Categorized | Baseball, Featured

Diamond on the Beach

The Cyclones celebrated their division victory. Photo courtesy of www.metsmerized.com

By Will Newbrander

Surf Avenue, Coney Island’s main thoroughfare, teemed with activity.  Beachgoers seeking relief from the sticky summer heat intermingled with patrons of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, an annual fete commemorating the Coney Island Mardi Gras parades of the early 20th century.  The parade was a display of the risqué and the bizarre.  One float featured two women outfitted as pirates wearing fishnet-stockings and short-shorts, swashbuckling up and down a stripper pole.  Oil-drenched pelican and mermaid costumes made for a popular twist, a reference to the uncapped British Petroleum oil spill then spewing in the Gulf of Mexico.  Those opting for less elaborate attire simply paraded half-nude with the exception of a few glittery beads or accessories.  For an event backdropped by Coney Island, where literal freak shows and seediness are just part of the charm, turning heads is a considerable feat and the mermaid parade celebrants seemed to take pride in every double-take and dropped jaw.

Juxtaposed with the outlandish exhibitionism of the parade was the orderliness of MCU Park just two blocks down Surf Avenue.  The 10-year-old stadium is one of the nation’s premier minor league baseball facilities and home of the New York Mets short-season single-A affiliate, the Brooklyn Cyclones.  Its stately sand-hewed façade complements the beach extending beyond the right field wall, while memorabilia displays pay homage to Brooklyn’s rich baseball history.  Blue and yellow canopies sheltering the concourses resemble the circus tent across the street.  The ballpark’s brightly colored trim and concession stands evoke the carnival booths lining the boardwalk.  Beyond the left field wall stands the famed Coney Island amusement park where the Cyclone, the historic roller coaster for which the team is named, still operates.

The gates of MCU Park swarmed with throngs of fans wearing all varieties of baseball apparel.  The ragtag, mustard-stained jerseys of the ballpark patrons suddenly seemed rather formal amid the scant outfits dominating Surf Avenue that day.  Sausages sizzled on an open grill and a sign advertised 32 ounce beers for $5 at Peggy O’Neill’s pub, located just outside the third base grandstand.  It was Saturday, June 19 and the Cyclones’ were playing their home opener (and second game of the year), beginning their tenth season in the New York-Penn League.

Just inside the main gates, 30 wide-eyed young baseball players lined the stairs leading to the ballpark’s main concourse, signing autographs, taking pictures, shaking hands—a Cyclones opening day tradition.  The bright sun glistened off their crisply pressed home whites, still immaculately unblemished from the stubborn grass and dirt stains they would accumulate over the season.  The scene should have been a comforting slice of apple-pie Americana to this hastily assembled squad, many of whom had been property of the Mets for barely a week, but between signing baseballs and game programs, the players from towns like Ecru, Mississippi, Tega Cay, South Carolina and Sugarland, Texas couldn’t help but peer beyond the gates—with expressions ranging from quizzical to confused—at this strange new place; their summertime home.

* * *

During pre-game festivities, the Cyclones and their opponents, the Staten Island Yankees, stood facing each other in formation along the foul lines as a steady procession of local politicians and dignitaries were ushered to the pitchers mound for speeches, tributes and ceremonial first pitches.  As the public address announcer listed the Cyclones starting lineup, each player, about whom the average fan knew nothing, drew polite applause.  “And managing the Cyclones, number six, Wally Backman!”  The crowd of 9,888, a Cyclones opening day record, stood and roared.

Backman had been hired by the Mets to manage the Cyclones seven months earlier and the move was a shrewd one.  As the second baseman of the Mets during the mid 1980s, Backman had carved out a place in New York baseball lore helping the team win the 1986 World Series.  Backman is targeted, more than any Cyclones player, by autograph seekers and with the exception of the jerseys of current Mets stars Jose Reyes and David Wright, #6 jerseys—Backman’s uniform number as both a player and manager—is the most popular at MCU Park.

Following the game, a back and forth contest eventually won by Brooklyn 9-6, Backman sat, leaning back in his chair behind a cluttered desk.  The room, relatively large for a manager’s office, had a lounge area with a couch, a mini refrigerator stocked with Gatorade and a tube television hanging from the ceiling blaring the late innings of the Mets interleague game against the New York Yankees.  Behind Backman, a pair of khaki pants, black leather belt still in the loops, hung from a hook on the eggshell cinder-block wall.  Surrounded by reporters, he discussed the game, but also patiently waded through several questions about his playing days from local reporters who seemed giddy to be in the presence of a former Mets hero.  Loud pops from the post-game fireworks display, a regular Saturday night promotion, reverberated through MCU Park causing Backman to occasionally pause mid-answer.  Good-natured through the random line of questions, Backman suddenly became serious when asked if he saw himself in any of his new young players.  “I’m not living my life through any players right now, I’ll tell you that,” he said.  “I have a goal too.”

* * *

The goal for minor league players is singular and understood.  It is one they share with the organization that drafted and signed them.  While hotly pursued major league free agents enjoy the luxury of considering the comforts of different cities in their decision-making, minor league players will gladly play in a backwoods town with poor facilities as long as that step brings them closer to the ultimate goal of playing in the major leagues.  But Brooklyn, the largest borough in the nation’s largest city, is hardly a typical minor league town.  If removed from New York City, Brooklyn would immediately become the country’s fourth largest city—its population of 2.5 million exceeding those of Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio and Atlanta.  By comparison, excluding the other New York City-based minor league team, the Staten Island Yankees, the average population of hometowns in New York-Penn League, is approximately 40,000.  In Brooklyn, the population density per square mile is nearly 40,000, representing a wide array of languages, ethnicities and religions.  Cyclones players, many still dizzy from the whirlwind week of being drafted, assigned to Brooklyn and playing their first games as professionals, tried to say the right things but their expressions betrayed the overwhelming uncertainty many felt inside.  Just outside those walls, beyond the gates, a massive and sometimes strange city loomed.

Even players from major metropolitan areas were surprised.  “Brooklyn is kind of a bigger sized San Francisco,” said Rylan Sandoval, an articulate shortstop from suburban San Francisco whose roots are evident in his surfer-dude accent.  “I didn’t really expect so many people…I mean, constantly people everywhere and cars everywhere and traffic all hours of the night.  So it was definitely a culture shock, way different than what I’m used to.”

Outfielder Darrell Cecliani, the Mets fourth-round selection in the 2009 draft, played the previous season in Kingsport, Tennessee with the Mets’ rookie league affiliate, the Kingsport Mets.  “It’s a lot different!” Ceciliani said laughing when asked to compare the experience of playing in Brooklyn to Kingsport.  “This is more of a baseball atmosphere.  Playing in front of a crowd like this is awesome.  When I first got here, I was in awe.  I just saw all the big buildings.”

