 3-1 and it was time for Mickey Callaway [30]‘s nightly game of “Where in the hell do I get six outs?”

Brad Brach [31] got the first of the six, surrendered a homer to Eduardo Escobar [32] to bring Arizona within 3-2, then got the second. Enter Justin Wilson [33], who gave up a walk but then ended the eighth with the Mets still in the lead.

The Mets tallied nothing in the bottom of the eighth, but now I had a dilemma. Coming back from Coney Island, the F train is elevated before Church Avenue, dips underground for a few stops, re-emerges at 4th and 9th but then descends again before Carroll Street. Soon after Carroll I’d have to switch lines or ride the F an extra stop and walk.

With Lugo unavailable, Wilson would have to secure a four-out save, and I was pretty sure his stand-or-fall moment would come while I was underground, with no service. Wilson surrendered a leadoff single to Nick Ahmed [34], who advanced to second on Carson Kelly [35]‘s groundout. Kevin Cron then singled, moving Ahmed to third — and my train was pulling into Smith and 9th, the last aboveground station on my trip.

I could get out and walk, but that would be a miserable trek if Mickey brought in Edwin Diaz [36] to blow the game, which seemed entirely possible. So I got off the train at Smith to wait, peering out at the Gowanus and the ever-rising downtown Brooklyn beyond it and Manhattan beyond that.

Wilson got Ketel Marte [37] to ground to Alonso, who stepped on first and then — strangely — threw not to second for the tag play but to third to hold Ahmed. There were two outs and the Mets still had the lead, but Alonso had passed up a chance to end the game.

Up strolled our old friend Wilmer Flores [38], and my evening had became a circle. Flores was signed by Roberto Alfonzo, Edgar and Edgardo’s brother, and played for the Cyclones in 2008, when he was all of 16 years old. The first Cyclones game I saw this year was in Staten Island, where I sat eight feet from a rehabbing Justin Wilson and somehow didn’t recognize him in a Brooklyn uniform. Now, those two — a Cyclone and a Cyclone with an asterisk — would decide things.

Oh, and the next train was pulling into the station. Should I get on and risk having my phone go silent before matters were decided? Or wait for the next train, whenever that would come?

I got on, urging Wilson to hurry up. The train sat in the station — the F train I’d let go on without me was stopped ahead of it. Wilson threw Wilmer a 1-2 cutter, which he swung through. The Mets had won [39]. And a moment later, the conductor told us to stand clear of the closing doors and my train was on its way through the night.

A title in Brooklyn, a key game won in Queens, a cooperative train on a line connecting the two. Sometimes, if you let it, the city will love you back.