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Cyclones Past and Present

Congratulations to Travis Taijeron [1], he of the almost-invariably mispronounced last name, on his first big-league hit.

And congratulations to Joey Votto [2] for continuing to be Joey Votto. The Reds’ star demolished a ball thrown by Jeurys Familia [3] for a home run, then gave high-fives, his bat and uniform top to a kid battling cancer. (And note how Votto gracefully handled the post-game questions [4].)

Beyond that, well, it was another game mercifully off the schedule. Jacob deGrom [5] had an uncharacteristically poor day [6], Amed Rosario [7] made a rookie mistake in the field, and Familia’s still shaking off the rust.

And Asdrubal Cabrera [8] is still here, instead of airlifted to a contender in exchange for some vague prospect. (Though let’s not kid ourselves, he probably just would have become cash.) Time will tell whether that means the Mets didn’t get a deal they liked, or plan to slot Cabrera into 2018’s infield. Third base? Second base? A random selection of starts at both so both he and Wilmer Flores [9] remain defensively out of sorts? Place your bets!

To reference a more recap-worthy game [10], I missed Wednesday night’s bravura performance by Rafael Montero [11] because Joshua and I were at Coney Island to ride stuff and to see the Brooklyn Cyclones at home.

To my mild astonishment, this is the Cyclones’ 17th season by the ocean. (We don’t count the farcical summer of 2000, when the soon-to-be Cyclones were owned by the Mets, affiliated with the Blue Jays and played before basically nobody at St. John’s as the Queens Kings.)

It’s funny to recall, but the Cyclones were A Thing in the summer of 2001 — the park was invariably crowded if not sold out, and Cyclones players turned up on MTV and in cool Manhattan clubs where they could barely afford a drink even if old enough to order one.

I vividly remember two players from that team, one you’ve heard of and one you probably haven’t.

Angel Pagan [12] was the heartthrob, a lithe, sloe-eyed center fielder with a name borrowed from a Goth band. I used to dream that one day he’d play for the Mets, and of course he did — albeit after a detour that saw him make his big-league debut with the Cubs. In fact, Pagan logged 11 big-league seasons, got a World Series ring and retired having made more than $51 million playing baseball.

John Toner played right field and had an endearing habit of paying attention whenever the girls in the bleachers called his name. Toner stalled out in Single-A in 2003, playing his last pro game as a 24-year-old. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of; something along those lines will befall most Cyclones. I like to imagine Toner remembers that summer fondly and always will.

Certainly I do — the Cyclones won the division and beat the Staten Island Yankees in a thrilling three-game playoff. They were set to play the Williamsport Crosscutters for the New York-Penn League crown on the night of Sept. 12, 2001 — a game that never took place, leaving both teams co-champions.

Five 2001 Cyclones made the big leagues — Pagan, Danny Garcia [13], Mike Jacobs [14], Lenny DiNardo [15], and Justin Huber [16]. That was an intriguing part of that first season — knowing that relatively few players would achieve their big-league dreams, and trying to figure out which of the guys we were watching had a chance.

Over the years we’d learn that was more preordained than you’d like to think, a reflection of baseball’s caste system. Players start their pro careers viewed as legitimate prospects or roster fillers. Beginning as the former means you’ll be allowed to fail repeatedly; starting as the latter means having to prove yourself season after season and game after game to be thought of differently.

All these years later, when someone asks about a Cyclone’s chances, I feel bad saying that the best way to tell is to answer one or both of two questions:

1) How much money did he sign for?
2) Is he big and able to throw 95?

I’ve collected all the Cyclones’ card sets since 2001 — that was a secondary reason for our Wednesday visit. They’re in a binder, and I’ve taken the additional step of putting stickers on the players who made the big leagues. (Rehabbing Mets granted Cyclone cards don’t count.) Not every Cyclone is represented — the club has a web page [17] for that — but it’s an at-a-glance reminder of the long odds.

Taijeron just got his sticker; so did Kevin McGowan [18]. Right now, Michael Conforto [19] and Rosario are the most-recent carded Cyclones to earn one — both are featured in the 2014 set, with Tomas Nido [20] perhaps joining them in the coming weeks.

No one from the 2015, 2016 or 2017 sets has a sticker yet. But that will change. P.J. Conlon [21] could be the first, or Justin Dunn [22], or Desmond Lindsay [23]. Maybe they’ll make their debuts as Mets; maybe not. Either way, checking in with the Cyclones on Coney Island and in cardboard has become an essential part of summer. Here’s hoping it will always be so.