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Almost Famous

They're mobbed by fans, photographed by fashion magazines, and adored on MTV. The Brooklyn Cyclones might even forget they're minor leaguers -- if it weren't for the cramped dorm rooms, all-night bus rides, and concession-stand meals.

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The smell of salt water breezes in from over the right-field wall, the afternoon sun glints off the Parachute Jump, and Method Man pumps over the sound system. It's another day at the beach for the Brooklyn Cyclones, who are swinging from the heels at waist-high fastballs thrown by former Mets hurler Bobby Ojeda, the team's pitching coach. Howard Johnson, his former teammate on the World Champion '86 Mets, offers tips and friendly jibes from behind the batting cage.

On the fourth of his five allotted practice swings, outfielder John Toner, a 21-year-old from St. Joseph, Michigan, lines a pitch toward the Brooklyn Brewery ad plastered on the left-field wall of Key Span Park. "Did he get me?" Ojeda asks Johnson, refusing to turn to watch the ball land. There's a loud thud off the base of the wall. "You can hear it for yourself, pal," Johnson replies. On the fifth pitch, Ojeda unleashes a swift breaking ball that Toner misses by a mile.

"Don't worry, HoJo -- I'm working on a cut fastball," says Ojeda, referring to a pitch now in vogue in the majors. "Once I get that down, none of these punks are gonna get a hit."

No sweat. Pregame practice is like recess for these students of the game, most of whom went straight to the minors out of college or even high school. There's no pressure to put upthe kind of statistics that impress the coaches. And there's no additional coaching from Brooklyn's die-hard fans, some of whom seem to have been waiting since the Dodgers left town in 1957 to tell a new crop of Brooklyn bums when to take a pitch and when to swing away.

"Brooklyn is a great place to play," says Edgar Alfonzo, the manager of the Cyclones. "This is a beautiful park and the fans are great. But let's face it: No one wants to be here. Our job is to keep moving up until we get to the other ballpark."

The other ballpark is Shea Stadium, home of the Cyclones' parent team, the New York Mets. Like Ojeda and Johnson, Alfonzo knows the other park well: His younger brother, Edgardo, is an all-star second-baseman there. Shea is only an hour and a halfaway on the F and 7 trains, but the trip is a lot longer for the Cyclones. They play in the A-level New York-Penn League, so the few players who do make the trip will face A-league layovers in Columbia, South Carolina, and Port St. Lucie, Florida, before moving up to AA in Binghamton, New York, and finally AAA in Norfolk, Virginia. One out of ten Cyclones might make it to Shea. At any step along the way, a slump could propel them backward through the organization or even out of it completely.

For now, they spend the summer soaking up the cheers of nearly 8,000 supporters a night. Children line up for signatures by the hundreds before and after games, sometimes accompanied by moms who aren't above leaning in to ensure Junior doesn't get passed over in the autograph gauntlet. Mike Cox, a 22-year-old pitcher from Pasadena, Texas, who enjoyed a promising but anonymous season in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the Mets' Penn League team played last year, is already feeling the heat from the New York spotlight. "This 14-year-old girl comes up to me with her mom and dad, crying her eyes out," Cox says."She's saying, 'You're getting called up! You're not gonna be here anymore!' I turned beet-red! She had me confused with another guy on the team who got moved up to Port St. Lucie. What was I supposed to say to her? I felt like a Backstreet Boy."

They may break hearts like a boy band, but the Cyclones certainly don't feel like teen idols when payday comes around. First-year players make $850 a month, out of which $200 is taken for the privilege of sharing five-man suites in the St. John's University dorms. Cyclones also receive a $20-per-day meal allowance on the road; at home, they're rewarded with postgame deliveries of leftover hamburgers and hot dogs from the concession stands.

The evening before a rare day off, Cox and six of his teammates skip the van ride back to St. John's and take the subway to the China Club, where the magic words "We're with the Cyclones" get them major-league treatment at the velvet rope. The only celebrity they spot is Mets center-fielder Jay Payton. "We didn't feel right going up to him," says Blake McGinley, a 22-year-old reliever from Bakersfield, California. "We just let him be. But, man, that place is expensive. I go there with a hundred bucks, figuring I'd come back with a twenty. All I have left is pocket change."

The following morning, Cox and roommate Ross Peeples continue to test the Cyclones charm by having the team's media-relations manager, Dave Campanaro, wrangle them and five teammates an appearance on MTV's Total Request Live. As the players pace around the green room, Puff Daddy walks by in the hall, and several players scream his name. Puffy steps back, pokes his head in, takes one look at their jerseys, and shouts right back, "Yo, Cyclones! Whassup?"

On air, the Cyclones are stars. "Do you guys hope that one of the Mets sucks or gets hit on the head, so you'll get a chance to play?" asks TRL host Carson Daly. "A little bit," says Peeples, a 21-year-old pitcher from Cordele, Georgia, quivering in his temporary role as spokesman. "But we're still a few steps away from the Mets."

When Daly asks if anyone hit a home run last night, every teenage girl in the studio starts screaming at once. Peeples pauses and points to outfielder Forrest Lawson and says, "Yeah, he did." Lawson shyly shakes his head no, and Daly gives him a quick TRL etiquette lesson: "You should've gone with it, bro -- there are chicks in the room." On the way out, all of them call friends and family on their cell phones to make sure someone saw them.

Nearly all new to New York, the Cyclones still feel more at home on the field than on the town. Before a night game against the Hudson Valley Renegades, a thunderstorm drowns the air, forcing several thousand fans to seek shelter under two small overhangs in the grandstand. Keyed up to play and now increasingly bored, the players start to wrestle in the dugout, away from the eyes of their trainer, who would be none too pleased to see the team's prized pitchers doling out charley horses with their throwing hands. "It's not much different back at the suite, mate," says Matt Gahan, a 25-year-old Australian accountant who was discovered pitching part-time in a winter league back home.

Gahan, who's among the league leaders in strikeouts, is one of the few married men on the team, and he shares a room with his wife in a six-person suite at St. John's. "We have our own room and our own bathroom, so it's not so bad," he says. "The guys are pretty good about giving us our privacy."

Gahan's not the only player with his mind on his family. Luz Portobanco, a 21-year-old pitcher with star potential who has a wife and 10-month-old son back home in Miami, is thinking of returning to his native Nicaragua for the winter. "One team has already offered me $2,000 a game to pitch there this winter, and I have a kid now, and that's a lot of money," he says. "But I don't know if I could be away from my son any longer."


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