From the sandlots to the blacktops, Brooklyn, New York shared a seemingly unbreakable bond with baseball for nearly a half century. Cheering valiantly for their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, the borough strongly identified with its heroes, but were heartbroken and jilted when the club led by owner Walter O’Malley, announced plans to move with the rival New York Giants to the west coast at the end of the 1957 season. For the next 44 years, Brooklyn was without a team to call its own until the Brooklyn Cyclones, a short-season Class-A affiliate of the New York Mets in the New York-Penn League filled the void left by the Dodgers and captivated a city in 2001 during its inaugural season of play.
As a child during the latter years of the Dodgers’ tenure in Brooklyn, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani experienced a time when the Dodgers and Yankees seemingly met on an annual basis in the World Series. Hoping to recapture those nostalgic memories, Giuliani negotiated an agreement between owners Fred Wilpon and George Steinbrenner to bring minor league teams to Brooklyn and Staten Island. The new Brooklyn baseball franchise became “The Cyclones” in a fan vote and began play in the 7,500 seat Keyspan Park in 2001.
Just months removed from the Mets and Yankees meeting in the World Series, the interest in baseball was not any greater in the area. Adding a team to Brooklyn to the equation, fans were ready to flock to the turnstiles. The unexpected reception forced Cyclones brass to add 1,000 additional seats in the bleachers.
After playing a transitional season as the Queens Kings on the St. John’s University campus as a Blue Jays affiliate, the Cyclones played in their first home game in Brooklyn on June 25, 2001 against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Featuring a sellout crowd and local TV coverage, Keyspan Park’s opening was as memorable as the game itself. As for the action on the field, the drama equaled the hype, when Cyclones’ third baseman Edgar Rodriguez hit a game-tying two run home run in the bottom of the 9th inning, en route to a 3-2 victory in extra innings.
Led by manager Edgar Alfonzo and 1986 World Series champions Howard Johnson and Bobby Ojeda, the Cyclones were equipped with experienced baseball minds and played a key role in developing future major league players, such as pitcher Lenny DiNardo, who became the first Cyclones player to the Fall Classic as a member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. “Bobby was an ultimate big league pitcher. He was a coach, but at the end of the day, he was a veteran on the squad. With him he led by example and his personality”, DiNardo said. “HoJo took it lighter in the clubhouse and the two fed off each other. Fonzie was great. He was a player’s manager and let the guys go out there and play. He wasn’t a manager that lost ballgames.”
For the 2001 Cyclones, losing wasn’t a common occurrence. After an 8-8 start, the Cyclones won their next eleven and finished with a 52-24 record, winning the McNamara Division title over the rival Staten Island Yankees. Separated by just the Verrazano Bridge, the Cyclones and Baby Bombers formed arguably the most heated rivalry in the minor leagues, comparing with some of the game’s most long-standing ones. “It’s two teams that are basically next door neighbors with fans that take the game really seriously and they talk about the rivalry to you and it was very similar for me to the Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees rivalry,” DiNardo noted.
The rivalry reached its apex as the Cyclones and Yankees met in a memorable three-game postseason series, featuring future major league products Angel Pagan, Robinson Cano, Danny Garcia, and John-Ford Griffin. Brooklyn dropped the first game of the series on the road, but returned home and won the final two games of the series, aided by a late home run by former Cal State Fullerton catcher Brett Kay in the decisive game to send the Cyclones to the New York-Penn League Championship series against the Williamsport Crosscutters.
Although most players have vague memories of the minor league playing days, the first game of the NYPL Championship are forever etched in their minds. After beating the Crosscutters on the road in the first game, the Cyclones returned to Brooklyn on September 11, preparing for an off-day before the teams resumed play the following night. Just hours after returning to their dorms on the campus of St. John’s University, most players awoke to the news of the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center and suddenly their season came to a premature end without resolution, as the league opted to cancel the remaining games of the series.
“That was such a traumatic event. We ended up coming home from Williamsport after their facing the Pirates’ affiliate. It was an off-day on September 11, so our players were planning to visit New York City and we woke up and saw on TV one of the towers on fire and suddenly the ash was flowing by our window and just fire and paper going by outside and it was mayhem after the second plane hit the other tower. It was a time we were kids and we were not thinking about baseball,” DiNardo states.
Despite the unexpected end to the season, the 2001 Brooklyn Cyclones continue to stand as the benchmark while all future Brooklyn teams measure themselves against. The co-championship distinction with the Williamsport Crosscutter is the club’s lone title to date and helped spark a run of 14 consecutive winning seasons until their first sub-.500 season in 2015.
The Cyclones’ immediate success helped forge an identity independent of the Dodgers and quickly became of the top box office draws in Minor League Baseball. Beginning with Garcia, and DiNardo, the Cyclones produced over 50 MLB alumni in their history, including a significant portion of the 2015 National League Champion New York Mets. Fifteen years since the inaugural season, the Brooklyn Cyclones have developed both an identity and a proud legacy of excellence.