Ryan Fraser, a 16th round draft pick out of the University of Memphis is from Cleveland, Tennessee—a mid-sized town of nearly 40,000 people tucked away in the southeastern corner of the state.  “My high school is out in the middle of nowhere, cow pastures everywhere,” he said through a thick drawl.  “My parents and I live out in the country.  It’s definitely a big adjustment with all the big city lights and the graffiti and things being kind of dirty and everything close together and sitting in an hour of traffic.  I don’t really see that too often where I’m from.”  Fraser, a hard-throwing right handed pitcher, wistfully acknowledged that an assignment to Kingsport might have been more appealing.  “It would’ve been nice to be back there close to family so they could see me play pretty much every weekend, but…”  His voice trailed off and he smiled a vulnerable smile.

Outfielder Cory Vaughn, a fourth-round selection and originally the highest 2010 draft pick on the Cyclones roster (third-round pick, catcher Blake Forsythe, signed with the Mets in late July and was assigned to Brooklyn), conducted himself with a confidence to match the alpha dog status.  Vaughn had been to New York just once before, accompanying his dad, former major league slugger Greg Vaughn, then with the San Diego Padres, who was playing against the Yankees in the 1998 World Series.  His familiarity with professional clubhouses and comfort dealing with reporters contrasted the unease of most of his teammates.  On media day, the Cyclones staff made Vaughn accessible to the press for interviews.  As reporters scrambled to open notebooks or fumbled with digital recorders, Vaughn stood tall, calmly leaning on the bat in his right hand, looking very much like Ernest Thayer’s fabled Casey at the Bat.  He strained trying to think of something, anything about New York that had struck or fazed him, digging deep for a response.  “The accents are getting me a little bit,” Vaughn, from suburban Sacramento, finally said matter-of-factly.  “And the time change.  Besides that, it has been pretty easy, I guess.”

Most minor league teams, including many of those in the New York-Penn League, house their players with local host families who, for minimal rent, provide room and board and often a supportive home environment for the young players living in a strange new place.  In New York City, however, residents typically have barely enough room in their homes for their own families.  Finding safe, convenient and affordable apartments for each player, many of whom come and go as rosters fluctuate with promotions, injuries and other transactions, would pose a significant challenge.  Hence, the Cyclones house their players in the dorms of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in downtown Brooklyn.  Sandoval, who understands the challenges of finding housing in a large city, appreciated the setup.  “It’s good with the dorm rooms,” he said.  “At least we have a place to sleep and we don’t have to pay much for rent which is a good thing and we don’t have to find our own housing because I feel like that would be impossible here.”  When the Polytech students return to school in August, the Cyclones move the players to the Holiday Inn in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn for the remainder of the season.

Player accommodations have always posed a challenge for the Cyclones.  Current Mets outfielder, Angel Pagan, who played for Brooklyn in the inaugural 2001 season, recalled his experience.  “I lived…” he started, pausing to laugh and then sheepishly asked a Cyclones staffer if he should really finish the story.  “I lived in a high school in Staten Island.”  The Cyclones staffer corrected Pagan saying, “It was Bay Ridge.”  After filling up available dorms rented at St. John’s University, the Cyclones had housed players at Xaverian High School, converting classrooms into makeshift barracks.  “We got by,” Pagan said shaking his head.  “We made up games to play in the high school with the guys.  It was hard but we tried to stay focused on baseball.”

Transportation is another challenge unique to Brooklyn.  Players are discouraged from bringing their own cars as they might do in other towns.  New York boasts a robust public transportation system, but it can be confusing for newcomers so the Cyclones provide vans to transport players between MCU Park and the dormitories.  “Luckily we get to take the vans everywhere,” said Fraser early in the season.  “I haven’t used the subway.  I’m a little nervous about that.  The crowds and walking everywhere—it’s so different.  It’s a shock.”

* * *

The opportunity to play in New York, in front of big crowds can aid an organization in evaluating a player’s ability to handle the pressure and intensity of a large city.  “There’s no question that playing in New York takes a different kind of mental toughness,” said Mookie Wilson, a former Mets teammate of Backman’s and currently the organization’s minor league outfield and base running coordinator.  “It’s definitely an advantage getting to feel what it’s like.  But it’s too early to tell with these guys.  The key is seeing a player’s reaction when he goes bad.  And trust me, (players) will struggle.”

“I think it’s huge for a kid to start here because you’re going to find out if a guy has the deer-in-the-headlights look when you pack the stadium with 10,000 people,” Backman said.  “When I first got here, I was concerned about some of the players, and with some I still am.  But Vaughn, Ceciliani, Sandoval—it’s almost like they thrive with the big crowds and getting in a situation where they can do something big.”

Despite the pressures of playing in front of large crowds, the players cite it as one of their favorite aspects of playing in Brooklyn.  The Cyclones have led the New York Penn League in attendance in each of their ten years, typically averaging about 8,000 fans per game.  “Playing in front of a crowd like this is just awesome,” said Ceciliani.  “There’s more people here than there is back in my hometown.”  Although MCU Park has a big league feel to it with its modern facilities and spacious clubhouse, Cyclones fans still enjoy the intimate baseball experience for which the minor leagues are known.  After games, players exit the stadium onto a broad sidewalk bordering the parking lot.  The sidewalk is used by fans sitting in the bleachers to walk back to Surf Avenue and many congregate there waiting for players to emerge.  Although visiting teams hastily board an awaiting bus, Cyclones players linger, signing autographs, chatting with fans and soaking up the adoration—a new experience for many of them.  Following the final out of an early season game, a teenage girl chided her friends to keep up as she sprinted for the gate.  “Hurry, I want to get Taylor’s autograph!” she squealed in reference to Cyclones catcher, Taylor Freeman.  Most kids are indiscriminate when seeking autographs, but older fans quickly seek out the standout players.

After the Cyclones defeated the Hudson Valley Renegades in a late June game, Ceciliani—off to a hot start batting over .400 and already getting occasional “MVP!” chants—hobbled out from the gate, his right shin heavily bandaged from fouling a ball off his leg.  He signed whatever was thrust before him including the wrist of a young boy who didn’t have a game program or ball.  Ceciliani, wearing his standard brightly colored Polo shirt and long, baggy cargo shorts topped off with a fitted Buffalo Bills cap (Ceciliani explained he is not a Bills fan: “I just like the hat”), signed autographs until there were no more to sign.

