Brooklyn Cyclones general manager Steve Cohen surveyed his team’s sold-out ballpark from the terrace above home plate during the season opener Tuesday night with a look of general satisfaction on his face.
“It’s great, fantastic,” Cohen said about the day. “We’ve got a couple of things we’ve got to fix. Little operational things, things some people wouldn’t even notice. We’ve got to get the lines down for food, thin out the crowds in the concourse a bit.”
Of course, “crowded concourses” is as fantastic a complaint as any baseball team’s GM can hope for. The club, a minor-league affiliate of the New York Mets, has had few if any actual problems since moving to Brooklyn in 2001.
The Cyclones’ charmed existence stands in sharp contrast to that of their 76-game season New York-Penn League rivals, the Staten Island Yankees. Indeed, it is the Yankees who have played the little brother to the Cyclones in this rivalry – despite the fact that both teams have enjoyed success on the field. (Since 2001, the Cyclones have won two league titles, while Staten Island has three).
The Yankees have battled dwindling attendance, a law suit from the city that the team settles this week by paying out more than $1.4 million, and operational problems stark enough that the New York Yankees purchased majority rights to the team following the 2006 season, turning over the promotion of the club to Mandalay Baseball, a company that has helped a number of other teams become profitable.
Staten Island General Manager Jane Rogers did not return numerous calls and e-mails seeking comment following the Baby Bombers’ first-ever sold out Opening Day on Wednesday.
In an interview earlier this year, she lamented the frequently drawn contrast between her team and its intra-city rivals.
“I was a little disheartened that the fans wouldn’t come, and that we’ll always be compared to Brooklyn,” she said. “The ownership came in with new success stories and has implemented them here.”
Since 2001, when both Brooklyn’s Keyspan Park and Staten Island’s Richmond County Bank Ballpark opened for business, the Cyclones have drawn a total of 1,783,258 fans for regular season games, an average of 297,210 fans annually. Meanwhile, Staten Island saw just 951,993 fans pass through the gates over that span, an annual average of just 158,666. Even worse, that total dropped to just 115,395 last season—Brooklyn brought in 289,323 fans in 2006.
One common reason cited for the disparity in popularity between the two teams is the rich baseball heritage in Brooklyn, the former home of the beloved Dodgers and Ebbets Field, while Staten Island is, well, the birthplace of former Mets and Brewers manager George Bamberger.
But it’s been a long time since the Dodgers left Brooklyn. 2007 represents the fiftieth anniversary of the exodus, and though the Cyclones are honoring that milestone (a 1957 night featuring Danny McDevitt and catcher Joe Pignatano, the pitcher and catcher of the Dodgers’ last Ebbets Field pitch) the team is not surviving on the former devotees of the Bums alone.
“It’s definitely changed,” Mr. Cohen said of the crowd makeup, “even since 2001. I think we’re seeing a significant change. That generation that grew up with the Dodgers is getting older. Here at the park, it’s now a ‘family-four’ atmosphere. Of course, we still have people who remember. But people realized right off the bat that we had a great product here.”
Staten Island’s Yankees have a significant baseball tradition to tap into as well, considering that its parent club has won 26 world championships. The Baby Bombers will benefit from that tradition on July 8, when Old Timers’ Day will be held at Richmond Bank Park.
“That’s going to be pretty special,” Ms. Rogers said. “Any of our success will come from the affiliation with the New York Yankees. That’s what they want on Staten Island.”
The team is also experimenting with food giveaways, selling five-packs of tickets for $75, which includes an all-you-can-eat buffet. As of Opening Day, two of the four five-pack plans had sold out, according to the Staten Island Website.
But the club still has its share of goodwill work to complete. The city’s lawsuit, which accused the team of, among other things, reporting falsely deflated attendance numbers in order to avoid paying the city rent (rent kicked in at $100,000 when the team drew at least 125,000 fans), was settled this week when the team agreed to pay $1,427,899 to the city.
The Yankees, according to an audit by City Comptroller William H. Thompson, owed the money for reimbursement of electricity use, signage revenue, sinking fund capital contributions and previous audit assessments. The report also noted that the team did not owe additional funds over game attendance, squashing hopes that merely better-reported figures would raise the team’s annual turnout.
Meanwhile, some of the borough’s decision-makers have been discouraged in the team’s ability to foster economic prosperity in the area.
''The Staten Island Yankees have been a bit of a disappointment in terms of economic impact,'' Michael E. McMahon, a Democratic City Councilman from Staten Island, told the New York Times at the time of the team’s sale. ''The great investment that the city made in that project has not had the return in dollars or community connection.'' He went on to add that he hoped with “a more professional management team” that the Yankees could approach the success of the Cyclones.
Mr. McMahon said in a phone interview Friday that he’d seen some good signs from the new management, but that overall the franchise had a long way to go.
“I’m pleased that the new management team appears to be giving it the effort of generating an energy and a business climate that we all wanted,” he said. “They’re doing a lot more advertising, offering a lot more promotional packages, and reaching out to large segments of the population.”
But he noted that despite the opener’s sellout, “there were 1,000, 1,500 empty seats at the game.”
The Councilman suggested that the team needed to do a better job connecting with the less affluent citizens of the borough.
“It was one of the failings of the old management, and the new group doesn’t seem to have solved the problem, is that they’re not connecting with all levels of economic strata,” he said. “The Cyclones are very energetic in trying to give tickets out to socio-economically disadvantaged children, and connect with people who cannot necessarily afford the box seats. I don’t see that the new group is doing that.
“There’s no question that I have an affinity for the Yankees. They’re from Staten Island, I support them, want them to succeed. But they need to embrace charitable undertakings more than I have seen them do so far.”