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      F I E L D  T R I P S

AUGUST 15 , 2001

July 9, 2001: Vermont Expos at Brooklyn Cyclones, Keyspan Park
Send in the 'Clones

It's a story we're all familiar with, and it's one that tugs at the heartstrings: city loses beloved baseball team when the team decides to relocate to greener pastures. Time passes, a new franchise finally comes to town, and the wounds begin to heal. The new guys aren't in the same class as the old team, but they steal the hearts of local fans with their rag-tag brand of winning baseball.

Before you start reaching for your Nostalgia Helmet, I have a confession to make: I'm not talking about the Brooklyn Cyclones—not yet, at least. I'm referring to the circumstances under which I'd last attended a baseball game in the low minor leagues. Flash back to 1987, Salt Lake City, Utah: the Salt Lake Trappers, an independent franchise operating in the Class A Pioneer League, had replaced the Salt Lake Gulls of the Pacific Coast League (AAA) two years earlier when they'd left town. The Trappers were owned in part by actor Bill Murray, who would occasionally show up to coach third base, much to the delight of the fans. The night I attended, the Trappers tied the professional baseball record for the longest winning streak. They would win the next night (with Murray in the house, instead of me), setting a record of 29 straight victories. They racked up league championships and set attendance records in their time in Salt Lake City, a true minor league success story.

Salt Lake City isn't Brooklyn any more than the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones are the departed Dodgers. You didn't really think I could stretch that analogy for extra bases, did you? Nobody's ever going to confuse newfangled Keyspan Park with the glory days of Ebbetts Field. But a baseball game played in a great little ballpark in front of an enthusiastic crowd still has a hell of a lot to be said for it.

The nostalgia over baseball's return to Brooklyn was laid on pretty thick in the media, though it wasn't entirely unwelcome. Whether you're talking about the daffy Dodgers who invented legendary new ways to lose (like the time three of them wound up on third base, or the time—sigh—Hugh Casey's pitch skipped past Mickey Owen in the World Series...) or the fabled Boys of Summer (Duke, Pee Wee, Newk, Campy, and of course Jackie Robinson), baseball lore is as good as it gets when it comes to the Brooklyn Dodgers. My grandfather became a fan of those daffy Dodgers, so the story goes, after watching star outfielder Babe Herman get hit on the head with a fly ball he was attempting to catch (Herman, "the Headless Horesman of Ebbets Field" was also the one who tried to stretch a double into a triple, only to find not one but two of his teammates occupying third).

But nostalgia wasn't what sent me to Keyspan Park; novelty and the promise of cheap thrills and a great view did the job. Determined to check out the buzz on the new ballpark, I had organized an expedition for a group of seven (including one baby) for roughly the price of two seats to Yankee Stadium. The brand-new park, which seats 6,500, all at field level, is situated in an irresistable location among the landmarks of Coney Island. The Cyclone roller coaster, for which the franchise is named, sits beyond left centerfield, dwarfed in perspective by a replica atop the scoreboard. The defunct Parachute Drop tower looms down the rightfield line, along the Boardwalk, and beyond that, the ocean. Colorful neon strips encircle the stadium lights, furthering the amusement-park atmosphere. It's a tableau that neither Yankee Stadium nor Shea can offer, at a fraction of the price.

The Cyclones play in the New York-Penn League, a "Short A" league which represents the middle rung of A ball, two steps above pure "Rookie" leagues, and two steps below the top "Advanced A" leagues. Most of the players, judging from the official program, have at least one season of professional ball under their belts. Which is not to say they're polished, or that they never make mistakes.

We were reminded of this facet before we'd even reached our seats; the first play we witnessed was a Vermont Expo being thrown out at the plate, and another one followed in similar fashion before the inning was over. In the second inning, the Cyclones pitcher—a Nicaraguan named Luz Portobanco—hit two batters, one in the head. The Expos helped him get out of trouble when one of their ground balls hit a baserunner. In the third inning, a Vermont baserunner made a play worthy of Babe Herman. An Expo runner stopped 15 feet short of home plate as the throw beat him. He retreated back to third base, only to find another runner there. Inexplicably, that runner tried to retreat as well, and both were tagged out.

This veritable clown act enabled Portobanco to complete five erratic innings. He allowing six hits, three walks, and plunked two, but the Expos netted only one run. Far more impressive was Vermont's starter, Chad Bentz. Bentz has fingers on only one hand, his left, invoking comparisons to former major leaguer Jim Abbott. He slides his glove off onto his non-throwing "hand" after retrieving the ball, then replaces it after delivering the pitch, and he does it so effortlessly you barely notice. The Cyclones didn't exploit Bentz, who allowed only one hit and no runs in his first four innings. But they got to him in the fifth, tying the game with a double and a triple before Bentz departed with a back strain.

Despite all of the crazy plays, the offical scorer was quite generous. The first error wasn't charged until the sixth inning, though several "hits" could have gone either way. That error led to the go-ahead run when the Vermont leftfielder dropped the ball while attempting a sliding catch.

The Cyclones' third run featured more drama. Shortstop Robert McIntyre homered in the seventh inning, and the Expos manager (Steve "Bye-Bye" Balboni, believe it or not) was ejected, though exactly for what I'm not sure (the ball, if I recall, was hit to left-center, not down the line). The inning also featured a return to Little-League wackiness, as Cyclones centerfielder Angel Pagan walked, stole second and third (the latter in a botched rundown) and scored on a wild pitch.

The carnivalesque atmosphere carried over to the between-innings entertainment. Mascots wearing inflatable costumes and bearing punny names (Harry Canary, Pee Wee Geese, Shark McGwire, Clammy Sosa) danced through some hilarious musical numbers. The best one was when Clammy Sosa "ate" the Cyclones bat-boy—entirely engulfing the little lad in the mascot's oversized costume—and spit out the helmet. You haven't lived until you've nearly peed your pants laughing at something like that.

A few other notes:

  • I had a hard time identifying the Cyclones when I first arrived. From the back, their uniforms—white jerseys, red numbers, blue hats—reminded me more of the Boston Red Sox. Except for their lack of red socks, of course. The Vermont Expos uniforms bore more resemblance to the mix-and-match Mets—black jerseys, grey pants, blue socks.
  • Keyspan's field dimensions are considerable. The park is 327 feet to left field, 315 to right, and 415 feet (plus a 19-foot wall) to dead center. Though it seats only 6,500, the paid attendance for the game was announced at 7,608; I'm not sure whether standing room or luxury boxes made up the difference. But there was hardly an empty seat in the park.
  • The Cyclones must be raking it in via souvenirs. The demand for a Cyclones cap is so hot that not a single Cyclones cap was available for sale at the gift shop, much to my dismay.
  • This was the first game all season at which I didn't keep score. In the interests of taking in all of the ballparks sights, sounds and tastes (not to mention organizing my posse), I settled for scrawling notes on the back cover of an issue of Us Weekly magazine, over an ad for Raspberry Schnapps. I did maintain a focus on the game, however—enough so that I never did find out why Julia Roberts broke up with Benjamin Bratt.

in short, those who go to Keyspan looking for the ghosts of Ebbetts Field will be disappointed. The legendary grace of Jackie Robinson and the Boys of Summer resides in some other ethereal realm. But I'd like to think the wacky anything-can-happen spirit of the Daffy Dodgers is alive and well among the relics of Coney Island and its newest, shiniest attraction.

Final score: Cyclones 4, Expos 1. Two beers, one Nathan's hot dog, one Italian Sausage, one disposable Kodak camera worth of film, half a dozen hilarious inflatable mascots, and possibly the ghost of Babe Herman. BOX SCORE