Meanwhile, Fraser emerged in a navy blue shirt tucked into neatly pressed khakis, a look befitting his clean-cut, soft-spoken persona.  But Fraser admitted, he was not always as clean cut as his cropped haircut and loafers make him appear.  “I was part of the party scene when I first got to college,” he said.  “I found out pretty quickly, that’s not for me—especially if you know anything about my history.”  The nature of that history is evident with a quick glance through Fraser’s high school accomplishments: a 4.0 grade point average and membership in the National Honor Society, the Mu Alpha Theta mathematics honors society, the Beta Club and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  “I went to church camp and that was my scene and I couldn’t have been happier,” he said.  “And then with baseball, playing more and more, it got to be harder and harder to get to church but I like to go every now and then.  Everytime we’re on the road, it seems like we got the chapel on Sunday so I try to make that.”

Two young brothers, Zachary and Joey Cohen, stood away from the crowd of autograph seekers swarming Ceciliani and played catch with their dad.  The boys swam in the one-size-fits-all promotional jerseys given out to the first 2,500 fans through the gates that night.  Spotting the brothers, Fraser made his way to the boys’ father, Elliot, and reached for his baseball glove.  “Do you mind?” he asked.  Taking the glove, Fraser began playing catch with the boys, mixing lazy popups with soft grounders.  Elliot barked, “Catch it!” when Zachary, 12, flubbed one of the throws.  A grounder took a bad hop off a seam in the sidewalk and hit Joey, 4, in the knee.  He fell to the ground, grabbing his leg.  “You’re ok, you’re ok,” assured Elliot as Fraser jogged over to console the boy who quickly jumped up, ready for more.  “He’s a really nice guy,” said Elliot of Fraser.  “I have ticket stubs from Monday’s game.  I’m gonna give those to Ryan.  It was his first pro game.”

Ceciliani had a strong year for the Cyclones. Photo courtesy of www.metsparadise.com

After the autograph seekers scattered, Ceciliani made his way over to a group of silver-haired men.  “Hey, how you doin?” he said repeatedly, looking each of them in the eye and extending a firm handshake.  In heavy Brooklyn accents the men quickly started pelting Ceciliani with advice—not on his swing or fielding technique but on the sites of their beloved borough that he must be sure to visit over the course of the summer.  In chorus, they rattled off turn-by-turn directions to the Brooklyn Promenade which gives spectacular views of the lower Manhattan skyline and Brooklyn Bridge.  Ceciliani, arms crossed, nodded politely, rocking back and forth on his feet.  His crooked smile evidenced a resignation that he would never remember the barrage of tourism suggestions.  Eventually, one of the old-timers wrapped up the verbal tour of Brooklyn and patted Ceciliani on his shoulder.  With a knowing chuckle, he turned to leave and said, “Only if you have time, of course.”

* * *

New York-Penn League teams squeeze their 76 game schedules into an 80 day span leaving little time for sightseeing or leisure.  But on the Cyclones’ first off-day, after arriving back in Brooklyn at 8 AM following a road series against the Jamestown Jammers and an overnight bus ride, some players took advantage of the opportunity to explore New York.  “Some of the guys got up around five or six [that evening] and went and looked around Manhattan for a little bit,” said Fraser.  “We went down to Times Square which was…” he paused, mouth agape, shaking his head and searching for words.  “Just unbelievable.  I had never seen anything like that.  We come out from the restaurant that night after eating dinner and I thought it was daytime with all the lights and stuff.”  Fraser rode the subway for the first time that evening and the experience was memorable.  “We’re sitting there waiting on the train to come through and you see a rat down there by the tracks,” he said with disgust.  Fraser, an avid hunter and fisherman continued, “Makes me want to get a BB gun and shoot it.”

Ceciliani shares Fraser’s love of the outdoors saying he would do “anything outdoors” if he were not playing baseball: “I’m not a guy who likes to sit behind a desk.”  Ceciliani’s family owns and operates an 18,000 acre ranch in rural Madras, Oregon—an upbringing that instilled a distinct ruggedness evident in his play, eschewing batting gloves and shin guards and strolling to the plate serenaded by a twangy country tune.  “We run cattle, breed ‘em and sell ‘em,” he said.  “We run a hunting and fishing operation up there too.  Get a lot of clients out there for deer season and elk so in the fall it’s a busy time for us and a lot of fun.”  As a three sport athlete in high school (he also played football and basketball) and helping around the ranch, Ceciliani was unable to participate in many sports camps or traveling summer leagues.  Furthermore, central Oregon is hardly a hotbed of baseball talent so he drew little attention from scouts and after completing high school, he headed to Columbia Basin College in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges.  There, Ceciliani proceeded to lead the team in runs, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in, walks and slugging percentage as a freshman and scouts quickly took notice—especially because the league uses wood bats.  In June, 2009, a year after going undrafted, Ceciliani was selected by the Mets in the fourth round.  He was taking a final exam for a business course when his coach called informing him of his selection.  “I told my instructor what was going on and he was like, ‘Ok, have a good day.  Come back and take it later.’”  Ceciliani never returned.

For Vaughn, with his major league bloodlines, the road to pro ball was straight and seemingly predestined.  Rather than finding his way through persistence or creativity, Vaughn, a diabetic who wears an insulin pump in his rear pocket during games, had his choice of paths.  His first decision was made as a high school senior when he committed to play baseball at San Diego State University, a team managed by hall of famer, Tony Gwynn.  Vaughn initially leaned toward USC when Gwynn spotted Greg Vaughn at a Long Beach-based scouting event for the nation’s top high school players in which Cory Vaughn was participating.  The two were friends from their days as teammates with the Padres.  “(Gwynn) basically told my dad that if I wanted to learn a lot about the game and be one of the best hitters I could be, I could go there and learn from him,” said Vaughn.  “My dad credits Tony with his success that he had in the bigs so I felt it couldn’t do any harm to go there and learn from him.”  Vaughn committed to San Diego State, playing under Gwynn and, for two of his three seasons there, alongside Washington Nationals pitching phenom, Stephen Strasburg.

Backman raves not only about Vaughn’s physical tools, but his big league preparedness derived from his pedigree and lifelong tutelage—traits that often come off as stoicism, but actually reflect a calculated, even-keeled approach.  “You can tell (Vaughn) something and he can take it right out there.  Some guys you gotta tell them and tell them and tell them and sometimes they still don’t get it.  But for Cory, I really believe his dad was a huge influence.  Cory has been around the game for a long time and been around the right people.”

Ceciliani, conversely, lacks that polish, perhaps due to his more rugged upbringing, but also shows his youth—Ceciliani, the youngest Cyclone, celebrated his 20th birthday in the first week of the season.  During the media day gathering as coaches set up a pitching machine in foul territory for bunting drills, the pitching machine fired a ball over the makeshift backstop.  Ceciliani’s eyes grew wide and he laughed while playfully taunting the coach.  Vaughn, who matter-of-factly states he would practice endocrinology if not for baseball, didn’t flinch.

