Rudy Was Right (About Baseball)

All right, I admit it: I was wrong about the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Staten Island Yankees. I was wrong to insist that New Yorkers would never turn out to see minor leaguers-and entry-level minor leaguers at that. Isn’t this a city, I argued, that demands only the best? Isn’t this the major-league city of all time? Don’t New Yorkers enjoy looking down at those hardscrabble, provincial so-called cities that take unseemly pride in their ramshackle little stadiums and their bus-riding, payroll-challenged Single A teams?

The notion of minor-league baseball in New York sounded like a classic contradiction in terms. The minor leagues, New Yorkers are taught to believe, are good enough for, well, the minor leagues-for Syracuse and Rochester, Williamsport and Scranton, Providence and Pawtucket, Richmond and Norfolk. But here in the Big Apple, only major leaguers need apply, and not all of them get accepted.

So, a couple of years ago, when Rudy Giuliani proposed spending tens of millions in taxpayer money for two minor-league stadiums-one by the St. George Ferry on Staten Island, the other in Coney Island-I (and others) suggested that a Mayoral visit to one of the city’s better mental-health-care facilities might be in order. It was bad enough, I wrote, that the then Mayor thought New Yorkers would turn out to see ballplayers who aren’t rich and famous, but if he really went through with this nutty plan, couldn’t these nice young men play on one of the city’s several fine college ball fields, or maybe at the fabled Parade Grounds in Brooklyn? After all, these facilities could be renovated to seat, oh, 2,000 or so people-and, really, wouldn’t that be more than satisfactory?

Guess again, pal.

On the very day that major leaguers moved a step closer to collective suicide by setting a strike deadline of Aug. 30, I paid my first visit to Keyspan Park in Coney Island, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. The home team, which is affiliated with the Mets organization, was playing an outfit from the Hudson Valley called the Renegades. The announced attendance was a shade less than 8,700-in a ballpark whose official capacity is 7,500. There was no need to call the Fire Department, though, because the aisles were clear, and most of the overflow was in standing-room areas, the party deck, and other nooks and crannies.

The Cyclones won, but the result really was beside the point. For 40 bucks, our four-member clan had second-row, field-level seats behind the Renegades’ dugout. This not only enabled us to share intimacies with the visitors, but gave us a fine view of the fans who danced on the dugout roof between innings. I haven’t had so much fun at a ballpark since last Labor Day, when I inspected the Staten Island Yankees’ stadium with its spectacular view of the downtown skyline. It was the last time my wife and kids saw the Twin Towers.

The boom in minor-league baseball during the 1990’s is well-chronicled and needs no repeating here. What is astonishing, at least to these tired eyes, is that New Yorkers have embraced their minor leaguers with such enthusiasm. In a city with all kinds of world-class entertainment options, the Cyclones are drawing an average of more than 8,000 fans per home date, according to New York–Penn League statistics. Staten Island draws a little less, about 5,000 per game. “The fans have made this a success,” said David Campanaro, the Cyclones’ media-relations manager. “In Brooklyn, you have people who remember the Dodgers, or people whose relatives told them about the Dodgers. They are a part of our fan base.” That was pretty clear on the night of Aug. 16, as gray-haired fans sat next to their grandkids and talked about the old days.

But the appeal of the Cyclones, and of minor-league teams in general, goes beyond mere nostalgia. At a time when the major-league game seems greedy, vulgar, self-absorbed and nearly unaffordable for an average family, teams like the Cyclones are aggressively fan- and family-friendly. “That’s one of the things we focus on-families and kids,” said Mr. Campanaro. “If you’re 9 or 10 years old, you may not always be as interested in what’s going on on the field as you are the overall atmosphere of the game. That’s what we bring out.” They do it with kiddy races between innings and T-shirt giveaways and athletes who are more than happy to sign autographs.

You still could make the argument that the stadiums, with their combined price tag of more than $100 million (thanks to the expense of removing toxic waste at the Staten Island site), were overpriced. But on one fine late August evening in Coney Island, it would have been awfully hard to say that it was a waste of money.