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’DREAMS’ COME TRUE

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Pitchers and catchers reported this week, and that event, following the remarkable sighting by a rodent of his shadow on a cloudy Groundhog Day, is the second sign this February that spring - and baseball - is right around the corner.

Here in Brooklyn, of course, we have to wait a few extra months before we hear the crack of the bat, as our beloved Cyclones - the short-season, single-A affiliate of the New York Mets - won’t be throwing out a first pitch until mid-June.

But for those of you who can’t wait, you can, in part, relive the Clones’ inaugural (and championship) campaign of 2001, in the new book "The Brooklyn Cyclones: Hardball Dreams and the New Coney Island" by Park Slope author Ben Osborne.

I say "in part" because Osborne’s book eschews in-depth interviewing of the people and players involved with the Cyclones, as in "When Baseball Returned to Brooklyn" (McFarland, 2003) by Brooklyn Papers’ columnist Ed Shakespeare, and he wisely chooses not to give the play-by-play of the season you can still find on The Brooklyn Papers Web site (www.brooklynpapers.com).

Instead, Osborne attempts to tell the story of professional baseball’s successful return to Brooklyn through the juxtaposing of his personal experience with two main characters: Cyclones catcher Brett Kay, who he describes as a "cool Californian with a rich sports background," and 14-year-old Anthony Otero, a resident of a nearby housing project and a baseball fanatic who, he writes, "brought baseball to the Coney Island Houses."

Without question, Otero is Osborne’s most interesting character - a Puerto Rican-American kid growing up near the same housing project that spawned NBA all-star and current New York Knick Stephon Marbury. Thanks to his mother’s love of the Yankees, Otero teaches his friends to play baseball on makeshift fields in the shadow of basketball courts.

At the start of the book, Otero, who’s never been to a professional baseball game or played organized ball, has little interest in the Cyclones, instead focusing his efforts on staying out of trouble and, hopefully, making the junior varsity baseball team at Lincoln High School come fall.

Meanwhile, Kay, of the $72,000 signing bonus, demands that he be allowed to start his professional career in Brooklyn, about which he and his coach had already heard a lot of buzz thanks to the new ballpark. Kay, 20, out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., "arguably one of the best high school sports programs in the country," according to Osborne, felt Coney Island would be a great place to learn how to play the game.

Osborne takes us back and forth between Otero’s home turf in the projects and Kay’s studio apartment in Manhattan, all the while filling us in on how things are going for both of them as the season wears on.

Often, Osborne tries to cram too much information into the 208-page book, and loses focus of his characters.

As the title suggests, Osborne delves into the promised rebirth of Coney Island, made by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, beginning with the construction of Keyspan Park and the introduction of the baseball team - and the politics that came along with it.

Osborne practically casts Giuliani as the villain of the story - a popular concept in pre-Sept. 11 New York - describing the mayor and his then-mistress and present wife, Judith Nathan, as "wearing their patented smug grin" while marching in the opening day parade down Surf Avenue. Osborne’s cartoonish descriptions of Giuliani occasionally made me feel like I was reading about C. Montgomery Burns, the evil nuclear power plant owner on "The Simpsons."

Osborne also takes issue with the way the private company that operates the publicly funded stadium - the New York Mets - reached out to the community around it. He gives the impression that everyone living in the apartment buildings down the block should have received a written invitation - if not free tickets - to come to the game.

"One can only imagine how much more of a boost these kids could get toward sports and away from trouble once the Cyclones have an opportunity to improve community outreach," he laments after kids from the neighborhood tell him they play sports to stay out of trouble.

In the end (and without giving away too much), the Cyclones do have a positive impact on Otero’s life, as he, his dad and friends begin going to games and enjoy some of the improvements to local parks the Mets helped finance.

Kay, meanwhile, struggles professionally as he moves up the ladder toward the major leagues.

As for Coney Island and the economic impact the new ballpark has on it, well, that remains to be seen. Osborne quotes Giuliani as calling the stadium "the first positive thing to happen in Coney Island in 60 years," and then wonders what Otero and his friends and family would think of such a bold claim - an interesting point.

"But those questions," he writes in the first chapter, "will have to wait." Unfortunately, that question is never posed.

The fact is, as long as there are hot summer days, a beach and the Atlantic Ocean, Coney Island will continue to draw a crowd.

And soon, after reading a book on that beach all day, come 7 pm, you can sit back and enjoy a game.

 

"The Brooklyn Cyclones: Hardball Dreams and the New Coney Island" (NYU Press, $24.99] by Ben Osborne will be released in April at BookCourt, 163 Court St. at Dean Street in Cobble Hill or by logging on to www.nyupress.org.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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