Diamond District From Brooklyn to Buffalo, the summer game of choice is minor league baseball

May 31, 2004
May 31, 2004

Table of Contents
May 31, 2004

NBA Playoffs

Diamond District From Brooklyn to Buffalo, the summer game of choice is minor league baseball

From his redoubt in the stands behind home plate at Falcon Park
in Auburn, N.Y., Richard Malinowski stares at opposing Class A
pitchers in an unpleasant, boiled sort of way: lips tight, eyes
bulging in their sockets like irascible snails. Malinowski is a
fan of the Auburn Doubledays, and it soon becomes apparent why
he's known as Mouth. Whenever the other team's pitcher is yanked
in mid-inning, Mouth emits an earsplitting howl: "WHOOP WOO!
WHOOP WOO! WHOOP WOO!" ¶ Sometimes Mouth's whooping and wooing
lasts for five minutes, sometimes 10; once it went on for nearly
half an hour. "Everybody gets mad at me," says the retired mill
worker, who's been whooping it up at Falcon since 1980. "Umps
yell, 'Hey, Mouth, shut up already.'" But Mouth keeps mouthing
off for the Doubledays, the baby farm team of the Toronto Blue
Jays. "I'm showing my thanks to the players and the ballpark,"
he says. "When I walk through the turnstile, I leave my
troubles behind. Of course, when the game's over and I walk
back through the gate, I pick 'em up again."

This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue

Fans tend to have serious attachments to their teams and stadiums
in New York, a state whose borders enclose some serious baseball
country. Besides Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and Shea Stadium in
Queens, there's the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

To find the seriously serious fans, though, you have to beat the
bushes. And New York has a lot of bush to beat: three Triple A
teams (the Buffalo Bisons, the Rochester Red Wings and the
Syracuse SkyChiefs) and one Double A club (the Binghamton Mets).
But the state's most dedicated diehards--its Mouths--go to games
in the New York-Penn League, the longest continuously operated
Class A alliance.

Crammed with just-drafted college players, the league starts its
76-game season in mid-June and ends it before Labor Day. The
seven New York teams range from Batavia, near the Canadian
border, southeastward to the Big Apple. "Staten Island crowds are
crazy about their Yankees," says John Belnavis, a Richmond County
Bank Ballpark regular, "but we're not insane about them, like
Brooklyn crowds are about their Cyclones."

Though the Cyclones have been around for only four seasons, their
following is the most ferocious in the five boroughs. Since
Opening Day 2001 the team named after a Coney Island roller
coaster has sold out all but three games in 7,500-seat KeySpan
Park. "Brooklynites love the Cyclones because we grew up with
baseball all around us," says Joe Guastella, the 47-year-old
Coney Islander everyone calls Joe G. "My father talked about the
Dodgers and the Yanks and the Giants and then, in 1962, the

A plump, short-legged retired paramedic ("bad heart"), Joe G.
grew up across the street from KeySpan in a six-story tenement.
Back then Coney Island was a Cote d'Azur for the masses. The slip
of sand on which the stadium now squats was Steeplechase Park, a
tangle of freak shows, shooting galleries and mechanical horse
races. The compound closed in 1964 and became a ghostly huddle of
unridden rides, then a vacant lot. Six years ago New York City's
mayor, Brooklyn-born Rudolph Giuliani, gave the go-ahead for the
$39 million ballpark. "I watched it go up brick by brick," says
Joe G. "It took 18 months."

He swans around the House That Rudy Built in clothes the color of
a ripe persimmon. He usually wears one of his 30 baseball hats
("I've got one for almost every home game") and his Cyclones
jersey, the one that says number 1 fan. "Really, all Cyclones
fans are Number 1," Joe G. says. "I call them my KeySpan family."

His KeySpan relatives include Disco Maniac, Cowbell Man, Party
Marty, the Beach Bums, Stanley the Seagull, Pee Wee and Monkey
Lady. Like the settlers of Coney Island these Cycloniacs are a
cosmopolitan bunch. "We have every possible nationality and
religious persuasion," Joe G. says. "Nobody's fighting, nobody's
arguing. It's one big ongoing party, and everybody watches out
for everybody."

KeySpan's carnival atmosphere is as electric as a circus catch.
The famous Ferris, called the Wonder Wheel, peeps over the fence
in left. The 262-foot-tall Parachute Jump--Brooklyn's Eiffel
Tower--looms over the wall in right. The stadium's floodlights
are encircled by bright neon.

The stadium is now as synonymous with Brooklyn as Nathan's and
cheesecake and Italian ices. "It's Coney Island!" exults Joe G.
"It's family entertainment!"

Upstate at Damaschke Field, the New York-Penn outpost in Oneonta,
Sam Nader takes a sober view of family fun. "I run the only
stadium in organized ball that doesn't sell alcohol," says the
president and general manager of the Tigers. "I don't think kids
should have to sit next to some drunk with a dirty mouth and an
open fly. Do I drink? Hell, yeah. But at Damaschke we're purists.
Or something. Or nuts."

Twenty-three hilly miles from Cooperstown, the field has seen pro
ball since 1905--Babe Ruth barnstormed through in '20. The minor
leagues came to town in '40 and left in '51. Nader was mayor of
Oneonta in '66, when he led the movement to bring back a Class A
franchise. In the years since--32 of which Damaschke served as
the home of a Yankees farm club--Nader has resisted numerous
offers to sell out to investors he feared would hawk beer and
"McDonaldize" the joint.

A vital man of 84, Nader devotes his life to preserving Damaschke
from progress. Both clubhouses are behind the grandstands; to
reach the field, players must mingle with fans. The concession
stand has no cash register: Money for sausage-and-pepper
sandwiches goes straight into a wooden lock box that would make
Al Gore envious. Nader takes no salary. Any profit is plowed back
into the team. "One season Dad saved all the pennies from the
snack bar," says his son, John, a college professor and the
club's unpaid business manager. "At the end of the season his
take was 18 cents."

Sam and his sister-in-law, Susan Plantz, often watch the action
from a ground-level box just past the home dugout. "I love the
players' eternal hope," he says. "They really believe that
someday they'll make the majors." During the Nader Era more than
150 have. There were Amos Otis, Bernie Williams, Al Leiter, Bob
Tewksbury and Jorge Posada. There were Don Mattingly and Willie
McGee, the 1985 American and National League MVPs, respectively.
And there was John Elway, a perfect gentlemen who could throw
perfect spirals. "John batted .318 here in 1982," Nader recalls.
"He was a hell of an outfielder."

"Don't be fooled," cautions Plantz. "Sam says everybody's a hell
of an outfielder."

Nader honors former Oneonta players with unfailing kindness and
welcomes newcomers to Damaschke with unpretentious support. "When
a Bernie Williams makes the Show or a Bob Tewksbury stops by the
stadium with his kids, those are great moments," he says. "To me,
that's what minor league ball in New York is all about."

This is the 45th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Idaho

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON SKY HIGH Brooklyn's ballclub was named after a roller coaster.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MEL LEVINE BEACH BALL The Class A Cyclones play at Coney Island, with a view of the Atlantic and the site's old amusement park rides.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: CHUCK SOLOMON (2) SUMMER BREEZE Oneonta's Tigers (left) play in a no-frills, alcohol-free park; games in Brooklyn bring out the likes of Monkey Lady, Disco Maniac, Joe G. and Cowbell Man.

"We have every possible nationality and religious persuasion,"
says Guastella of the Cyclones' zany band of fans. "It's one big
ongoing party."

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