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New York state of mind: Visit conjures up Coney Island memories and a heck of a ride

New York state of mind: Visit conjures up Coney Island memories

Houston, Coney Island Cyclone New York, July 2017
The Coney Island Cyclone is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Photo by Tess O'Brien

During my recent New York visit, Jeremy Wolf, left fielder for the Brooklyn Cyclones, and I grabbed some pizza at Coney Island after his game Monday night. Wolf was the national Division III Player of the Year for Trinity University in 2016, the year the Tigers became the first Texas college to win the Division III World Series. On this night, he went 2-5 with a single and double for the New York Mets minor league team.

I told him, “You and I have something in common. You’re playing pro baseball in Coney Island, and when I was your age, my friends and I would hang out at Nathan’s hot dog stand next door to your stadium on Saturday nights.”

Wolf and I took different paths to Coney Island, though. He was drafted by the Mets after graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio and is playing his second season of pro ball. My friends and I used to drive to Coney Island from New Jersey, where I grew up, after a hard night of hard liquor and other things. (Note: I was the designated driver because, unlike my friends, I never got into drinking and those other things. But, boy, they sure did.)

We would rally around midnight, cram into a car, three in the front, three in the back, and drive to Coney Island to gorge on hot dogs at 1 am. Those other things make you hungry.

They’ve cleaned up the neighborhood since, but Nathan’s after midnight wasn’t exactly a family crowd then. A guy named “Sketch” was always there. He kind of lived there. He would draw your caricature on a napkin for $1 and/or a hot dog. The fascinating thing about Sketch … usually caricature artists draw flattering, funny pictures of people. Sketch drew you “as is,” even exaggerating your worst features. The later it got, the more incriminating his drawings got.

One night, my friend Barry was a little tipsy (drunk, barely able to walk) and ate a huge plate of frog’s legs with extra ketchup and corn on the cob. He had kernels of corn stuck in ketchup all over his face.

We got Sketch to draw Barry, and he included the corn on his chin and forehead. How he got corn on his forehead should be a mystery, but it wasn’t. Why The Louvre doesn’t have this drawing on a wall is a shame.

Then we would ride The Coney Island Cyclone a few times. The world’s most famous rollercoaster is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Wolf’s baseball team is named after the amusement park ride. The coaster was designated a New York City landmark in 1988 and made the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

I’ve sort of returned home to Coney Island in better condition. Last week in the Coney Island News, they did a feature story about me judging the Fourth of July Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest. 

It’s meteorologically odd that the rollercoaster is called The Cyclone. Cyclones and hurricanes and typhoons are all the same weather thing. What they’re called depends on where they hit. In the Northwest Pacific, they’re typhoons. In the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, they’re cyclones. In the New York area, they’re hurricanes. So the rollercoaster really should have been named The Hurricane.

Hurricane Sandy wrought a 14-foot storm surge over Coney Island in 2012, flooding the boardwalk, amusement park, and baseball stadium.

The Cyclone rollercoaster was built in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for the greatest New York Yankee team ever. The rollercoaster cost $175,000 to build. Now that’s what a ticket costs to ride it.

Kidding. It’s $10 to take the 2-minute, 30-second scream ride along six turns and 12 drops on the half-mile route. The Cyclone is a wood coaster, so it has all the old school rattles and creaks of a classic thrill ride. It’s still a fun, scary experience — a New York must thing-to-do.

It’s not super smooth and quiet, like those sleek new coasters, practically kiddie rides, at Disney World and Universal Studios.

When you watch a Brooklyn Cyclones game at MCU Park, you can hear Cyclone riders shrieking at 60 miles per hour over the outfield fence.

Houston Astros pitcher Collin McHugh played for the Cyclones in 2009. Jerry Seinfeld mentions riding the Cyclone rollercoaster in "The Subway" episode of Seinfeld. Beyonce filmed part of her video for “XO” on The Cyclone. August 4 is “Salute to Seinfeld Night” at Cyclones stadium with an appearance by the actor who played Kramer’s lawyer, Jackie Chiles, plus a Soup Nazi bobblehead giveaway. August 24 is “Jewish Heritage Night.” September 2 is “Saturday Night Fever Night.”

MCU Park serves Nathan’s hot dogs and French fries. I had two dogs during the game on July 3 to get me pumped for Nathan's Hot Dog Contest, held next door to the stadium.