Tuesday was a big night for the Brooklyn Cyclones, as they played their first home game in more than 600 days, celebrated their 2019 New York-Penn League championship, and, after 20 years as a short-season affiliate of the Mets, brought full-season baseball back to Brooklyn. The Cyclones’ 4-3 loss to the Hudson Valley Renegades marked the first professional game in the borough in May since 1957, a game on the 26th in which Sandy Koufax (the namesake of the Cyclones’ original mascot — the one on the left is Pee Wee) beat the Giants, 5-3, backed by a Duke Snider homer at Ebbets Field.
The first fans back at the Coney Island ballpark got security screenings and temperature checks, and the home opening crowd was limited to 1,391 to maintain social distancing. While minor league baseball isn’t the novelty in Brooklyn that it was in 2001, when the Cyclones sold out every game, they have built a devoted fan base, even in a city with two major league teams.
I covered the Cyclones’ inaugural home game for the Brooklyn Eagle, an amazing summer job between my junior and senior years of college. That night, there was pomp, circumstance, and an overflow media contingent that required press tables on the concourse, hours before game time. This time around, about an hour and a half before first pitch, it was standard stuff, getting the mound watered so it wouldn’t get dusty. The field itself no longer requires water — the Cyclones switched from natural grass to artificial turf years ago.
Hudson Valley outfielder Frederick Cuevas took in the video celebrating the Cyclones’ 2019 league title. Cuevas had played in Brooklyn before, as a member of the Staten Island Yankees in 2018. A big change with the move from short-season to full-season is that the players coming through Brooklyn now have professional experience. Once, this had been the biggest ballpark some had ever played in. Now, it’s just another stop, albeit still a nice park with a good atmosphere and cooling seaside breezes.
One neat aspect of the Cyclones’ level change is that several members of the 2019 championship team are part of the 2021 squad. Andrew Edwards (18) threw out a ceremonial first pitch to Antoine Duplantis, and two of the dozen-plus returning Cyclones shared a moment before embarking on another season in Brooklyn.
American Idol and Broadway star
Many of the carnival-like trappings of the minor leagues remain on hiatus due to COVID-19, but Constantine Maroulis, the Brooklyn-born entertainer who sang the national anthem, was introduced as being from American Idol, which he appeared on in 2005, rather than as the Broadway star he’s become since then.
Cyclone stands still
The view of the original Cyclone from the concourse in left field never gets old, but it’s also not quite the same without seeing, off in the distance, the rickety old coaster cars going up, up, up, and then shooting down that legendary first drop. The sounds of Coney Island aren’t quite back yet, either, and while that was always a given in the short-season days, it’s going to take some getting used to when the Cyclones are playing on chilly nights in the early spring in years to come.
Bunt attempt foiled
Jake Mangum attempted to bunt for a base hit in the bottom of the first inning, but didn’t get his attempt far enough up the third base line. Hudson Valley catcher Josh Breaux was able to scoop up the ball and make the throw to first base for the out.
Sun of a pitch
Hayden Wesneski benefitted from the 6:30 p.m. start time, as the shadows and sun-dappled field played right into the starting pitchers’ hands. Wesneski allowed four hits over 5.1 innings, with just an unearned run coming against him on a double, passed ball, and wild pitch in the third. The wind off the ocean and the spacious center field have always made Brooklyn a pitcher-friendly park, unlike Ebbets Field, and playing as the sun sets only makes it more so.
Who’s No. 1?
After nearly two years away, despite being limited in number, Cyclones fans were as passionate as ever. Is “Baby Shark” still a thing? In Brooklyn, it sure is, as one leather-lunged fan got all over Cuevas, insisting that he’s the only real No. 1 in the ballpark.
The other Mariano
A Yankees cult hero for his mantra, “We play today, we win today, dassit,” in 1996, Mariano Duncan now is helping the next generation of Mets as the Cyclones’ bench coach. And in the minors, it’s always time to learn, as Brooklyn first baseman Joe Genord and shortstop Ronny Mauricio got some in-game pointers.
Umpires aren’t appreciated anywhere, and in the minors, the job is particularly tough, with one behind home plate and the other to cover all the bases. Mitch Leikam had that thankless job on Tuesday, dealing with the sun as well as the crowd’s reaction anytime a tight call went Hudson Valley’s way.
Cut it out
Ed Wilkinson of Bay Ridge couldn’t go to the ballpark himself last year. Nobody could, as the minor leagues were canceled. But the Cyclones did have some cardboard cutouts in the stands, which gave Wilkinson the opportunity to watch a game and be beside himself while remaining totally calm.
New rules, new excitement
With widened bases in Single-A ball this year, and new rules limiting pickoffs, there’s more incentive to steal bases. Isaiah Pasteur took off after his leadoff single in the sixth inning, slid into second base, then looked up and realized that he’d gotten his uniform dirty for no reason. Kyle MacDonald had accomplished the rare feat of getting a ball over the fence in right field — the ocean side of the park — to give Hudson Valley a 2-1 lead.
The T-shirt toss
Some minor league staples are possible to carry on in the pandemic era. The T-shirt toss is always a socially distanced activity, which gave the Surf Squad — another new part of the ballpark experience since the Cyclones began play — a chance to show off their arms.
Touch ’em all
Genord gave new meaning to “get up, get up, get outta here” on his two-run homer in the seventh inning that gave the Cyclones a 3-2 lead. And for just a little bit, it felt once again like that first night in 2001, when Edgar Rodriguez hit a tying homer in the bottom of the ninth and Mike Jacobs walked it off with a sac fly to beat the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Twenty years later, the Cyclones would have no such happy ending to their home opener. The bullpen let the lead get away, and Brooklyn went down in order in the ninth.
Maybe the coolest change between the beginning of the Cyclones and now is the lighting of the Parachute Jump, the 1939 landmark. That development was part of the original plan for the ballpark when it was new, but it took a couple of years to come to fruition. So, like the Cyclones, it’s not new, but still a lot of fun, and now showcasing baseball in May in Brooklyn for the first time in more than half a century.