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Slippery Elm
08-11-01, 04:22 AM

August 12, 2001

The Brooklyn Cyclones, a Group of Big-City Minor Leaguers


Fred Wilpon became a New York real-estate plutocrat, the builder of tall towers along gilded blocks of Manhattan avenues, by excelling at the art of the calculated risk. The grandson of an immigrant Brooklyn street peddler, Wilpon left Bensonhurst on a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, and by age 30, he was back in New York, betting everything he had on reviving faded uptown properties -- and making lavish returns. Later, Wilpon was in the East Village before the boutiques, and he saw potential in Bedford-Stuyvesant when others saw only vacant lots and broken glass. ''He has,'' says his son Jeffrey, ''a nose for this stuff.''

''I love it here, and I don't want to move,'' says Angel Pagan, the promising 20-year-old center fielder.

But there are the rare times when he doesn't need it. In Wilpon's business, every so often a proposal comes along that is so lush in its promise of profit and so elegant in its appeal to the deal maker's particular aesthetic that it requires no shrewd discerning at all. Early in 1998, Wilpon received just such an offer from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Wilpon, now 64, is not simply a real-estate developer. Along with his partner, the publishing heir Nelson Doubleday, he owns the New York Mets, and it was for this reason that the mayor of New York had come calling. Some months before, the mayor had met with George Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the Yankees. Steinbrenner, Wilpon learned, had told the mayor that he hoped a baseball stadium could be built on Staten Island to house a Yankee minor-league team. This made sense. Minor-league baseball attendance was booming as never before -- good for the Boss -- and the northeastern coast of Staten Island was badly in need of an economic fillip -- good for the mayor. What the pair now wanted from the Mets amounted to what people in real estate, like Fred Wilpon, refer to as the ceding of territorial rights. Because the Yankees and the Mets share baseball jurisdiction in the city, the Yankees could not place even a minor-league competitor in the area without the Mets' blessing.

On the face of things, such a blessing would have been highly unlikely. Just a year before, the Mets had hoped to place a minor-league team on Long Island, only to have their efforts blocked by the Yankees. There lingered, as the mayor puts it, ''a certain amount of resentment.'' But the Brooklyn-born Giuliani also knew something about Fred Wilpon that went beyond his existence as a wise man of property. That is, Wilpon had been a childhood habitué of Ebbets Field, the ballpark the Dodgers left behind when they moved to Los Angeles in 1957. The mayor says he believed Wilpon was like almost everyone else from that generation of Brooklyn natives -- a nostalgic, still recovering from the loss of the Dodgers. With all that in mind, he threw Wilpon his very fat pitch: you give Steinbrenner Staten Island, he'll give you Brooklyn, and the city will build small ballparks for each of you, design them to your specifications and rent them to you on long-term leases for nominal considerations. By last fall, two pairs of steam shovels had broken ground.

In Staten Island, word that a baseball park was rising in the old railroad yards, along the shoreline near the St. George ferry terminal, excited the locals. Across the Narrows, in the Borough of Churches, the same news was received like something on the order of the second coming. Wilpon immediately became a modern-day duke of Flatbush: he was the hometown boy who made good across the river and then brought the prodigal pastime back to the game's most impassioned fans. The new team was named the Cyclones, and before the season even began, 80 percent of the entire summer's worth of tickets were sold. Wilpon quickly added a thousand more seats to his ballpark, and soon those, too, were going like cheesecakes.

And yet there were others in Brooklyn, skeptics, to whom Wilpon merited no more than a plangent ''fuhgeddaboudit.'' In place of the Dodgers, Wilpon was serving up these Cyclones, who would slap their singles and ground-rule their doubles against outfits like the Lowell Spinners, the Batavia Muckdogs and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. The Cyclones were to be a low-level Mets farm team, members of the short season (76 games) Class A New York-Penn League, meaning that Wilpon had presented a fabled city of strivers with just the imprimatur it always dreaded: he was the major leaguer who made Brooklyn into a minor-league town.

''They don't look minor league at all,'' Wilpon was saying. he was seated in a luxury box at KeySpan Park, the home of the Cyclones, inspecting his charges, who were displaying competence beyond their classification while drubbing the Vermont Expos. That same observation applied even more accurately to Wilpon's surroundings, for they are what have very quickly made the Brooklyn Cyclones a truly compelling proposition. Wilpon did not simply broker the dual feat of importing the sport of the provinces into New York City while returning professional baseball to Brooklyn. He situated his team in the midst of one of the world's most famous entertainment settings, the five-mile spit of sand jutting into the sea known as Coney Island. The ground on which the young Cyclones were blowing away the baby Expos once held Steeplechase Park, the first of the Coney Island grand-scale amusement compounds. For generations of Americans, Coney Island was synonymous with escape, thrills, adventure, seduction and pleasure, making this among the more inspired locales ever to be seeded with a professional baseball park. The builder built well. The ballpark's graceless corporate nomenclature aside, the ambience is such that everywhere Wilpon turned his head now, baseball was meeting with carnival to winsome effect.