But in spite of their differences, Vaughn and Ceciliani complimented each other on the field and became close off of it.  Defensively, they played side by side in the outfield with Vaughn in right and Ceciliani in center.  They were also paired in the Cyclones’ lineup for most of the season—Ceciliani hitting second and Vaughn third.  They were roommates on the road and usually left the ballpark together—one standing off to the side waiting if the other was huddling with coaches or being interviewed.

According to Backman, they were the two fastest players on the team which lent itself directly to his preferred style of play.  Backman seeks to pressure opposing pitchers and defenses by putting baserunners in motion and moving runners along with situational hitting—a style of play some have dubbed “Wally Ball.”  But the attention to detail goes beyond trying to win.  Backman sees it as the essence of his job.  “I’m a stickler for fundamentals—it’s just part of the game that they have to learn,” he said.  “If they’re hitting third, fourth, fifth here in Brooklyn and they’re fortunate enough to get to the big leagues, they might be hitting seventh or eighth.  [Bunting] is not something I like to do with my three, four, five hitters but it’s something that I will do, especially as they progress and get better.”

Backman demonstrated this when Ceciliani came to bat in a one-run game against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers on July 15.  With runners on first and second base and no outs, Backman gave the bunt signal but Ceciliani quickly fouled off two attempts.  With two strikes, Backman again called for the bunt which Ceciliani fouled off to strike out.  “You’ve got a job to do and you’ve got to get it done,” Backman said after the game.  “I had to do it in the big leagues and my guys are going to learn to do it as well.  It may be the game that wins you a pennant.”

* * *

The grin on Backman’s face as he discussed his team betrayed his affection for the players.  A self-described, “players’ manager,” Backman is demanding, yet sensitive to the players’ individual circumstances.  “These kids know they don’t have to knock on my door—they can come right in,” he said.  “I’ve always been that way, it’s all about communication, to try to maximize each player’s ability.  Nobody’s afraid.”  Perhaps the most frequent reason for players utilizing Backman’s open door policy is bench players inquiring about getting playing time while family or girlfriends are in town visiting.  “I may say, ‘No, this is a big day, I’m not going to be able to do that.’  But you know what—I find a way to get ‘em in there.”  Backman recalled utility infielder, James Schroeder making that very request.  “I played him a couple days in a row and he played great!  I said, ‘Shit, you keep your family here, you might play some more!’” Backman cackled.  “So I’m not the red-ass everyone thinks I am…well, only when I get pissed off.”

Backman acknowledges his style was shaped by some of the managers he played for in the minor leagues.  “I was fortunate to have a couple of pretty good managers,” he said, specifically referencing Bob Wellman and Jack Aker.  “They treated us like men.”  But the negative experiences also left their mark.  “I had some guys that were pricks too and that’s not the way to develop players.  You can’t have players scared of you…I have to respect the players,” Backman added.  “And by respecting the players, they’ll respect the manager.”

Part of that respect is demonstrated by not playing favorites.  Late in the game against Hudson Valley on July 24, the Cyclones held a 16-3 lead and Pedro P. Martinez was put in the game for his first of very few appearances.  With a runner on first base and one out, the Renegades cleanup hitter hooked a ball that appeared to sail well foul.  The umpire signaled for a home run and Backman charged from the dugout.  He clapped his hands in the face of the umpire and bitterly argued the relatively meaningless call, his efforts earning him an ejection.  After the game, in the tunnel behind the Cyclones dugout, Backman seethed.  “It wasn’t even close!” he bellowed.  “I know the game was sort of a blowout but that’s a situation where you’re giving a kid an ERA!”  The animated display excited the Cyclones.  “Oh yeah, it fired us up,” said Ceciliani acknowledging the whole team had seen the hit YouTube footage of Backman earning an ejection in spectacular fashion during an independent league game, many of them watching it together the first night in the dorms.  “We were all wondering when that was going to happen.”

Backman stayed in character as Brooklyn's manager. Photo courtesy of www.sportslocker.blogspot.com

Backman’s intensity did not take long to rub off on his team.  In a game against the Lowell Spinners, Vaughn stole third base after doubling in the third inning.  Forsythe, playing his first game with the Cyclones, lofted a fly ball to right field.  Vaughn tagged up and sped toward home.  The throw beat Vaughn by two steps but came in high.  Vaughn lowered his shoulder and propelled the force of his 6’3”, 225 pound frame into the upright catcher, the violent collision jarring the ball loose and precipitating a five minute delay in the game as the Spinners’ trainers attended to the catcher, the ball sitting incongruously in front of home plate the entire time.  Vaughn, a free safety and wide receiver in high school who drew interest from college football programs like Boise State and Oregon State, seemed to barely notice the collision.  After touching home plate, he jumped up and jogged to the dugout.  After the game, Backman beamed recalling the play.  “It’s a clean play,” he said forcefully.  “Not trying to hurt anybody, but [Vaughn] did what he had to do to score.”  Mental errors, especially those on the basepaths, frustrate Backman but as long as they are rooted in aggressive play, he tolerates them saying, “You can pull the reins on a race horse but you can’t whip a dead horse.”

Beyond the aggressive style of play, the Cyclones adopted Backman’s chip on the shoulder attitude.  With the Cyclones pulling away in the McNamara division, the fading Yankees visited Brooklyn on July 23.  Sandoval, posting power numbers atypical of a leadoff hitter, was drilled in the back with a pitch.  He writhed on the ground, then rose and exchanged words with the catcher.  Walking slowly to first base, Sandoval glared out at the pitcher and screamed from the dugout later in the game.  “I thought it was intentional,” he said after the game.  “Base open, lefty missing that far inside…and then the catcher mouthing off.”  Sandoval came to bat later in the game and launched a long home run over the left field wall.  His trot around the bases was slow and deliberate.  “I feel things are getting a little bit tense with the Yankees now,” he said, demonstrating the emotion that was absent on media day when a reporter shoved a camera in his face and asked the confused Sandoval how much he hated the Staten Island Yankees.

Backman was frequently asked by reporters whether there exists a conflict between winning and player development in the minor leagues.  But in his eyes, rather than being mutually exclusive, the two go together.  “Winning is development,” he said whenever asked about the balance.  “You have to teach guys how to win and by teaching players how to win, it’s being able to do the little things—you know, moving the runners over, getting runners in from third.  That is development.”

