On June 19, 2001, a new Mets farm team took the field at Jamestown, N.Y.'s Diethrick Park. The Brooklyn Cyclones had arrived — attended by the kind of hype that's not exactly normal fare for the New York-Penn League. The Cyclones were bringing pro baseball back to Brooklyn, and in doing so were healing (at least in some tiny way) a wound that had borne by the borough for 44 years, since the departure of the Dodgers from Ebbets Field and New York City. (They now play, it's rumored, somewhere far away.)
The Cyclones actually weren't brand new; they'd been born as the St. Catharines Blue Jays in 1986 and bought by the Wilpons in 1999. Nor were they strangers to New York City: They'd played here in 2000, stuck with a final year of Blue Jays affiliation and burdened with the singularly terrible name Queens Kings. In 2000, in fact, the Mets had ran rather half-hearted ads suggesting fans truck out to St. John's University to attend games played by a Toronto farm team. This worked about as well as you'd expect.
But for 2001 things were put right: The team had the proper affiliation, a decent name and a new ballpark in Brooklyn. The young Cyclones, sensibly, began their season on the road, against the Jamestown Jammers. They won their first game, 2-1, behind a home run by Edgar Rodriguez and strong pitching by Luz Portobanco. (The first hit in Cyclones history was tallied by Noel Devarez.) After a series against the Vermont
Lake Monsters Expos, they returned home to Keyspan Park on Coney Island on June 25 to face the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. The game, thick with politicians and camera crews, turned out to be a thriller. Rodriguez tied it with a two-run homer with two out in the ninth. In the 10th, with a runner on third, the Scrappers walked a batter intentionally to face 20-year-old catcher Michael Jacobs, who'd struck out four times. Jacobs hit a sacrifice fly to win the game.
It was the start of a love affair that, happily, has continued to this day. In 2001 the Cyclones were a hot ticket, setting a league record for attendance. Cyclones players showed up on MTV and occasionally turned up in Manhattan's hottest clubs, even though — like many a previous Gotham ingenue — many of them were underage and most of them couldn't afford to be there. Emily and I made a habit of riding the F train down to see them and spread the gospel. Though the Mets would make a gallant run at returning to the postseason that year, we came to love Keyspan Park as the Anti-Shea. It wasn't fancy — a concrete park with a single level and some bleachers — but where Shea's dinginess stemmed from an obsolete vision and surly neglect, Keyspan was utilitarian on purpose. And lots of nights, it was a lot more fun than the big-league park. The food was good, the staff were friendly, the music was cleverly chosen, and the between-innings antics were amusingly and properly bush-league. Moreover, the games generally zipped by in a tidy two hours or so, fueled by a shortage of balls fouled off and the minor-leaguers' disinclination to wander away from the batter's box or the mound between pitches. I'm as susceptible as anyone to starry-eyed baseball mythmaking, but the next time I'm moved to elegiac flights by a batter rearranging his batting gloves near the on-deck circle while everybody stands around will be the first time.
The Cyclones were fun, and they were good: They went 52-24 that year and an astonishing 30-8 at home. They beat the Staten Island Yankees in the playoffs, and took the first game of the best-of-three New York-Penn League Championship Series from the Williamsport Crosscutters. That game was on Sept. 10; the next day, baseball and everything else stopped. Unlike the Mets, the Cyclones would not get to resume their season: They and the Crosscutters were named co-champions.
Jacobs, the hero of the homecoming, had his moments, as did Rodriguez and Devarez and Portobanco and other names we'd learned in the first week. The Cyclones' best hitter was Frank Corr, a little fireplug who further endeared himself to the locals by living with his aunt in Mill Basin. The player we rooted for most avidly was John Toner, an awkward-looking corner outfielder who always seemed faintly surprised and utterly delighted to find himself playing ball. (Toner also taught us another difference between short-season A ball and the Show: When the Bay Ridge girls would squeal his name, he'd look eagerly into the stands.)
But the player in whom we invested the most hope was a 19-year-old center fielder. His name was Angel Pagan, one of those you-gotta-be-kidding-me names baseball seems to specialize in. (Seriously, doesn't “Angel Pagan” sound like some lemon-pussed, Gother-than-thou riot grrl band?) He had pouty good looks that played well on the scoreboard, judging from the reactions of the teenaged girls in the stands around us, but he also played well on the field. He was fleet-footed and graceful in the outfield and on the basepaths, and while he didn't have a ton of power, he could put balls in the gaps and knew how to work counts.
We'd been warned, amid the Baseball's Back in Brooklyn hype, that the lower reaches of the minor leagues were governed by pitiless math: Maybe one or two of the 2001 Cyclones might reach the majors. Baseball got exponentially harder with each level ascended, and being a star as a Brooklyn Cyclone didn't mean you'd be one as a Columbia Bomber or a St. Lucie Met. Few Cyclones would ever reach Double-A Binghamton, the first level at which a successful player could realistically think about the big leagues. Fewer still would ascend to Norfolk and the possibility of a Met callup.