Just below him, along the interior concourse that frames the top row of seats in the stadium, vendors hawked soft ice cream, lemonade, handmade Brooklyn Italian ices, cotton candy, Brooklyn beer and Nathan's genuine Coney Island frankfurters. Lining up for these regional delicacies was a crowd that looked decidedly more like New York than the swarm of louts and swells who -- along with unseemly ticket prices -- have made the trip to Yankee or Shea Stadiums a decidedly mixed proposition for members of the metropolitan area's nonexecutive classes. With Cyclones tickets ranging from $5 to $10, here everybody could pay, and a little bit of everybody had. There were young men in do-rags, young women sporting pink hair, Girl Scout troops and their leaders, high-school lads shaded by baseball caps and yarmulkes, college students in hand-held contact with their inamorati and moms, pops and offspring aplenty.

Wilpon said that ''we don't want to trade on the Dodgers -- we want to fit into this community,'' and at perfunctory glance, the appearances supported the notion. It is true that to Wilpon's right the radio booth was emblazoned with the notice ''Catbird Seat'' in homage to that fabled vernacularist, the Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber. Down on the field, intertwined with the Cyclones ''C'' above the bill on their caps, the Cyclones did sport an iconic white Dodger ''B.'' And the surfeit of advertisements painted on the outfield fences in fact included a tempting proposition from a Brooklyn haberdashery to Cyclones batsmen: ''Hit This Sign . . . Win a Suit!'' -- a shameless little madeleine recalling the old pledge from Abe Stark clothiers on the Ebbets Field wall.

Another swatch of the new barrier, however, promised to remunerate a line drive off itself with a free ride for the whole ballpark on the Wonder Wheel. And right there, in vibrant illumination just beyond the fence in left field, spun the famous Ferris. There was also Astroland, the glittering arcades of Surf Avenue, and brightest of all, that Zeus of roller coasters, the Cyclone itself. To straightaway center field, Wilpon -- and his patrons -- could see strollers along the boardwalk, bathers drying out on the sand, gulls plunging from violet-hued twilight skies and sailboats bobbing in the Atlantic. Around in right was the spiffily repainted 271-foot-tall Parachute Jump tower (sans parachutes, alas). While it is true that KeySpan Park's sound system is both relentless and loud -- a craven feature of so many current professional ballparks -- Wilpon had circled the floodlights in rings of bright neon and sheltered the grandstand under enormous blue-and-yellow-striped beach umbrellas. It was, in the end, a new Coney Island amusement ballpark, and Wilpon was feeling rather proud of it.

''Where'd all these people come from?'' he wondered. ''They weren't here last year.'' Then he was riffing on baseball (''It's the American way!''), explaining that the soaring minor-league profits around the country are a function of local ownership and confessing ''a father's pride'' that 39-year-old Jeffrey Wilpon is the man in charge of day-to-day operations for this already lucrative first-year franchise. Wilpon was wearing a checked shirt, butter-soft black loafers and a quantity of brilliantine that swept back the hair from his tanned, lean face. His wife of 41 years, Judy, was a few feet away. Wilpon may now live in a large home on Long Island, but he still serves Dr. Brown's cream soda to his guests, maintains close boyhood friendships -- one old Brooklyn pal is Sandy Koufax -- and enjoys talking about his immigrant Jewish grandmother, who pushed a fruits-and-vegetables cart along the streets of Williamsburg; his father, who presided over a small Brooklyn funeral parlor on Coney Island Avenue; and his sister Iris's husband, Saul Katz, his partner ever since way back when they had nothing.

Yet although Wilpon is a sentimental person, he has the ears of a man who has heard a lot of requests and the ease of someone with experience in deflecting them. Wilpon is said to be seeking the better part of $500 million from the city to build the Mets a new ballpark in Queens. (His favored design resembles Ebbets Field -- with a retractable roof.) When the matter of these negotiations arose, Wilpon suddenly noted a nifty play by the Cyclones shortstop: ''They pick it! I like it!'' Mention of his relations with his Mets co-owner, Nelson Doubleday, which are said to be strident, produced only a garland for the Cyclones pitcher: ''Hey, this kid's got pretty good stuff!'' Then Guy Conti, a Mets roving minor-league instructor, stopped by to pay his respects, and Wilpon listened avidly as Conti gave impromptu talent evaluations, including testimony to the virtues of the Cyclones' most promising player, the fleet, vividly named center fielder from Puerto Rico, Angel Pagan. Two innings later, Pagan walked, stole second and third and then scored on a wild pitch, generating much jubilation below and more of the same in the owner's box.