The emphasis on winning as a means of development is evident throughout Backman’s managerial approach—his inner fire drawn from a burning competitiveness in addition to a desire to perform his job of developing players.  “That’s one of the things about me—take a loss personally,” he said.  “After you take a loss personally, you go out there the next day with the intention to beat them.”  It is hard ignore the parallels between Backman’s day-to-day approach and the tact with which he is pursuing his goal of managing in the major leagues again—something he lost and takes very personally.

* * *

After eight years managing in the minor leagues, Backman had been hired to manager the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004 but was fired four days later when reports emerged of arrests stemming from a DUI and a domestic incident that he and his wife claim was nothing more than a heated argument.  Backman is hesitant to speak about the episode but eventually sheds light with carefully chosen words.  “I got hired to be a big league manager and the two bad days I had off the field basically cost me my job with the Diamondbacks,” he said.  Leaning forward for emphasis, his voice tight, Backman continued.  “The other organizations, after that took place, that I talked to would say that I was overqualified [for minor league jobs], which to me was just a cop out.  So for (Mets owners) the Wilpons to give me an opportunity, I’m thankful for that and it allows other organizations to evaluate me.”

Backman is careful not to pine for other managerial jobs within the organization.  As the major league club faltered through July, rumors swirled that Mets manager Jerry Manuel’s job was at risk and the most frequently cited name as a potential replacement was Backman’s.  But he refused to address rumors or even specifically state his goal of returning to the major leagues.  Something similar happened in 2003 when Backman managed the Chicago White Sox double-A affiliate, the Birmingham Barons.  A report surfaced quoting Backman as rooting against the struggling White Sox so that he could get the managerial job then held, ironically, by an embattled Jerry Manuel.  Backman vehemently denied ever making the comments, but the resulting caution with which he now speaks of his goals still lingers.

* * *

On August 17, after completing approximately three-quarters of the season, the New York-Penn League’s elite convened at Richmond County Bank Ballpark, the Staten Island Yankees’ home field, for the league’s all star game.  At the break, the Cyclones enjoyed a league-best record of 38-19 and held a comfortable nine game lead in the McNamara Division.  Fittingly, the National League team (the all star squads are divided according to the leagues of their major league affiliate clubs) was stocked with eight Brooklyn Cyclones: Ceciliani, Vaughn, Fraser, Sandoval, first baseman Jeff Flagg, third baseman Joe Bonfe and starting pitchers Angel Cuan and Yohan Almonte.  The eight selections represented a Cyclones record and more players than any other team had in the game.  Backman and his staff coached the National League side rendering the dugout a sea of gray and red—the Cyclones’ road colors.  Emerging from the tunnel a few minutes before the home run derby, Backman greeted reporters.  “How’s it going, fellas?”  He wore modern-styled refractive sunglasses with blue lenses that contrasted his ruddy, leathered skin in the late-afternoon sun.  Asked about the proliferation of Cyclones on the team, Backman deadpanned, “I thought we’d have a few more guys on there.”

While Backman is no stranger to managing winning teams, the means of Brooklyn’s early success were atypical of his style.  The Cyclones led the league in batting average, hits, doubles, home runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.  But traces of “Wally Ball” remained as the team also led in sacrifices and was second in stolen bases.  Still Backman, while unapologetic for his team’s prolific offense, religiously sticks to his fundamentals-based strategy.  “What good is hitting .320 if you’re 4-for-50 in situational hitting?” he said bristling when asked if he might consider modifying his approach in light of the Cyclones surprising power surge.

Backman’s voice was suddenly drowned out by the public address announcer introducing the sluggers who would compete in the home run derby.  Players emptied from the dugout and took seats on the grass around home plate.  Backman and his coaches stood back, leaning up against the dugout railing, arms folded.  Next to Backman, stood Ceciliani.  The two chattered back and forth between cracks of the bat—their heads swiveling in tandem like courtside tennis spectators as they followed the flight of each ball.  The ease players feel around Backman is evident in Ceciliani’s relationship with him.  The two worked together extensively in spring training on the mindset and tools requisite to be a top of the order hitter—Ceciliani, for the majority of the Cyclone’s season, batted second, the same place Backman fit into the Mets lineup as a player.  The two share pacific northwest roots—Backman’s hometown, Pineville, Oregon, is just 30 miles southeast, or “the next town over” as Ceciliani proudly announces, from Ceciliani’s home in Madras.   While Backman calls Ceciliani “a little dirtbag player”—high praise considering the source—the relationship deepens beyond cocky banter because of Backman’s willingness to firmly confront Ceciliani’s weaknesses and bad habits or flashes of immaturity.  “You’ve got to push him a little bit,” said Backman.  “He likes to have fun but he’s learning right now how to separate the fun time from the serious time here at the ballfield.  Everyone likes to joke around out here a little bit but there’s a time to be serious.”  Backman’s tutelage of Ceciliani certainly took hold.  A year after struggling to a .238 batting average in rookie ball, Ceciliani entered the all star break leading the league in batting average, hits, runs, triples and total bases and ranking fourth in stolen bases.

But as the two watched the home run derby, the absence of a Cyclone in the competition was glaring considering the formidable offensive output of the team.  Vaughn, who entered the all star game ranked in the top three in home runs, runs batted in, hits and slugging percentage was listed as a participant on the fliers handed to media members.  Before the derby, however, an organization-wide edict was issued by the Mets prohibiting their players from competing.  The ban has been related to David Wright’s second half struggles in 2006.  Heading into the all star break that year, the Mets third baseman had 20 home runs and was slugging .575, but slumped in the second half, after competing in the home run derby, hitting just six home runs; his slugging percentage plunging more than one hundred points.  The Mets and Cyclones denied the ban in the Cyclones’ participation had anything to do with Wright.

“To be honest, I don’t think Vaughn really wanted to do it so I don’t think he’s too upset,” Fraser said from the dugout leaning in close, his voice hushed.  “Flagg is the guy who wants to do it and I think he’d win.  You ever watch him in batting practice?  Wooo.”  A conversation Vaughn had with his dad about the event may have been a factor. “[My father] said sometimes when guys get up there they tried to lift and separate and that can carry on into the season and cause problems,” said Vaughn.  His father competed in the 1996 home run derby at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and as Cory Vaughn remembered, “he put up a goose egg.”

Three batters into the derby, Backman abruptly leapt from his perch on the railing and strode to the mound to pitch to starting catcher, David Freitas of the Vermont Lake Monsters.  Freitas hit four home runs to win the derby delighting the ever competitive Backman who skipped down the dugout steps and jabbed a finger to his chest.  “That’s my guy who won,” he chortled to Cyclones pitching coach Rick Tomlin.

