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The Zorrilla: Brooklyn's Baseball Oasis

In many ways, the 59-year-old Latino league serves as a beacon for dreams, culture and identity.

Atlantic Avenue is choked with traffic heading east on this sweltering Saturday in late August, and motorists who pass the hardscrabble Brooklyn baseball field are unfortunate targets for any wayward home runs that happen to clear the left-field chain-link fence. Along Fountain Avenue near the entrance to the baseball diamond, there is a derelict 18-wheeler and an auto repair shop. It is well past noon, just before the start of the day's first playoff game between the Top Brass Rangers and the Long Island Tardinals.

Jose Gracia, 79 and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and mustache, is tucked in his usual corner on the top rung of the metal bleachers behind home plate. The Puerto Rican-born Gracia, a former pitcher, wears a crisp blue "Zorrilla Baseball" T-shirt, a reference to the league that has been the talk of this neighborhood and among pro baseball circles for more than five decades. A card table with "Scorer" written in red on the front lip swallows Gracia's legs. He leans into the microphone. "Strike mirando!"

The year was 1961 when Gracia arrived in the big city, and settled in east New York. Gracia says he played Class A-level baseball in his native Puerto Rico, and that a friend provided Gracia with an introduction to Brooklyn's nascent Pedrin Zorrilla League, named for a longtime baseball scout who founded the league. "That year, I was the leader in ERA, strikeouts, wins, and I played in the all-star game in Red Hook," says Gracia, referring to his first year with Zorrilla in '61. His face, wizened by aging, has seen a lot of baseball played at City Line Park since then. Gracia says there aren't as many fans in 2018 packing the stands like when he played, but this baseball outpost is still a vital link to young prospects hoping to play professionally, and to older players who are still hanging on, trying to keep that baseball dream alive. According to Ryan Morales, manager of the Top Brass Rangers, the Zorrilla is made of about 50 percent former minor-leaguers and MLB prospects.

"Hands down the best baseball in New York," says Dominican-born Abraham Sosa, who runs the Tenares team, named after the Dominican town where Sosa was born and raised. "I play a lot of baseball. I play around the whole state. But if you can play here, you can play anywhere."

Along Fountain Avenue, the street that runs parallel to the third-base line of City Line Park's baseball field, players for the Top Brass Rangers congregate after a game. The Top Brass Rangers are named after the Top Brass vodka brand, the team's sponsor.

The Top Brass Rangers prepare for a game against the Long Island Tardinals. Top Brass outfielder/infielder Manuel Mesa, shown here, has a rich baseball lineage: His uncle, Jose Mesa, played in the majors for 19 years, including in two World Series with the Cleveland Indians. "I played at Southeastern University," Mesa says of the school in Florida. "I had a great year in school. No opportunities came [to play in the pros], but I'm still following my dream."

Pablo Bilbraut, whose day job is teaching music, helps keep score during Zorrilla League games. Most of the people running Zorrilla do it for fun, despite the sizable time commitment and upkeep. For example, Mike Nugent, Zorrilla's president, applies fresh chalk to the foul lines before each game and pitches in with other tasks.

The smell of Dave Cargill's jerk chicken wafts across City Line Park during Saturdays and Sundays in the summer, and his culinary efforts draw plenty of customers to his "First Base Cafe," which comprises a barbeque pit, a couple of card tables and some coolers.

The sound system is a pair of speakers propped up behind home plate and plugged into an extension cord that winds across Fountain Avenue into someone's home. Jose Gracia's steady playcalling echoes across the park, a voice familiar to many fans who have watched baseball from the City Line stands over the years. Gracia, who turns 80 in April, was a pitcher in the Zorrilla League long ago. But for the past 30-plus years, Gracia has been the voice of Zorrilla. He's usually the first to arrive at the park -- along with his wife of more than 50 years, Carmen -- and he dutifully dispenses the details of each game with not much more help than the lineups scribbled in his notebook.

Many of the Zorrilla players have the support of family members each season. Here, Zairan Castro, 6, watches a game with his father, Marcos Castro, who plays for Top Brass. "That's what this is all about. Come with the family, have some fun," says Abraham Sosa, who runs the Tenares team. "We have food over there. Amazing. Great time."

Aguilas plays against the Cubs on a recent Sunday. Mallid Mustafa, who has been a Zorrilla umpire for six years, says a Yankees scout attended some games in early August to check out a 19-year-old pitcher "who throws 95, 96 mph." "This league is very good. It's a steppingstone for young players."

