Almost Famous

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.”

“This is the real minor leagues,” says Alfonzo, pointing at the 83-year-old wooden grandstand at Wahconah Park, the home field of the Astros farm team that replaced the Mets in Pittsfield. “Most minor leaguers never play in front of 7,500 people like we do back home. I’ve played in front of 200 people before – it’s easy to fall asleep.”

Unlike the press area at the brand-new $39 million KeySpan Park – air-conditioned, with cable TV and Internet access – the Pittsfield box resembles a chicken coop and is so close to home plate that when the groundskeepers rake the parched infield, a thin layer of dirt covers the counter. “We don’t quite have the largesse that your town has to spend $100 million on two minor-league parks,” says Howard Herman, the beat writer for the Berkshire Eagle as well as the entire press corps for the Astros.

After dropping the first game to Pittsfield 3-1, the Cyclones, still in full uniform, dash back to the bus for the 35-minute ride to the Holiday Inn in North Adams. There’s a Berkshires Crowne Plaza only five minutes from Wahconah Park, but the Holiday Inn offers a much better rate. In North Adams, star treatment means the manager of the local Subway stays open as late as his special guests want.

The Cyclones dominate the Astros the next two nights by scores of 6-1 and 5-0. Before Saturday night’s final game, the team checks out of the Holiday Inn at 11 a.m. – saving a final night’s hotel bill – and with nothing to do until a 3:30 departure to the ballpark, more than half the players get a ride from the bus driver to the local mall. After scoping out new sneakers in Foot Locker, they settle at several tables in a food court that offers ethnic cuisines from around the world that fit well within their meal budget.

Check it out!” screams Portobanco, a devout Christian who nonetheless likes to keep his teammates’ heads turning in search of local talent. Everyone spins around to see a sweet-sixteen in a tube top on line to buy a pastry.

“The opposing players always ask us what it’s like to play in front of all these fans every night. It’s all they want to talk about.”

“No way, dude,” says Tyler Beuerlein, a 22-year-old catcher from Grand Canyon University. “That’s just sick. “Beuerlein just joined the Cyclones in Pittsfield, and his nervousness at being the new guy has made him an easy target for Portobanco’s antics.

That night, the Cyclones defeat Pittsfield, 5-4, in ten innings. Already running late, the players skip the showers, grab hamburgers from Pittsfield’s concessions, and run for the bus.

It’s a rainy four-hour ride home, mostly outside the Sprint PCS service area, so no one can call his parents or girlfriend. There’s nothing to do but endure The Perfect Storm on the bus’s four small TV screens (“Mierda! Mierda película!” shout several Latino players). They arrive in Coney Island at 3 a.m., cranky and in desperate need of a second meal and a first shower. They drop their gear in their lockers and pile into the overcrowded van for the half-hour ride to St. John’s. Practice begins tomorrow at 2 p.m.

’Do people always stand up on the subway?” Peeples asks about the rush-hour crowd filling the F train. Peeples makes more postgame trips to Manhattan than any other Cyclone; despite his extracurricular activities, he has the best record on the team. The only earned runs he’s given up came from a home run earlier today against the Jamestown Jammers. It was the one inning this season in which an umpire made him take off his jewelry, including his what would jesus do? bracelet. After Ojeda negotiated its return, Peeples shut down Jamestown completely.

To celebrate Peeples’s victory and a night off, Cox, Peeples, McGinley, and pitcher Matt Peterson are taking the subway into the city for a real meal. “Hey, I’ll put up $5 for the first one of you who can get a number, and you can’t drop the Cyclones bomb or the Mets bomb,” jokes Cox, who has a girlfriend at home but likes watching his teammates test their nascent celebrity. “The Mets bomb is still much more potent than the Cyclones bomb, but setting off the Cyclones bomb is far more effective than any other minor-league team. By. Far.”

At Gallagher’s Steak House, the players devour their sixteen-ounce filet mignons like a death-row last meal, then stare down the dessert menu as though dinner never happened. This might be the best meal they’ll eat until the season ends, and they’re going to make the most of it. They can’t stop talking about the promotion of catcher Mike Jacobs to Columbia. “We’re happy for Jake,” says Peeples, “but he used to drive three guys to the park in his own car. Now we’ve got to squeeze those guys into the van.”

