‘Baby Mets’ make it big at Citi Field
Mets roster includes 7 former Cyclones; for 1 day, entire lineup is farm team grown
By John Torenli
It was nearly 30 years ago that the Mets were on the verge of something great, having developed a brilliant young pitching staff spearheaded by future Cy Young winner Dwight Gooden, and a formidable lineup featuring rookie slugger Darryl Strawberry.
The franchise’s slogan during those soon-to-be-halcyon days — the Mets would go on to capture a World Series crown in 1986 and win the NL East in 1988 — was “Catch the Rising Stars.”
Considering the infusion of Brooklyn-bred young talent filling the lineup over in Flushing these days, the Mets’ Brooklyn Cyclones farm team, still six weeks shy of their 2012 season opener against the rival Staten Island Yankees, should seriously consider adopting the tagline from those up-and-coming ’83 Mets.
There are currently seven former Cyclones, eight if you include David Wright who enjoyed a two-day injury rehab assignment on Coney Island three years ago, on the Mets’ 25-man roster.
They are center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis (Class of 2008), second baseman Daniel Murphy (’06), right fielder Lucas Duda (’07), first baseman Ike Davis (’08), reserve outfielder Jordany Valdespin (’09), and right-hander starters Dillon Gee (’07) and Chris Schwinden (’08), who was scheduled to take the ball for Wednesday’s series finale in Houston.
That’s nearly 33 percent of a roster that has helped the team remain relevant — they were 13-11 entering Wednesday — in the wake of the free-agent defection of reigning NL batting champion Jose Reyes, yet another injury to embattled outfielder Jason Bay and the remains of the Bernie Madoff mess.
Cyclones general manager Steve Cohen takes a great measure of pride in being on the ground floor of the team’s Minor League chain, especially when the Baby Bums make their presence felt in “The Show.”
“It’s phenomenal,” Cohen told the Eagle on Wednesday. “It’s always exciting when we have former Cyclones players contributing to the big league club.”
The Coney Island to Flushing Express was in full effect last Thursday afternoon as the Mets finished off a three-game sweep of the Reyes-led Marlins at Citi Field.
The Mets’ starting lineup for the dramatic victory featured nine homegrown players – something the Amazins hadn’t displayed since 1971 – including five ex-Cyclones.
The 3-2 win was highlighted by a ninth-inning walk-off single, courtesy of Nieuwenhuis, affectionately known on Surf Avenue as “Captain Kirk” during his 74-game stint with the Cyclones four summers ago.
Rather than lament his lack of big-name talent or high-priced free agent pickups in the post-game press conference, Mets manager Terry Collins, a frequent visitor to Surf Avenue as the club’s former director of Minor League operations, instead chose to celebrate a true rarity in today’s game.
“Coming from player development, this really is a great tribute to the scouts that go out there and get no glory except for reading the box scores every day and hoping that someday one of the players they sign is going to play in the big leagues,” Collins told MLB.com. “To see a lineup that’s filled with players drafted, signed and developed by the Mets, I think it’s a great compliment to the organization.”
And it’s a feather in the cap for the Class A Short-Season Cyclones, who arrived in Coney Island 11 years ago, hoping to catch the interest of baseball fans looking for a more affordable ballpark option while breeding the organization’s top young players.
So far, so good.
Following their first 11 seasons as a Mets’ affiliate, the Cyclones have produced a total of 36 Major Leaguers, with plenty more on the way if you’re paying attention to the development of former Brooklyn stars currently rising through the ranks in the minors.
It won’t be long before names like Cory Vaughn, Darrell Ceciliani and Reese Havens, all key members of the Wally Backman-led Cyclones squad of 2010, are filling Collins’ lineup card.
Infield prospect Zach Lutz (’07) recently became the latest Cyclone to get his feet wet in the big leagues, making a pinch-hitting appearance for the Mets on April 24 after a quick call-up from Triple-A Buffalo.
Niuwenhuis, who hit .277 with three homers, 29 RBIs, 15 doubles, 11 stolen bases and 34 runs scored in 74 games during his time in Brooklyn, is emerging as a keeper this season.
The former third-round pick out of Azusa Pacific University hit .310 with two homers, four doubles, eight RBIs and 11 runs scored in his first 23 games in the majors while putting together a highlight reel of spectacular plays in center field.
“It’s definitely something to build on,” Nieuwenhuis humbly said of his quick start.
Building in Brooklyn has become a hot topic of late, with the Barclays Center poised to open in September.
Cohen, who has been with the Cyclones since their historic inaugural season opener in June 2001, has done an excellent job of helping the organization build from within at MCU Park, which perennially leads the New York-Penn League in attendance.
“I think all the way back to 2000 before we even started,” noted Cohen, who also oversaw the club when it spent a year playing at St. John’s University as the Queens Kings while the Cyclones’ ballpark was under construction.
“People weren’t sure of the type of player they would see here at the ballpark,” he added. “It’s hard to come to a Brooklyn Cyclones game, and even for the educated eye, to look at a ballplayer and see a major leaguer. It helps when they’re making strides at the major league level because fans can say they saw him on the Brooklyn Cyclones.”
Even former Brooklyn managers are making their impact felt in the majors.
The 1986 Mets’ second-base platoon of Tim Teufel and Wally Backman, both ex-Cyclones skippers, are both in line for a shot at the top spot in the Citi Field dugout.
Teufel (’03) is currently working the third-base coach’s box for Collins in Flushing, while Backman (’10) continues his steady climb through the managing ranks at Triple-A Buffalo.
“Teufel was a guy who was a former major leaguer, he put his time in, he came here and managed here and spent another six years rising through the ranks and made it as a major league coach,” Cohen said. “Plus, he’s just a phenomenal person. He sort of sticks out for me. But so do all those guys up at the major league level, besides being good players, they’re good guys.”
Collins did the unfathomable when further discussing the organization’s youth movement. He compared the Mets to the hated Yankees.
“Go across town,” he said. “Even though they have a lot of money and they spend on great free agents, you’ve got Derek [Jeter], you’ve got [Mariano Rivera] and you’ve got [Andy] Pettitte — guys that were born and came up in that system. … It’s because they’ve developed their own players. If you can do that, it certainly brings a lot to the organization and is a tribute to the guys in player development.”
And a tribute to Brooklyn’s baseball breeding ground, as well.
Individual ticket sales for Cyclones games go on sale Sunday morning at 10 a.m. Buy one, and “Catch the Rising Stars.”
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