There are not many of Zorrilla's old guard left, but the man everyone knows as "Canena" -- yes, he goes by a single name only -- is a former shortstop in the league who played during the '60s. Today, the 76-year-old Canena is more the mayor of City Line Park, one minute serving cold bottles of beer from a cooler hidden near a shed, the next minute joining a game of dominoes with some of the park regulars, while finding time to take a peek at the action on the field. "I try to play dominoes with my group of friends regularly. It's a good time," Canena says.

Jose Gracia, the veteran Zorrilla PA announcer, says when he pitched in the Zorrilla League, more than 2,000 fans would routinely fill the stands. The numbers have dwindled, but the festive nature is still in abundance. Once the games start, families and friends pop open coolers of beer, music blares from portable speakers or from parked cars, and kids ride bikes around the sidewalks and alleyways.

Baseball is not the only competitive activity at City Line Park. Often before first pitch, many of the park's denizens are seated at a table in the shade on the other side of the batting cage, playing dominoes. The action is heated but there are plenty of cold beers in coolers nearby.

Wester Bello puffs on a cigar while seated in the bleachers at City Line Park. Nearby, cars and trucks clog Atlantic Avenue in both directions just beyond the left- and center-field fence. Fans like Bello can find a little peace and baseball at the oasis in the middle of the Brooklyn neighborhood. "It's good for the families. Some people have to pay ridiculous amounts of money to see a baseball game," says Carlos Guzman, who plays in the Zorrilla League.

Carlos Guzman, 32, lived the dream of playing baseball professionally, after the Mets signed him as a free agent in 2006. The Brooklyn native played five seasons in the organization, reaching Double-A, before a knee injury scuttled his journey. "My dad played here, my uncles played here. This league is legendary," says Guzman, shown here with Lorenzo Abreu, his grandfather. "A lot of young bulls come through here and pitch well. There needs to be a lot more notice for the kids here in this league."

Harlem's Rucker Park or the West Village's West Fourth Street courts are legendary New York City hoops landmarks, but when it comes to baseball, Brooklyn's Zorrilla League has endured and continues to attract talented peloteros to the field at the corner of Atlantic and Fountain Avenues. "There are a lot of players who are older and still play because they love it," says Top Brass player Manuel Mesa. "We live for playing, but some have other jobs and are here so they can still play. Most of the league is college players, players who hope to sign with a team."

Most everyone who walks through the City Line Park entrance makes a point to say hello to Jose Gracia, the longtime Zorrilla public-address announcer. He calls 4½ innings of each game, his wife, Carmen, usually by his side. The couple has six children, 13 grandchildren and will welcome their 14th great-grandchild in December. "My whole life's been in baseball, since I was little," says the Puerto Rican-born Gracia. "It's like I was born at the ballpark."

Whether it's rice and beans, chicken and pork, or hand-carved steak, flavored water ice, eating well is one of the staples during the Zorrilla season. Here, one of the coaches for Aguilas prepared a meal that the team enjoyed after one of its games.

One part of the Zorrilla League that has remained unchanged all these years is its constant family atmosphere. Many players bring sizable entourages to the ballpark. Players' kids dot the outskirts of the baseball field, and some have hopes to someday suit up and play in the Zorrilla.

Abraham Sosa, the Tenares team owner, says he has players "from all over" the U.S., as well as from baseball talent-rich countries like the Dominican Republic. "I have about three guys who got released and played here just to stay in shape. This season, they got the call and actually are playing professional ball now," Sosa says. Carlos Guzman, the former Mets prospect, offers a blunt assessment: "You want to see good baseball, competitive baseball? Come see baseball here. It's like the atmosphere of winter ball in the Dominican or Venezuela."

One thing the Zorrilla is not, according to Guzman, at left, is some "beer league where guys' bellies are hanging over" their uniform pants. Guzman says he thinks he has a few more baseball-playing years in the tank. "I'll play while I have time to play, and when I don't, I'll move on. All I wanna be is respected, so when people see me, or my family, they say I carried myself the right way and I did positive things for this neighborhood," Guzman, 32, says. "I'm very proud to say I'm from here. This is what made me."

Puerto Rican-born Ana Padilla, center, has been a longtime fan of the Zorrilla League, and her allegiance these days lies with the Top Brass Rangers, whom her son, Ryan, manages. In a recent series with the Tardinals, Padilla, 71, brought out a broom to celebrate Top Brass' sweep of the opposing team. "I'm a big fan of the Rangers. Until I die," the mother of two says. "I used to sell soda, food, and last year I stopped because they used to call the cops on me. I used to sell liquor, too. I got a little Parkinson's, so I stopped. Now I relax."

Top Brass nearly failed to qualify for the playoffs, so its quarterfinal series win was reason to celebrate. Rangers players cracked open some beer after a game while scouting the team they would face, as the semifinals began the next day.

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