That is the usual situation at KeySpan Park these days. All 7,500 seats sell out, the first-place Cyclones win and even when they don't, the audience seems merely ecstatic. Sometimes the play is ragged: exuberant overthrows, haphazard infielding, 55-foot fastballs and undisciplined swinging. But nobody, not even New Yorkers, it seems, heads to minor-league games expecting to see Jackie Robinson, Mike Piazza or, for that matter, Del Bissonette. (You remember Del: ''The Dodgers have Del Bissonette/No meal has he ever missed yet/The question that rises/Is one that surprises/Who paid for all Del Bissonette?'')

Perhaps flawless baseball is precisely what the Cyclones fans don't wish for. They go to Brooklyn for many of the same reasons Americans all over the country now attend minor-league games in greater profusion than at any time since the 1940's, the glory days of bush-league ball. There are the KeySpan Park sight lines -- not a bad or distant view in the house. There is harmless between-innings fun, like the dizzy bat race. There is the opportunity to glimpse up close -- and maybe even chat with -- the Mets heroes of yore, Bobby Ojeda and Howard Johnson, who are Cyclones coaches. Best of all is the chance to see the players when their future is in doubt, when they are not wealthy, jaded and truculent but merely young athletes chasing an elusive ambition for $850 a month -- making them a lot like the people paying to see them.

One recent evening, from their seats behind third base, Erika Warmbrunn, a Broadway stagehand, and Peter Guernsey, her stagehand boyfriend, were comparing the experience to ''time traveling.''

''It's baseball in the 40's,'' she said, ''when it really was America's game. A-Rod strikes out, and he's still guaranteed how many tens of thousands of dollars per at-bat? Here, a kid strikes out, and somebody who's watching says, 'That's it for him,' and the kid is gone. That's drama. That's real life. All that, and look where we're sitting for eight bucks.''

A few yards away, in the Cyclones dugout, was Bobby Ojeda, who went 18-5 pitching for the world-champion 1986 Mets. Eight years before that, he spent a New York-Penn League summer in Elmira, where he made $500 a month and was losing weight eating hot dogs every day and ''sleeping in hotels named after somebody's dog.''

''But I remember the realization 'I'm being paid for this!''' he said. ''It was a special, special time.'' Most former major leaguers of Ojeda and Howard Johnson's pedigree would rather be driving a golf cart than riding the Class A buses again, but Ojeda lives close by, in New Jersey, has higher aspirations in baseball and recognizes that he is the human analogue to this version of minor-league ball; literally Class A but more truly First-Class-A. The well-appointed big-city ballpark and the proximity to Shea Stadium make a man feel better about his chances of ''chasing a dream,'' as Ojeda calls the majors. ''These kids were here at the right place at the right time,'' he says. ''This is as good as it gets at this level.''

Angel Pagan would agree. Pagan spent last summer in Kingsport, Tenn., and began this one at an upper-level Mets Class A team in Columbia, S.C. He was hitting .300 and felt, therefore, somewhat aggrieved when Guy Conti told him the Mets wanted him to go down and play center field for Brooklyn. But the next time Conti encountered Pagan, even though the 20-year-old was sleeping on a cot in a temporarily converted classroom at a Catholic school in Bay Ridge, he now pleaded to stay where he was. ''I love it here, and I don't want to move,'' Pagan was saying now while signing autographs for an eager throng beside the dugout. ''Last year in Kingsport, there were 1,000 people a night. Here there are 7,500 a night. In Kingsport, you just see trees. Here, there's lots of things.'' Most of Pagan's roommates shuttle between their dormitory rooms and the ballpark, spending spare time doodling on the school chalkboards, but two weeks into the season, Pagan had ridden the Cyclone and explored a little of Coney Island. ''Last year, my mother sent me Latin food Express Mail,'' he says, ''but there are Latin restaurants on Mermaid Avenue. Tonight I had pork, rice and beans -- my favorite.''

What is revelation for Ojeda and Pagan is rediscovery for Eddy Rosenthal. Rosenthal is a Brooklyn warehouse distributor who went to Ebbets Field as a child, and he thinks the Cyclones are ''the best thing that ever happened to Brooklyn.''

''When we were young, the place was mobbed,'' Eddie says. ''It was a carnival on the side streets. There were booths and games and fortunetellers and fireworks. We'd walk on the boardwalk. Then the neighborhood changed, and it got dangerous. You didn't want to go on the boardwalk anymore.''