By the game’s first pitch, Richmond County Bank Ballpark had filled with about 7,200 fans.  Freighters made their way through New York Harbor beyond the outfield fence, the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline providing the backdrop.  The game was a typically choreographed all star affair designed more to get as many players an at bat or inning on the mound than to win.  The lineup card taped to the dugout wall before the game had already been filled out with the substitutions and the innings in which they would take place.  “I’ve never lost one of these things and I sure as hell don’t plan to start now,” Backman jokingly told the team in a pre-game pep talk according to Sandoval.

Almonte started for the National League and pitched a perfect first inning.  Ceciliani, Vaughn and Bonfe each played just long enough to get two unremarkable at bats each before being removed.  Pitchers threw fastballs aplenty and batters swung early and often moving the contest along at a brisk pace.  By the end of the sixth inning, the National League held a 3-1 lead and Backman had three closers lined up to pitch the final three innings.  “I thought we had it set up pretty good,” he said.

Neil Holland of the Lake Monsters pitched a clean seventh inning.  But in the eighth, Chase Johnson of the Williamsport Crosscutters and the league leader in saves at the time, surrendered two quick hits and a walk.  With the lead shaved to 3-2, Backman brought in Fraser with one out and runners on the corners to save the game.  But Fraser walked the first batter to load the bases—demonstrating the one weakness in his stellar season: control.  A sacrifice fly to right field tied the game and a single gave the American League the lead before Fraser ended the inning with a strikeout.

The National League bats were quickly retired by Yankees closer Chase Whitley in the ninth to end the game.  Fraser’s blown save wrapped up a difficult week in which he blew a save and nearly blew a second game inflating his ERA by more than a run.  But as the American League team celebrated on the field, Fraser stood at the corner of the dugout and signed autographs.  He playfully balked anytime a child extended a Yankees cap.  “I’m not signing this!” he would say before flashing a broad smile and scrawling his name. “All star games are more about the fans than the players,” Fraser said.  “Yeah, we’re out there trying to win and I hate to lose, but I’m not going to sit there and pout when it’s an all star game—still gotta sign autographs.”

Fraser’s cheery spirit in light of a rough week showed perspective.  His season, to that point, had been a complete success personally.  Early in the year Backman said, “We really need to find [players who can handle pitching at the end of games].  Nobody’s really stepped up and grabbed it.”  Fraser, who loves an adrenaline rush—he estimates he could have enjoyed a successful dirt biking career—eventually did just that.  Initially used in middle relief and setup situations, he rattled off 18.2 consecutive scoreless innings with 23 strikeouts.  Backman began using him occasionally in closing situations and eventually Fraser earned the closing job outright, saving nine games before the all star break, all of them coming in the span of approximately one month.  In early August, Fraser’s ERA was 0.40 and even after his struggles heading into the all star break, it was just 1.46—among the league’s best.

Following one of Fraser’s saves in the midst of a streak in which the Cyclones won 20 of 24 games, Backman cooed, “I think figuring out the bullpen has been the biggest key [to the Cyclones run].  [Fraser] has got a great arm.  I just see him getting better and better.  That’s 95 coming out of his hand pretty easy with a real plus major league breaking ball.  If he keeps the demeanor he’s got when he goes out on the mound right now, the kid will pitch in the big leagues, no question about it in my mind.”  Backman paused.  “As long as he stays healthy.”

Backman habitually followed his comments on individual players with an emphasized disclaimer about “staying away from injuries.”  That day on Staten Island, Sandoval provided a glaring reminder of health’s fragility.

* * *

Sandoval claimed the leadoff spot in the season’s first week, spearheading a formidable top half of the Cyclones’ lineup: five straight batters who made the all star game.  Entering the all star break, he ranked third in batting average and home runs and in the top ten in hits, runs, and on base percentage.  Despite leading off, his power numbers were no fluke.  Backman often reminded reporters that Sandoval, who claims to model his game after former major league shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, led off out of necessity but possessed the skills to thrive in the middle of the order.

A yellowed grin curled Backman’s mouth whenever Sandoval’s name entered the discussion.  “He’s a guy that fell through the cracks,” said Backman who proved instrumental in the signing of Sandoval, a 30th round Mets draft pick in 2007 who returned to Long Beach State instead of signing.  But after his college eligibility expired, Sandoval went undrafted and in January paid $3,500 to attend the Arizona Winter League—a league used predominantly by independent teams to stock rosters with unsigned players looking to exhibit their skills before scouts.  “I was thinking, maybe at least I’ll be able to get on the independent ball scene and then into some [major league] organization in a couple of years,” said Sandoval.  “I had e-mailed all the pro scouts who had been in contact with me at Long Beach, and I told them I was going to be there.”  Backman attended the league’s games, not as a scout, but because of his familiarity with the independent leagues from his time managing various clubs.  He immediately liked what he saw of Sandoval, who, like Vaughn, is diabetic.  “We pushed it pretty hard on this end to get him a chance in spring training,” Backman remembered.  Sandoval was the only player signed to a major league affiliate club out of the league.

“It’s Rylan,” the typically affable Sandoval snarled at an all star game reporter.  The reporter had greeted him as “Darrell”—mistaking Sandoval’s black curls for those of Ceciliani.  The befuddled writer stammered an apology and shuffled off.  An air cast enveloping Sandoval’s right wrist was the source of his short temper.

Just one week earlier, in the third inning of a game against the Connecticut Tigers, a high fastball bore in on Sandoval, hitting him in the wrist.  Able to make throws without discomfort, he remained in the game but in subsequent at bats, pain shot through the wrist with each swing.  An x-ray and CT scan that night revealed multiple fractures requiring six weeks of rest and inactivity.  With just five weeks remaining on the schedule, Sandoval’s breakout season in Brooklyn was suddenly finished.  “Sandy brings the total package to shortstop,” said Backman while reflecting on the loss.  “He can run a little bit, he’s got power, he made all the routine plays, but…he’s a leader.  He was really the glue to that infield so losing his personality out there has been big for us.”

Immediately after that pitch struck Sandoval’s wrist, the Cyclones lost four of their next six games and the lineup appeared unsettled.  Further complicating the sudden struggles of the league’s top offense was the promotion of third baseman Brian Harrison to the Savannah Sand Gnats, the Mets single-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, and a hyper-extended elbow suffered by Vaughn, sidelining him for three games.  Sandoval, banished from the weight room and ordered to rest, stewed amidst the inactivity.  He traveled with the team and spent time with hitting coach Benny Distefano, watching tape and trying to give his teammates pointers.  But Sandoval quickly tired from the mental grind of bus rides, hotels and living from a suitcase while not having the outlet of physical activity.  When given the option, Sandoval returned home to California.

