For three quarters of a century the wooden cars of the Cyclone roller coaster have lurched slowly heavenward, inch by ominous inch, before reaching the ride's first precipice and descending 85 stomach-shuddering feet. The Cyclone stands as a white-knuckle monument to grander days when Coney Island, the slender, sandy bar that shelters Brooklyn from the Atlantic Ocean, was called Sodom by the Sea. Most of the other amusement-park attractions, including the Steeplechase, the Tickler, Flip-Flap, the Insanitarium, 34-inch-tall Princess Wee Wee and 685-pound Jolly Trixy ("So fat that it takes seven men to hug her"), have long since vanished.
In 1957 the Dodgers disappeared from Brooklyn too and broke hearts from Canarsie to Sheepshead Bay. When Ebbets Field was torn down three years later for a housing project, fun and games in Brooklyn amounted to playing stickball on neighborhood streets. The Bums will never come back, but on June 25 some new Boys of Summer played ball where immigrants once raced the Steeplechase's horses. On that sultry night the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Class A farm team of the New York Mets, brought professional baseball back to the Big Apple's most populous borough.
Though the Cyclones play in the low bushes of the short-season New York-Penn League, their home opener, against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, had the tone of a family reunion. Nostalgia washed over everything at KeySpan Park. The sellout crowd of 7,500 strolled into the new $39 million stadium, which was paid for by New York City, talking the way people do when they revisit an old house where they lived for years and raised their kids. Maybe half the fans claimed to have attended the last game at Ebbets Field, 44 years ago.
One of those who didn't was John Davenport, a 68-year-old Brooklynite. "When the Dodgers moved west, it destroyed me," he said. "I'm still in mourning." Davenport will never forgive the Bums for deserting him. "I went to see them a few times at Shea Stadium in the early '90s," he said, "but only to yell 'You are fat!' at Tommy Lasorda."
Like the settlers of Coney Island, the Cyclones have an international flavor: The players—none older than 26—hail from Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Australia, the Dominican Republic, even as far away as New Jersey. Although Carl Erskine, a superb righthanded pitcher in the '50s for the Dodgers and now a semiretired banker in Indiana, had lectured these Coney Island babies on Brooklyniana, outfielder Michael Piercy seemed to be the only one with a sense of where he was. As a kid in nearby Hillside, N.J., he came to Coney Island with his father for the rides and to eat Nathan's hot dogs until he threw up. "I was always scared of the Cyclone," he recalled. "You couldn't point me toward that coaster." Yet he called KeySpan "the most beautiful park I've seen in my entire life." Alas, Piercy was cut from the team two weeks after the ballpark opened.
Beyond the fences of the new stadium, the amusement rides are a fairy tale of lights. Looming over the leftfield wall is the Wonder Wheel, a 150-foot-high monster that predates Yankee Stadium. Behind the rightfield stands, the gaudily painted parachute jump—a relic of the 1939 World's Fair shut down since '68—rises like a giant skeleton.
Before reciting the visitors' starting lineup, the Cyclones' public address announcer proclaimed, "Starting now, we're beginning a new tradition that says you can't boo players you don't even know!" The crowd booed them anyway.
Fans cheered when Gil Hodges's widow, Joan, was introduced in the pregame ceremony and when Gil's teammate Ralph Branca caught the ceremonial first pitch from New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. They cheered louder still for manager Edgar Alfonzo and former Mets Bobby Ojeda, the Cyclones' pitching coach, and Howard Johnson, the team's hitting coach. However, their loudest cheers were saved for the bottom of the ninth, when third baseman Edgar Rodriguez poked a two-out, two-run, game-tying homer over the leftfield wall. If the ball had sailed a little lower, it would have struck the Garage Clothing sign (a reminder of the Abe Stark sign in right center at Ebbets) and won Ed-Rod a free suit.
An inning later Cyclones catcher Michael Jacobs, wearing Erskine's old number 17, hit a sacrifice fly to give Brooklyn a 3-2 victory, its first since '57. It was only fitting that Jacobs should be the hero: His mother was a Coney Islander.