At the turn of the century, Coney Island was the real crossroads of the world, and its millions of shimmering lights were the first sight of America for arriving European immigrants. In 1897, a Brooklyn entrepreneur named George Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park, the first Coney amusement city, and soon there was Luna Park and then Dreamland, places so fantastic in their design -- a luxurious hotel shaped like an elephant was just the start of it -- that Coney became the physical symbol of the American machine age. Everybody went. In the famed Weegee photograph taken in July 1940, there are a million people on the beach. Yet television, automobiles, shifting demographics and changing public tastes gradually obviated the big Brooklyn amusement parks. The neighborhood became dangerous, with bodies washing up on the beach and gunshots punctuating the evening air that once had been filled with calliope music.

Now, with his new stadium, Fred Wilpon was explaining that he hoped to use the minor-league baseball revival to inspire a Coney Island revival. ''I used to come here with my father,'' he said. ''We've tried to integrate the Coney Island we knew and what we know Coney Island will be. The reason for this location, aside from the fact that it's beautiful, was the need for a first-class attraction people could come to with the family at reasonable prices and have safe, attractive fun. It has all the infrastructure. It'll become a vital community again. When the redevelopment of 42nd Street was conceived, they said it couldn't be done. Look at 42nd Street now! I know this area, and I know the potential.''

A five-minute walk down Surf Avenue from the ballpark, at his continuously running freak show, Dick Zigun was willing to believe that Fred Wilpon just might be a sort of George Tilyou for the Disney era, an impresario who understood the pleasure-seeking tastes of his time in a way that would once again lure crowds to the Brooklyn shore. Zigun operates the annual Mermaid Parade and the nonprofit concern Coney Island USA, headquartered in his musty little sideshow gallery of sword swallowers and bed-of-nails acts. ''Financially, we haven't seen any change yet,'' he says. ''But in terms of people's impression of Coney Island, there is already a significant change.''

Not everybody has been persuaded. Kevin Baker, the author of ''Dreamland,'' a novel set at turn-of-the-century Coney Island, and the leader of historical tours of the area, says he believes that Fred Wilpon is the beneficiary of ''corporate welfare,'' a man making a profit that was handed to him by a lame-duck mayor concerned with ballpark legacies. ''Nobody consulted the public about whether we'd like to pay for these new ballparks,'' he says. ''They're great, but what do people who don't go to the games get? A tax bill. And New Yorkers who do go are being double-taxed because they have to pay for their seats. It's a Coney Island scam.''

The most prominent student of the financial effect of ballparks on their surrounding neighborhoods is a Harvard-trained Smith College economist named Andrew Zimbalist, the editor, with Roger Noll, of ''Sports, Jobs and Taxes.'' Zimbalist says that while it is reasonable for a community to claim there are ''cultural benefits'' to having a minor-league stadium in its midst, ''there is simply no economic argument for the city as a whole to subsidize a ballpark at Coney Island on economic grounds.''

Naturally, Mayor Giuliani considers this the worst sort of prevarication. ''Andrew Zimbalist is Castro's economist,'' he says. ''He does not understand a capitalist economy.'' The point, the mayor explains, is that the ballpark ''allows people to rediscover Coney Island. It's a way of showing off Coney Island so people come back for other things besides baseball.'' As to why there was no referendum for taxpayers to say whether or not they wanted to build Fred Wilpon and George Steinbrenner these new minor-league ballparks, the mayor's answer is: ''Because they would have voted it down. That's why you need a leader. Somebody who has some vision.'' His legacy, he says, will be forging ''the anchor of the economic redevelopment of two neighborhoods that desperately need it.''

In the sleek Fifth Avenue skyscraper where his company, Sterling Equities, keeps its headquarters, Fred Wilpon considered this modern phenomenon of municipalities building ballparks for team owners to use in private enterprise. ''I know what economists say,'' Wilpon said, ''but I also know what the history is when baseball teams vacate a city.'' It was then suggested to him that, in this case, nobody was leaving. The minor-league teams, in fact, seemed to want nothing more than to come to New York. Wasn't the city needlessly paying for him to turn a profit? Couldn't he have built his own ballpark and still made out fine? Wouldn't he maybe even have forgone some of the profits just for the satisfaction of helping out the old neighborhood?

Wilpon was on his way to a meeting. Pausing in his building's Italian marble lobby, he stood there, in a pinstriped bespoke suit stitched for him by a tailor who has also outfitted several presidents, and considered his motives with the Cyclones. Since this is baseball today, they are a mingle of pleasures and profits. ''It wasn't all money,'' he said. ''I have a passion for this. I would have done it if I knew we'd break even.'' Then he mused: ''If I knew we'd lose money, would I have done it? Probably. Yes. On an emotional basis, not on a business basis.''

08-11-01, 10:53 AM