* * *

The Cyclones large divisional lead afforded them a margin for error as they struggled to find continuity without Sandoval anchoring the top of the order.  Backman, who frequently touts his preference to stick with a lineup thus allowing players to learn their roles, used different batting orders in 12 consecutive games following Sandoval’s injury—a stretch in which the Cyclones still managed a 7-5 record.  The most notable shift was moving Ceciliani into the leadoff spot—a move dictated by the Mets organization, according to Backman.  On August 25th, in a game against the Aberdeen Ironbirds, Backman finally found a lineup that clicked.  Ceciliani led off, Vaughn, Flagg and Bonfe stayed in their customary three, four, and five spots.  But second baseman JB Brown moved into the second spot and Sandoval’s replacement at shortstop, Wilfredo Tovar, batted ninth, rather than at the top of the order where Backman had been trying to slot him.  Brooklyn won the game and, with the same lineup almost every night, proceeded to win 11 of their final 14 games.

As the Cyclones headed to Connecticut for a late August series against the Tigers, the magic number had been whittled to two.  The Cyclones won the first game of the series 10-0 behind a complete game shut-out—the first of the year in the New York-Penn League—thrown by Almonte.  Forty-five minutes after the Cyclones’ win, the second place Renegades lost to the Tri-City ValleyCats meaning Brooklyn had won the McNamara Division for the fifth time and would be heading to the playoffs for the seventh time in the franchise’s 10 years of existence.  The Cyclones reaction to the division win reflected the understated approach to winning games they took all season.  “We were just on the bus headed back to our hotel, then going to go eat at McDonalds or something,” said left handed reliever, Hamilton Bennett.  “[Cyclones pitcher] AJ Pinera pulled up the scores on his phone and said, ‘We won the division.’  We were all just like, ‘hey, cool.’”

With the division clinched, Backman arranged his pitching staff so Almonte, Cuan and team wins leader, Chris Hilliard, would pitch the opening series of the playoffs consisting of two best-of-three rounds.  In their final starts before the playoffs, Almonte and Cuan were each taken out after just four scoreless innings to avoid injury and give them rest and position players were removed early from games.  Still, the Cyclones suffered another injury to a key player.  On the final day of August, the Cyclones beat the Lake Monsters on a three run, walk-off home run by Flagg.  But Ceciliani was conspicuously absent from the starting lineup.  When asked if Ceciliani was merely being rested, a perturbed Backman hesitantly responded, “No.”  Asked to elaborate, he cryptically said, “[Ceciliani] hurt himself…that’s about as much as I can say.”  Later, the always effusive Bennett willingly volunteered that Ceciliani had felt a groin muscle “grab” while stretching before the game.  Walking through the locker room with a severe limp, Ceciliani despondently shook his lowered head when asked how he felt.

Vaughn led the Cyclones in home runs with 14. Photo courtesy of www.macksmets.blogspot.com

Given the next five games off, Ceciliani felt well enough to play in the final game of the regular season hoping to shake off rust before the playoffs.  With two hits that day, Ceciliani finished the season batting .351, good enough to win the league batting title.  He also set franchise records with 95 hits, 56 runs scored and 12 triples.  Vaughn broke the franchise home run record with 14, as well as the runs batted in record with 56.  Flagg’s 52 runs batted in also surpassed the former team record of 50.  Despite missing the final month of the season, Sandoval, at .330, finished second in the league, to Ceciliani, in batting average, and finished in the top five in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage).  Bonfe finished second in hits and fifth in batting average.  As a team, the Cyclones topped the league in batting average, hits, home runs (setting a new franchise record with 64), slugging percentage and OPS and finished in the top three in every major offensive category including, as Backman proudly noted, stolen bases.

Almonte (1.91) and Cuan (2.03) had the two lowest earned run averages in the league among starters (Pinera, the fourth best at 2.44). Hilliard led the league in wins with nine which tied the Cyclones’ record for a season.  Fraser’s 12 saves tied him for fourth in the league despite not earning his first until mid-July.  As a staff, the Cyclones surrendered the fewest runs, leading the league in earned run average (3.05) and WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched).  This all combined for 51 wins (including a 30-8 record at home, tying the franchise record for home wins), one shy of the franchise record and, six more than the league’s next best record held by the Batavia Muckdogs.  The Cyclones looked positioned to breeze through the playoffs.

* * *

In game one of the first round playoff series against the Jamestown Jammers, the Cyclones lost a rain delay lengthened game, 7-6.  They fought back to tie the game after falling behind 6-1 in the early innings, but surrendered the losing run in the bottom of the eighth inning.  Ceciliani, Vaughn, Flagg and Bonfe accounted for 11 of the team’s 13 hits and all six runs batted in.  Due to the New York-Penn League’s short playoff series format, the loss put the Cyclones on the brink of elimination as the series headed back to Brooklyn for its conclusion.  After the late finish and a nine hour bus ride, the Cyclones arrived home mid-morning.  Despite fatigue, the Cyclones led 6-3 entering the eighth inning of game two.  Johan Figuereo, the closer Fraser had wrested the job from, entered the game having given up just one hit in three innings pitched against Jamestown during the season.  In the span of five batters, Figuereo gave up four hits and four runs while recording just one out and the Cyclones were suddenly losing with just two innings to play.  The Cyclones tied the game in the bottom half of the eighth inning when Ceciliani scored from second base on an infield single.  Curiously, Backman, who all season had inserted a closer in such situations, put Bennett in the game—a decision he later explained was due to the success Vermont had had against Brooklyn’s right handed relievers during the season.  Bennett surrendered two hits and a run without recording an out before Fraser closed out the inning.  With elimination just three outs away, the Cyclones again scored a run sending the game to extra innings.  Fraser pitched two more innings totaling five strikeouts without surrendering a run in three innings pitched.  Finally, in the bottom of the 12th inning, the Cyclones scored the winning run on a wild pitch.  But the victory came at a cost: Flagg had strained his hamstring running out a ground ball.

The next night, the Cyclones led, 6-4 in the ninth when, with Fraser unavailable, Daniel Carela, the team’s lone New York City native, entered the game with one out and the bases loaded.  He struck out two straight batters including Marcell Ozuna—the league leader in home runs, runs batted in and, fittingly, strikeouts—to end the game and advance Brooklyn to the championship round.  Following the game, the scent of cheap champagne wafted from the locker room’s soaked industrial carpeting and mixed with the scents of Ben-Gay and pine tar.  Players whooped, hollered and danced to Birdman’s hip hop anthem, “Money to Blow” blasting from the locker room stereo.  The irony of the song’s title seemed entirely lost on the group of young teammates barely earning $1,000 per month in New York City, but it seemed humorously apt as they blissfully sang along:

Champagne diet spillin’ while I’m sippin’,

I encourage you to try it,

I’m probably just sayin’ that because I don’t have to buy it,

The club owners supply it.

