Marty Adler still remembers the days when all he wanted to do was throw on his canvas sneakers, roll his Levis to his ankles, and run out with his friends to play stickball on the streets of Brooklyn.
"You didn't have equipment - nobody could afford any of that," Mr. Adler says, some 40 years after every rhythm in the borough seemed to pulse with the game of baseball.
Today, when the new Class A Brooklyn Cyclones take the field for the first time in their new Coney Island stadium, many longtime residents like Adler will recall the days when fans were singular in their passion for the game and their team, the Dodgers.
Normally, the debut of a new minor-league team would hardly cause such a stir. But this is Brooklyn, where baseball became a powerful source of unity among a packed-in mix of immigrants. Though it's been decades, many people still carry the anguish from the day when the Dodgers packed their gear and moved to Los Angeles in 1957.
"It's really important for people in the area," says Steve Cohen, general manager of the Cyclones. "Getting to know them and hearing their stories - it's been 44 years of something missing in their hearts."
Why Brooklyn, though? After all, the Dodgers' hated National League rivals, the Giants, left their home in upper Manhattan the same year and moved to San Francisco. Teams such as the Washington Senators and St. Louis Browns left their towns for good - but none of their jilted fans carry the same kind of heartbreak as those in Brooklyn.
What made a borough tick
In many ways, baseball first became the "national pastime" in the heart of New York's largest borough. The city-within-a-city was a mix of Italian, Irish, Jewish, and other immigrants who came to the US in the first two decades of the 20th century. For their children, baseball was a common bond as they played together in the streets.
"And there was also a feeling of closeness with the players," says Richard Lupardo, a retired sales executive who also grew up playing sandlot ball in Brooklyn. "Many of them lived in Bay Ridge [a neighborhood in the south end], and they always did their shopping at local merchants." On game days, many players would ride the subway with fans to Ebbets Field, the Dodgers' small, intimate ballpark.
Though Ebbets featured a domed rotunda enclosed in Italian marble, it was known for its carnival atmosphere and rough-hewn, blue-collar fans. When one fan yelled out at players who had struck out, "Ya bum, ya!," it caught on, and the Dodgers became known as "Dem Bums." A makeshift band of ill-talented musicians called the "Dodger Sym-phony" would beat drums and blow horns to songs like "Three Blind Mice." And in the center-field bleachers, a fan named Hilda Schusta would clang cowbells and drop notes of advice for the center fielder to take to the manager.
The color and raucous atmosphere of the ballpark reflected the multiethnic borough, and was in many ways the perfect place to break the racial segregation of baseball. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers to become the first black player in the league.
"I think Brooklyn was the only place where a person like Jackie Robinson could have succeeded," says Alder, a retired school supervisor who now heads the Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Fame. "If you know anything about baseball history, you know he could never have done this in Philadelphia or certainly not Boston.... You just had the right mix of ballplayers and a population to receive him."
Indeed, Robinson became a favorite for many stickball players on the streets. "As an Italian kid growing up in New York City," says Mr. Lupardo, "I guess my idol should have been Joe DiMaggio, but it wasn't. It was Jackie Robinson." In fact, Lupardo later named his son after the Dodgers star.
So, when the team moved to L.A., he was devastated. "I think no one believed it would happen until it happened," Lupardo says. "And when it did, the borough was dumbstruck."
Many don't pretend the Cyclones - a farm club of the Mets - will recapture the Dodger mystique, but there is an air of excitement. The new ballpark, which seats 7,500, has sold more than 80 percent of the season's tickets, says Mr. Cohen.
The new team hopes to capitalize on the past. "We decided at the very beginning that we wanted to tap into the history," he says.
Touches of Dodger days
A section of the park will be devoted to a Dodger Hall of Fame, and the players' uniform will look a little like the ones "Dem Bums" donned years ago. Some of the original "Dodger Sym-phony" will be on hand today, again banging drums and blowing trombones. And one of the ads on the left-field wall will echo a famous ad from Ebbets: "Hit Sign, Win Suit."
The Cyclones' home, KeySpan Park, could also end up revitalizing Coney Island, which at one time was one of the most famous amusement parks in the world. Hovering over the left-field corner is the landmark parachute jump; though it is no longer in use, it marks the place that made hot dogs an American staple.
From the seats, fans can also see the Cyclone roller coaster, for which the team is named. Over the right-field wall is a view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Today's game will begin with a parade of some 2,500 Little Leaguers that will also feature old Dodger players or their widows. "I think it's just exciting," says Adler. "I think it's wonderful: Baseball is coming back to Brooklyn."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor