Brooklyn's Return

Shut up about Brooklyn already. We all know about Brooklyn, that shining city on the hill, where everything is made only of awesome. Yes, there are beards and clunky eyeglass frames and lawyers who skateboard and grandpas with noise bands. The hipsters run-off freely now, the cheesecake is largely appareled American and vice now has a market cap. There’s even a successful sitcom that purports to be set there, which is as large a cultural signifier as anything — Brooklyn may be located on the western-most tip of Long Island, but where it actually lives is dead solid in the middle of the zeitgeist. It’s now, it’s hip, it’s hot, it’s happening. There is no mystery of Brooklyn to it. And this is why shut up about Brooklyn already.

Part of what put Brooklyn over the top where it is now — both beloved and reviled, a migration target and the butt of jokes — involved a fat shirtless guy being knocked out of his shoes, in front of not so many people.

Brooklyn is back to where it was in the middle of the 20th Century: the capturer of imagination. Back then, the awesome was equivalent but in different flavors. The Dodgers played in Flatbush, the longshoremen looked like Marlon Brando and that burly Brooklyn squonk of an accent was not just uniform in the borough but popular among the entertainers of the day. Back then, Brooklyn served the purpose that Canada does today.

But this was not always the case, there in Brooklyn. There was a time in between these two times when the crime rose and the neighborhoods unsettled. There was a time when all Brooklyn had going for it was the opening credits of “Welcome Back Kotter”, when it was living not only in the shadow of Manhattan, but also of its former glories, and this time stretched right up to the turn of the century.

This is not meant to be a travel brochure for Brooklyn: yes, I live there, and I have done so for coming on twenty years, but I assume that anyone that lives in the same place for so long will have similar sentiments. But I’ve been there (or let’s just start saying, here), both in times of ignominious squalor and generally bad borough-reputation (which were more fun than you’d think) and in times of the Bright Shiny Animal-Hat Wearing Brooklyn. Plus also, that transitional moment? I was there.

In 2001, baseball returned to Brooklyn. In Coney Island, a modest little stadium was built, and the Cyclones brought pro baseball back for the first time in 44 years. My friends and I were very excited by this, having lived in Brooklyn for a while, and we obtained a nine game season package.

They were a Single-A short season club for the New York Mets, which meant that the players were largely fresh out of the draft, and generally either starting a long road to the bigs or enjoying their brief stay as the talent was winnowed out. It also meant that there was no such thing as a routine throw to first. But the games were fun, sitting in that park hard on the beach and the Atlantic Ocean behind it, the actually Cyclone visible (and audible) in the distance over the left field fence. In the stands, the atmosphere was festive, old-timers and hipsters alike keeping the taunting PG for the masses of kids there, a fellow named Party Marty running the mid-inning promotions (like “Who Wants A Pizza?” and “What’s In The Box?”), and characters attending every game, like this old fellow who looked like he might have been an original extra in “Saturday Night Fever” who boogied in the aisle holding a sign that read “DISCO MANIAC” (though we called him the ESCAPED DISCO LUNATIC). Basically, the Ur-baseball experience, without the complications of drunken fans working blue, or actually caring about the outcome of the season.

On June 26 of 2001, we got to see our first game, the second home game for the Cyclones ever, and the atmosphere was as described above but after a heroic dose of Dexadrine. The people that could remember the last Dodger’s game in Ebbets Field were nearly in tears for the day, and the little kids were feeding off that and were spider monkey to an extra degree. It was packed to the rafters (what few rafters the place had). It was a big day for Brooklyn. We all felt prosperous and lucky, and the future was as unfathomably big as the ocean stretching out past Sandy Hook and to the vanishing point.

I don’t remember who the Cyclones played or what the score was, but I do remember this: somewhere in the middle innings, between pitches, a man jumped onto the field and started to run around. Usually this behavior is tolerated by the crowd for the spectacle, but on this day we were not in the mood: the dude, an older guy, large, flabby and without a shirt, was almost immediately booed. But the security staff, two days into the job, must not have been particularly skilled at their jobs, because they were unable to catch the fat shirtless guy, stumbling after him in lazy circles in shallow right field.

Once the fat shirtless guy realized that he wasn’t getting tackled immediately, he did what every unauthorized field runner does — he decided to round the bases. The other team was in the middle of their at-bats, so the Cyclones were in the field. The infielders all stood well off the bags, with their arms crossed. They were not going to take part in this foolishness. And so the fat shirtless guy made his slow procession, first, second, with hapless security far behind.

Except for the catcher, that is. The catcher, Mike Jacobs, a righty from Chula Vista, California, stood astride home plate. The fat shirtless guy was rounding third. Mike Jacobs didn’t budge. And as the fat shirtless guy approached home, unsure whether to slide or not, Mike Jacobs speared him: basically picked him up and drove him into the dirt.

The stadium exploded. We roared because the fat shirtless guy was done and baseball would recommence, and we roared because our catcher was so dedicated as to protect that plate under all circumstances: from fat shirtless guys, from seagulls, from the wind and the rain. But we also cheered because we were Brooklyn, and many of us were feeling that we were Brooklyn for the first time.

Oddly, I seem to have a knack for being present at auspicious New York baseball moments, even though I only catch a couple games a year. I was at the old Yankee Stadium when David Wells lumbered through a perfect game in 1998, and the only Major League game I saw was in the new Yankee Stadium, when Derek Jeter hit his 3,000th hit (and four others). I am apparently good luck for someone (though sadly that someone is the Bronx Bombers).

But that moment, Mike Jacobs leveling the fat shirtless guy, was the sweetest moment of all. Brooklyn was well on its way up at that time — galleries were opening in Williamsburg, a modest restaurant row was popping up on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, and other neighborhoods like Red Hook and Kensington were being chosen by the students and the refugees from Manhattan not just for the rent but for the fabric of the neighborhoods, decades old. That game was a big Brooklyn appreciation party, attended by both the new and the old Brooklynites, and during this party a recent transplant from California defended the Brooklyn institution of baseball from the depredations of the fat shirtless guy.

Mike Jacobs was eventually moved to first base and ended up with four years in the Major Leagues, with the Marlins, Royals and the Mets and then, well, like so many of us, he took a few shortcuts. And Brooklyn? Well, Brooklyn is a movie star now. It’s a phenomenon with which you are no doubt familiar, and one regarding which you are likely sick to death.

Brent Cox is all over the Internet.Photo by Pete Jelliffe.