2 STDMS, OCEAN VU, $110M

Minor-League Ball Comes to Coney and Staten Islands

Let's get this out of the way up front: $110 million.

That's $13.75 per city resident, $39 per city household, $440 per Voice reader. The new minor-league baseball stadiums opening next week in Brooklyn and Staten Island are costing a whole mess of money, especially when the average minor-league ballpark costs about $20 million—and especially since the city is picking up the whole tab.

While the mayor was shrilly advocating his now comatose plans to shovel city dollars into new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, he was quietly financing new homes for the two teams' farm clubs in the short-season A-level New York-Penn League.

Fun 'n' games: baseball, Coney style
photo: Annie Chia
Fun 'n' games: baseball, Coney style

The money is a touchy subject for Staten Island Yankees CEO Josh Getzler, whose father, Stan, is the club's principal owner. (Hank Steinbrenner, progeny of another noted baseball man, is part-owner and team president.) "Until six or eight months ago, I was much less sanguine about talking about it," says Getzler. "People have put such an extremely large number on it, that it becomes much more difficult to justify that [expense]."

Getzler points out that the $110 million is an unfairly inflated figure, since much of that was earmarked for accompanying projects and land preparation costs. But it leaves out other city expenditures that benefit the teams, such as the renovation of the cavernous Stillwell Avenue subway station in Coney Island, long planned but apparently jump-started by the approaching ballpark opening. "A whole mess of money" might be the most precise figure anyone ever pins on the two new ballparks, and with their opening days fast approaching (Sunday for Staten Island, Monday in Brooklyn), it's time to ask: Just what did we get for all that cash?

No matter how you feel about the finances behind them, there's something awe-inspiring about a ballpark suddenly rising out of what had recently been a vacant lot. But as beautiful as a carefully landscaped green field is, it's also the centerpiece of a very big business—as witnessed by the ad signage that rings the outfield walls in Brooklyn, or the video advertising boards inserted into the Staten Island ballpark's wall. (The stadiums themselves are billboards of a different scale: Each has had its name sold off to a local corporation, Richmond County Bank in the case of Staten Island, KeySpan in Brooklyn.)

It's why Getzler, in describing the video boards, chooses his words carefully to pay homage to both national pastimes on display here. "If you want to just zone out and take in the atmosphere, we want you to be able to do that without bombarding the fans with all kinds of advertising clutter—not to discount the value of advertising in other locations, because I certainly do not. Had we been in Coney Island, I probably would have done something very similar to what they did. It's atmosphere—they're in a carnival."

Spectacle is the name of the game in modern sports, but then it always has been in the minors, particularly the low minors where the Brooklyn Cyclones and S.I. Yankees reside. At this level, the players are young and anonymous, and likely to be called up to the next level the moment they show any promise. So instead of selling players, teams tend to sell the ballpark experience: both the cheap seats ($6 to $10 in Brooklyn, $8 to $10 in Staten Island, a notch higher than indie minor teams like Newark, but still a far cry from prices in the Bronx and Flushing) and the cheesy in-game attractions like dizzy bat races, or Staten Island's nightly postgame fireworks. Brooklyn will be represented by a seagull mascot; Staten Island counters with, Lord help us, a mascot called "Scooter, the Holy Cow."

Fortunately, minor-league parks are good places to watch a ballgame, too. For those used to nosebleed seats, minor-league ball can come as a revelation: With just a single deck stretching from foul pole to foul pole, here is the intimacy that big-league mallparks can only dream of (the Brooklyn park holds a cozy 6500, Staten Island, 6886). The ubiquitous luxury suites are present, but placed unobtrusively above and behind the regular seating bowl. And as has become commonplace at new minor-league parks, concessions concourses are open to the field, so you can buy hot dogs without fear of leaving blank spots on your scorecard.

The Brooklyn Cyclones, as the first team to call the borough home since that other club skipped town in 1957, have the emotional and marketing edge thus far. Cyclones hats, with their distinctive Dodgers B interlocking with a bright red C, have sprouted atop heads from Greenpoint to Brighton, and ticket sales have outpaced anyone's wildest expectations: 175,000 of the 250,000 tickets available for the season had been sold by last week, with opening week and all four home games against Staten Island already sold out. (Staten Island ticket sales have been solid but more modest, standing at 110,000 at press time.) Cyclones manager Edgar Alfonzo, brother of the Mets second baseman, notes that he's already become a local celebrity, with fans pulling their cars over and yelling, "Hey, Fonzie!"

The park that will be hosting the new Brooklyn faithful sits on Coney Island's Surf Avenue, a long foul ball from the rusty landmark Parachute Jump, and a short walk from the Stillwell Avenue subway hub, making it easy to stop off for a round of Skee-Ball or a Nathan's hot dog before the game. (Nathan's dogs will be sold at stadium concession stands as well.) Openness is the theme: By stacking luxury suites two deep behind home plate, the rest of the park has been left open to panoramic views of the beachside; an entrance has even been provided directly off the boardwalk, no doubt for fans arriving via fishing trawler and U-boat.

The stadium itself is all glass, colored cinder block, and neon, with an angled roof over the concourse that resembles a modernist offspring of the Dodger Stadium bleachers and a beach umbrella. The overall effect is garish without being tawdry—more New Times Square than old Coney Island. The Disneyfication effect extends to the suites themselves, which are furnished in Yuppie Bar Moderne and named for various Coney Island attractions: The Thunderbolt Suite, on the top level directly behind home plate, provides an excellent view of where its namesake roller coaster stood for 75 years before its abrupt demolition by the city last November.

Whether because of location or its pinstriped parent club, the Staten Island Yankees' home is less flashy, and somehow more likable for it. Built alongside the venerable ferry terminal, it features dark blue seats set among simple tan brick, and nice touches absent from the Cyclones park: on-field bullpens where relievers will warm up an arm's length from fans in the front rows (the Brooklyn bullpens are hidden out of sight in the outfield corners), and seats down the left-field line that slant toward home plate, à la Fenway Park, to minimize fan neck strain over the course of nine innings.

Here the lavish accoutrements are mostly behind-the-scenes: the spacious concessions facilities with walk-in freezer, the SIRT commuter rail station, where extra trains will be on duty each night awaiting the departing crowds. (Ferries will not be held, but will run on more frequent weeknight schedules on weekend game nights.) And if anyone dares question why city money was spent to build three, count 'em, three locker rooms (one for the home team, one for visitors, and one for setup of non-baseball events), it's state of the art, OK?

In both new ballparks, the best thing is the view. Coney offers the boardwalk and Atlantic Ocean to those in the top rows, and the genuine carnival atmosphere of the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel out past left field. (The conspicuous vacant lot in between was where the Thunderbolt stood; the Cyclones have denied asking for the ivy-covered wooden structure to be removed, but are nonetheless quick to brag about the view.) In Staten Island, all of New York Harbor from the Bayonne Bridge to the Verrazano Narrows is the backdrop, with the Manhattan skyline, Statue of Liberty, and freighters coming and going from the Jersey docks to distract anyone bored by the happenings on the field.

Still, that $110 million hovers like a ghost, visible in Coney Island's neon light towers, in the new ferry walkway and the cobblestone pavilion that fronts the ticket booths at Staten Island. Visible, for that matter, in the very presence of the teams, which were themselves yanked out of upstate Watertown and St. Catherine's, Ontario, by the lure of city-funded ballparks, much as a Los Angeles land deal first paved the way for the Dodgers to depart Brooklyn back in 1957.

Enjoy the view, then, and all that comes with it. You paid for it.

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