When the cart carrying the iced champagne had been emptied, the stereo was turned off and players—most still wringing bubbly from their hair—quietly returned to their nightly post-game ritual of quickly showering and ducking out into the Brooklyn night.

That same night, the Tri-City ValleyCats, a team that had clinched its playoff spot on the final day of the season and finished just two games over .500, defeated the Batavia Muckdogs to advance to the final round.  They would be the Cyclones last hurdle to a New York-Penn League championship.  In game one in Troy, New York, the Cyclones scored two runs in the first inning on a home run by Vaughn but would only muster one more hit the rest of the game.  The Tri-City bullpen pitched four hitless innings to close out the game and once again, after a season in which they made winning look easy, the Cyclones were suddenly on the verge of defeat.

A cloudy, rain soaked morning greeted the Cyclones as they awoke from a bus-ride shortened night of sleep.  By game time, the rain had slowed to a mist.  Sandoval, flown back to New York by the team for the final series, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and just as the game was about to begin, the umpires called for a rain delay.  Several announcements assured fans that all attempts would be made to play the game, but finally, the public address announcer interrupted Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now” to proclaim, to loud boos, that the game had been rescheduled for the next evening.

But the gunmetal Brooklyn skies rained even harder the next day.  The outfield wall advertisements reflected in pools of water on the warning track.  Huge puddles formed in the outfield grass.  Backman tip-toed and hopped around small ponds while surveying the field conditions with umpires and league officials.  Vaughn played video games on his Gameboy DS in the tunnel to pass time.  Fraser visited the press box and picked up some food.  Ceciliani signed autographs at the edge of the dugout and took pictures with a fan who held an “I ♥ DC” sign.  Behind home plate, several inches of standing water funneled to the backstop.  Bennett retrieved a shovel from the equipment room and molded makeshift irrigation ditches in the clay toward flooded drains.  After realizing the futility of his engineering attempts, Bennett crafted a paper boat and floated it on the flooded field.  Once again, the game was postponed.

Finally, on September 14, the sun again shone on Brooklyn and by evening, after much work by the Cyclones’ groundskeepers (an “all hands on deck” crew consisting of front office personnel, interns and even some of the “Beach Bum” cheerleaders), the field was playable.  The Cyclones took advantage of the two-day delay and reinserted Flagg into the lineup as the designated hitter.  But the ValleyCats starting pitcher, Carlos Quevedo, limited the Cyclones to just three hits in seven innings.  The Cyclones top two starters, Almonte and Cuan, both rested and available after the delays, combined to allow five runs in seven innings.  Trailing 5-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Cyclones attempted to rally as Ceciliani and Vaughn singled.  With one out and runners on the corners, Flagg hobbled to the plate hoping for some Kirk Gibson dramatics.  Instead of a home run, he hit a bouncing ball to the third baseman.  Despite being slowly hit, the throw from the second basemen beat Flagg, completing the 5-4-3 double play and ending the Cyclones’ season.

The ValleyCats streamed from the visitors’ dugout celebrating an unlikely championship—the first in their history.  Backman trotted over from his third base coaching box to congratulate the Tri-City coaches before retreating to the Brooklyn dugout.  The Cyclones blankly stared out on the field—the ValleyCats piled on top of each other at the mound—before trickling back to the clubhouse.  Bennett leapt atop the Cyclones dugout and shook hands with fans thanking them for their season-long support (the Cyclones again led the New York-Penn League in attendance as they have every year of their existence).  Fraser sauntered slowly in from the bullpen one last time—but rather than charging in to celebrate a victory or take the ball in a save situation, his shoulders slumped.  Ceciliani lingered on the top step of the dugout leaning up against the fencing—his familiar perch for most of the summer.  But instead of cheering on teammates, he buried his face in his crossed arms.

* * *

The pulsating beats of celebration were absent from the Cyclones locker room.  But rather than somber silence, cordial chatter and the sound of peeling packing tape filled the room.  Sandoval tinkered with his cell phone.  Fraser ate a pulled-pork sandwich, eyes fixated on the television showing the Mets game.  Ceciliani discussed his next assignment.  Like Vaughn and Fraser, he would get five days off and then head to Fort Myers, Florida to participate in the Florida Instructional League.  Sandoval had a CT scan on his wrist and a checkup with the Mets doctors and if cleared, would also participate in “instrux,” as the players call the league.  “I have no idea where I’m gonna be next year, hopefully I’m not here—and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he said referring to hopes of advancement.

Others were less sure about what came next.  Flagg, the oldest Cyclone at 25, wiped a long strand of hair from his face as his hulking 6’5” frame hunched in a folding chair before his locker.  “[I’ll] take it easy for a couple weeks and then get back to training,” he said.  The Mets had yet to discuss future assignments with Flagg and although his words conceded nothing, his large brown eyes, still accentuated by eye-black, betrayed an anxious uncertainty.  Bennett, also unsure of his next stop, had longstanding plans to tend to in the season’s aftermath.  Less than a month later, on October 10, he would marry his high school sweetheart.  “And coach some little league, too,” he added.

Backman’s clouded offseason drew the most inquiries.  “Hey, I don’t even know if I’ve got a job next year,” he chortled when asked if he had coached his final game with the Cyclones.  Dutifully, Backman asserted a desire to return to the Cyclones but in describing his enjoyment of a summer spent living in Brooklyn, Backman tellingly spoke in the past tense.  His future plans consisted simply of fishing for tuna off the Oregon coast.  And then waiting.

Vaughn sat shirtless in his locker boxing up bats to be shipped to Florida.  The man, who had rewritten the Cyclones’ record book, spoke in a pointed whisper.  “Usually I’d say yeah, I’m ready [for a break], but now, no.  I’m still hungry, I want to get better,” he said, seeping intensity.  “I’m happy [with the season], but I’m not content.  I could do so much better…”

Vaughn paused as he finished taping the box before him and set it to the side revealing the physique that had earned him the nickname “Big Brown” from his college teammates in reference to the powerful thoroughbred.  A large tattoo was scrawled across the left side of his chest.  The message was brash, unequivocal and conspicuously positioned on his heart.  It explained the lack of contentment with batting titles, franchise records and appearances in all star games and championship series.  It reasoned why, after a schedule of 76 games in 80 days and grueling overnight bus rides and too many fast food restaurants and a disappointing loss in the championship series, there remained a thirst for more.  The tattoo depicted the Major League Baseball logo framed by two unfurled scrolls.

They read: “One Mission.  One Dream.”

Grabbing more bats to pack, Vaughn finished his thought, saying quietly, but emphatically, “…there’s a lot more work to be done.”

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