We'd been warned, but we still liked to imagine what could be. Of all the Cyclones, Pagan looked the most like a major-leaguer. You could imagine him patrolling center field in Shea, having traded Cyclones' navy and red for blue and orange. How perfect would that be, the Cyclones' first heartthrob ascending all the way to the Show? We'd sit at Shea in our green mezzanine seats, wearing our Cyclones caps, and peer down at him, so much farther away than he'd been on Coney Island. And when he rifled one up the gap we'd high-five and tell people who didn't care that we'd watched him that first year at Keyspan. We'd watched him and cheered for him and just look at him now!
And then stuff happened.
Pagan did climb the minor-league ladder, continuing to ascend as the likes of Toner and Corr and Devarez and Rodriguez retired or were released short of their dreams. (Four 2001 Cyclones — Pagan, Jacobs, Danny Garcia and Lenny DiNardo — would make the big leagues, which is actually a pretty good crop.) Pagan finished 2004 as a Norfolk Tide and played the entire year at Triple-A in 2005. But he didn't earn a callup, and in January 2006 he was sold to the Chicago Cubs. He made the club out of spring training; I noted his debut and reminded myself, grumpily, that The Holy Books had no place for Cub fourth outfielders.
Emily and I continued to go to Keyspan to see the Cyclones — Joshua saw his first game there — and we always enjoyed ourselves. (With the exception of one unfortunate, isolated incident with Sandy the Seagull that I think my wife has finally forgiven.) But seeing the Cyclones has never been as fun as it was that first pinch-me summer. This is no fault of the Cyclones; rather, it's that we've become used to Keyspan and learned how the low minors work. A-ball is unsentimental: Each summer brings an entirely new roster of players, most of them destined to be forgotten in short order. The successful ones vanish to higher affiliates; the unsuccessful ones vanish to civilian life. A favorite original Cyclone becoming a Cub part-timer? For the New York-Penn League, that's a success story.
But just as I was getting used to this idea, Pagan returned. The Mets reacquired him in a dog-and-cat trade in January 2008, and he went north from Port St. Lucie after Moises Alou pulled a muscle or contracted gangrene or got mauled by a mountain lion or whatever the heck happened to him that time. Finally in Queens where Emily and I'd always thought he'd belonged, Pagan impressed in his first few weeks, and fans in the bleachers honored him with a cute pantomime of angel wings. But his next few weeks were less impressive, and in early summer he fell on his shoulder in a game against the Dodgers and landed on the DL. Emily and Joshua and I saw him that July, in Brooklyn of all places. He was on a rehab assignment, and compared to his momentary teammates he looked old and unhappy. It was an unfortunate homecoming, one we were hesitant to even acknowledge.
Pagan never returned to active duty that season, and I thought that was the end of the story. But then this year, in mid-May, he returned again as one of the waves of Bison reinforcements. And tonight, finally, he was front and center, in a new park that consciously after Brooklyn's lost Ebbets Field.
As Greg and I noted, sitting together back behind the first-base line, the game seemed to be taking several weeks. Part of that was Oliver Perez being Oliver Perez, but a lot of it was dopey baseball, with the Mets and Diamondbacks one-upping each other's efforts to lose. Happily, it was a startlingly gorgeous summer night, one in which you look up at the night sky and around at the stadium and congratulate yourself for picking the perfect way to spend your evening, even if the pitching and the hitting and the managing down there aren't exactly the stuff of Ken Burns rhapsody. Justin Upton hit a stunningly long home run and the Mets mounted a satisfying flurry of offense, but soon the game was tied and the question was whose relievers would be worse at the worst time. Given recent events, it seemed likely that we'd soon be falling back on what a beautiful night it had been, with the less said about baseball the better.
But with one out in the eighth Clay Zavada — whose mustache and hair demand 70s wakka-wakka porn music and double entendres by way of accompaniment — walked Alex Cora, gave up a little parachute to Omir Santos and a solid hit through the hole by Angel Berroa. That brought up Pagan, who looked at a ball, fouled one off and then got a fastball from Zavada that was high and not particularly fast. He sent it deep into the left-field seats, one of those bolts that brings everybody with a modicum of baseball sense to their feet even before an irrelevant outfielder kicks helplessly at the grass. It was Pagan's first home run since July 2007, his first as a Met, his first grand slam ever.
As Zavada dispiritedly went to work on Luis Castillo we were all standing and cheering and yelling. Everybody wanted a curtain call, but I'm not shy to say I wanted it most of all. Heck, I'd only been thinking of something like this since the early days of the Bush administration. Pagan bounced up the stairs and pointed at the crowd, smiling hugely, and it was exactly like Emily and I had imagined it, in Coney Island once upon a time.
Other happy memories are to be found in the pages of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.