|The Cyclones uniforms spelled out the team’s name and player’s number in Hebrew.|
You have to have a heart made of pure stone not to find something to love at MCU Park, the Brooklyn Cyclones’ home in Coney Island, at the tip of Brooklyn.
It is a proletarian sensualist’s delight. You smell the sea, overlaid with the kinds of food that smells wonderful even if you never can eat it. (Imagine how grim it would be if kashrut extended to smells! Close your nose right now!) You see airplanes, circling to land at JFK, and helicopters, menacing during the day but blinking and mysterious at night. You see the parachute jump left over from the long-gone Steeplechase Park, covered with ever-changing red and pink and purple lights, and other huge rides swinging up and down, up and down, hypnotic if you’re not careful.
You hear Brooklyn accents and Spanish accents and unidentifiable accents, all blending into one big happy blur. Bee-ah heah! Bee-ah heah! (To translate into Northern New Jersey, “Beer here,” the call of the guy who roams the stands with a cooler on his head, carrying the beer. People on the Jersey Shore would need no translator.)
And then, of course, there is the baseball.
The Cyclones are a minor league team affiliated with the N.Y. Mets (the Class A Short Season New York Penn League, to be specific). They are not very good at baseball compared to major leaguers, although they are infinitely better than casual softball players, but they are generally young and eternally hopeful. You look at them and imagine much sadness ahead, as they eventually have to grow up and out of their dreams, but now, early in the season, what you see is puppy-dog hope. (And, of course, big heavy bats. Which they swing wildly. And fast hard balls. Which they miss. Whoops, there goes another rubber tree plant!)
On Sunday, the Cyclones offered Jewish Heritage Night. It included two hours of pregame activities (this wasn’t special – the park opens early, the better to sell you things, my dear ) while klezmer music blared. The main show was the Cyclone’s mascot’s bar mitzvah, so Sandy the Seagull – perhaps spelled Siegal for the day – got to have his friends called up to light candles and be hoisted up on a chair. It was a fascinating glimpse into what non-Jews think of as a bar mitzvah celebration, tasteless but inoffensive.
Rabbis threw out the ceremonial first pitch. There were three rabbis there, so there were three ceremonial first pitches. A neat trick if you can do it.
The Brooklyn Cyclones wore uniforms with the word Tzyclonim spelled out in Hebrew, and their numbers shown in Hebrew letters rather than Roman numerals. (Those shirts were raffled off after the game.)
And there were so very many Jews there! There always are, of course, but synagogues and men’s clubs brought in busloads. It’s an easy early-summer fundraiser.
While it is not clear whether it is cause or effect – whether there is kosher food because there are many Jews among the spectators, or whether the kosher food draws them – there is kosher food, hot dogs and sausages as well as pareve offerings. The lines for those concessions always are long.
It’s fun to play spot-the-Jews. Some are easy; there were many men in kippot and women in denim skirts and scarves or hats. There also were many men in kippot accompanied by women in pants. There was a man who looked like Daniel Craig only blonder and craggier, with a t-shirt that appeared to be in Polish, wearing a kippa. There was a group – two couples and five children, three of the adults gorgeous and the fourth a total greaseball – who I thought looked like they’d never even met a Jew until I overheard them discussing which kosher food options sounded best and I realized how wrong I’d been.
There are many glories to minor league baseball, even if, like me, you were born into a baseball-addicted family but generally are immune to it, and therefore need every play explained. The stadium is small and you sit close to the players, so you can see their faces and feel their emotions. They tend not to be very good (“That’s why they’re in the minor leagues,” as my friend Rich, a true baseball lover, helpfully pointed out), so innings are short and the action often is so cartoon-like that it is easy even for an outsider to follow. The entertainment is small-scale and home-grown, full of adorable little kids from the audience doing little-kid tricks.
The Cyclones, as noted, are owned by the Mets, so they belong in Brooklyn. After all, the Mets are the team that at least partially healed the hearts that were broken in 1957 when the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped to California. They occasionally play the locally much-loathed Staten Island Yankees, part of the enemy Bronx-based Yankee evil empire. (My previously mentioned baseball-addicted family is influenced by my Brooklyn-born father…)
And the names! The Brooklyn Cyclones, named after the boardwalk ride, is relatively straightforward. On Sunday, the team played the Hudson Valley Renegades. Their league also includes the blue-collar Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the what-could-they-possibly-have-been thinking Batavia Muckdogs, and my personal favorite, the Vermont Lake Monsters. Roar!
Peter Ephross, the author of “Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players” and not surprisingly a baseball nut, was disappointed in Jewish Heritage Night.
Jews have had a connection to baseball for a long time, he pointed out. “Jews saw baseball as a way to become American. It was America’s pastime -what better way to become American than to play baseball?
“There is a proud history of Jews playing baseball. They could have put up little vignettes about the players. Of course, these events tend to be kitschy, but you could get a little serious stuff in.
“Lots of the Jewish players either grew up in Brooklyn or played here.”
Ephross has some favorite Jewish baseball stories. “It’s not just Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax,” great as those two stars were, he said.
“Everyone knows Koufax, but no one talks about the catcher who mentored him.
“Norm Sherry was the catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His brother Larry also played for the Dodgers – he actually was more successful, and he was the MVP in the 1959 World Series. Norm was a backup catcher.
“In his early years, Koufax was a wild pitcher. He couldn’t throw strikes. They go to a spring training game – they didn’t carry a lot of pitchers to those games, so he’d have to pitch a lot, and he threw a lot of walks. Sherry said, ‘Why don’t you take some miles off your pitches?'” (Translation, for the non-baseball-literate among us – if he could control his pitches more, he could strike out more hitters and therefore throw less, thus conserving his arm.)
“Koufax tried it. It worked.
“This isn’t an apocryphal story. Norm Sherry told it to me himself. It was after that game that Koufax realized that he didn’t have to throw the ball that hard.”
It’s not all history, Ephross added. “We’re in a boom time now for Jewish baseball players. We have about a dozen, and several of them are stars or near-stars, Kevin Youkilis and Ian Kinsler and Ryan Braun.” (Of course, some of them are either aging or scandal-embroiled.)
Back at the game, it was getting cold; as unthinkable as that was in the rest of the region, sautÃ©ing in its own oil in the humid mid-90s, the ocean breeze was strong in the stadium. The game had begun an hour and a half late – the Renegades had been stuck in traffic – and the Cyclones were losing. We left.
The Cyclones won in the 13th inning. We shudda stayed.