“It can be difficult for us to move up,” Cox reflects over his feast. “The Mets have a lot of pitchers in their system.”

In the meantime, Brooklyn isn’t such a bad place to wait. “The opposing players are always asking us what it’s like to play in front of all these fans every night,” Cox says, “to have a field like this. ‘What’s the nightlife like?’ It’s all they want to talk about.” KeySpan Park also seems to intimidate opposing teams: By mid-July, the Cyclones are 10-2 at home.

“I couldn’t imagine playing A ball in Brooklyn,” says Mets outfielder Benny Agbayani. “You’re always under the microscope.” Indeed, the first “submarine series” against the Staten Island Yankees draws reporters and photographers from every major daily to the Brooklyn dugout for a Yankees team’s first visit to Brooklyn in 45 years.

During the media frenzy, Portobanco leaves the dugout and stalks the infield, less worried about facing his crosstown rivals than about finding his wife, who’s flown in from Miami. After he finds her by calling repeatedly on a borrowed cell phone, he sighs with relief, runs back into the clubhouse to change, and combines with McGinley to shut out the Yankees 1-0 and give the Cyclones sole possession of first place. After the game, Portobanco’s teammates crowd the TV above his locker to hear Ojeda critique his performance on local television. “I always say, if Porto’s mind and arm are attached to his body at the same time, he’s gonna be tough to beat,” the coach says. “He certainly was today.”

Not everyone is caught up in the victory: Beuerlein, who’s sitting by himself in the dugout, has been with the team for two weeks but hasn’t seen any game action yet. “Not playing has been driving me crazy,” he says, staring at the dugout floor. “In college, you’re the man. Now you’re away from home, you’ve got new coaches, new friends, new city, new ballpark, new everything, and it’s so hard to get adjusted.”

That’s where Alfonzo comes in. “A guy goes 0-for-4 or gives up a few runs and he thinks he’s going to get cut,” he says. “I tell them they have to trust their ability. When they’re done, they’ll know what it’s like to deal with the media, the fans, everything.”

The following week, Beuerlein gets his first hit at KeySpan – a long single that stays airborne for what seems like forever until it lands safely beyond the reach of the right-fielder. “I got into a game and I got a hit,” he says, relieved. “Now Bobby Ojeda can’t call me Johnny Newguy anymore.” The team continues its winning streak, taking its fourteenth straight game at KeySpan, and Beuerlein heads down the right-field line to sign autographs. “Tyler! Tyler!” scream the kids who now know his name as he hurries to sign as many times as he can.

After the game, Dave Campanaro reminds Beuerlein that Harper’s Bazaar has booked the field, two models, and eight Cyclones for a fashion shoot directed by Spike Lee. When the fans clear out, a member of Lee’s entourage whispers into the microphone at his collar and gets the PA booth to put on something with a little more bass than the sleepy Sinatra exit music now on. “Loosen up!” the photographer yells. “Have some fun with these lovely ladies.” As the music kicks in, Peeples, cap backward, begins shaking his hips as only a Georgian with hip-hop fever can. Eyes closed and hands in the air, he looks like a sleepy Zorba the Greek. Beuerlein muscles his way into a model sandwich and starts thrusting his pelvis and waving both thumbs in the air like a hitchhiker to the howls of Lee and his staff.

After a few shots, the session moves to the dugout, where the players and models line up along the railing for a final pose with the Parachute Jump in the background. “Oh, my God!” shrieks one of the models as catcher Brett Kay unleashes a pint of spit onto the field. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Just a nasty habit.”

Lee jumps in line with everyone for a souvenir photo. The models climb onto the dugout roof and turn it into their own personal catwalk. And after obliging thousands of hero-seekers with autographs, the players finally ask for some themselves, and Lee obliges each of them with a personalized baseball.

“We out!” Lee shouts, and leads his staff up the stairs of them grandstand as the players carefully place their souvenir balls back into plastic bags for safekeeping and charge into the clubhouse. The showers are waiting, and then another vanride back to the dorm. As the sprinklers go off, Beuerlein stands alone at first base, baton his shoulder, and watches everyone disappear. For a moment, there’s one Brooklyn Cyclone who’s exactly where he wants to be.

Almost Famous