Brooklyn, New York
Some essential background: Uncle Jon grew up in Minnesota, which didn't have a major-league team until 1961. ("I was a free-agent fan," he says.) Like many kids in the fifties, he fell hard for the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose roster included six future Hall of Famers, among them Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and an up-and-comer named Sandy Koufax. "To me—and to a lot of people back then—Brooklyn was the capital of baseball," he recalls. The end, however, came quickly: in 1957, the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, and the Capital of Baseball collapsed into decades-long heartbreak.
But in 2001, pro ball made a triumphant return to the borough. That June, the Brooklyn Cyclones (Single-A farm club to the Mets) opened their first season in Coney Island, in a marvelous new 7,500-seat stadium in the shadow of the Cyclone roller coaster. Joy in Mudville! Single-A teams rarely draw huge crowds, yet thanks to affordable tickets and a heady nostalgia for Brooklyn baseball, that's exactly what the Cyclones have done.
KeySpan Park abuts the Coney Island boardwalk, and a salty Atlantic breeze often sails over the outfield. The stadium itself is a throwback to an earlier time, when all baseball was local. You want Brooklyn?Check out the billboards for SAL'S TRANSMISSIONS and UNCLE LOUIE G'S ITALIAN ICE. Or the "Brooklyn Heritage Nights" (Russian, Jewish, Irish, Italian) that regularly pack the stands. In lieu of computerized liquid-crystal displays, players' stats are handwritten on a felt-marker board, beside a cart proffering cotton candy and Pixy Stix.
The Cyclones themselves, while not quite the '55 Dodgers, are as polished as any semi-pro squad. Tonight they're battling their archrivals, the Staten Island Yankees, in a tight, tense matchup: a true pitcher's duel, with the score deadlocked at 1–1 for six straight innings. For most of the kids here, however, the on-field action is secondary to what Jesse calls "silly distractions." Distractions like a costumed-mascot race pitting Mustard against Relish against Ketchup ("And Mustard wins a trip to the wiener's circle!"). As for this evening's fireworks display, it's been canceled due to an impending rainstorm. "We apologize for any inconvenience this causes," the announcer says. Yet the rain, magically, holds off, and we take in nine full innings of ball—a Brooklyn loss, in the end, but a rollicking time nonetheless.
As we barrel up the coast, en route to our next park, we play a little game called Stump the Jesse. For a kid with a sixth-grade education, my nephew is uncannily well versed in American history, or at least a certain thread of it. Jon, who can recite verbatim from The Baseball Encyclopedia, throws us some curveballs. "Who was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit his home run in 1951?" "Who was the youngest player to appear in the major leagues?" "Who was the smallest player ever?" Answers: 1) Willie Mays was on deck. 2) Joe Nuxhall pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944 when he was just 15 years old. 3) Eddie Gaedel, three foot seven, pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 as a one-time promotional stunt. (He walked.)
It's Jesse, too, who recognizes the name of the pitching coach for the Norwich Navigators (who have since become the Connecticut Defenders), tonight's home team. "Bob Stanley," he muses. "Didn't he pitch in Game Six of the '86 World Series for the Red Sox?" Yes, it's that Bob Stanley—on the mound when Bill Buckner flubbed the infamous ground ball. (Never mind that this happened eight years before Jesse was born. As a Red Sox fan, he's hardwired to recall tragedies he never experienced.) "Wow, Bob Stanley," Jesse says, not sure whether to be excited or gravely concerned.
But it's hard not to get excited about the Norwich team. They began as a Double-A Yankees affiliate; Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson played here before being called up. The Defenders are now a farm club for San Francisco, which is about as far from Connecticut as you can get on dry land. Still, local enthusiasm is undiminished, and the 6,700 seats at Dodd Stadium fill up with every age group. (Yesterday's game was "Grateful Dead Day.")