September 17, 2021

Cyclones’ Roller Coaster Ride: Team Braved Turbulent 2020, Begins New Era

April 5, 2021 by · 1 Comment 

MCU Park was alive on Sept. 10, 2019. Players and coaches gamboled toward one another, shared hugs, and posed for photographs. Draped in their untucked, dirt-stained jerseys, they hoisted the trophy and champagne bottles, ebulliently signaling they were “number one” by extending their index fingers.

The Brooklyn Cyclones were right to celebrate—they had just captured the New York Penn-League title. The “Baby Bums” were neither babies nor bums. They were champions.

It was a more innocent time. Thrill seekers were riding the Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island. Terms such as “social distancing” had not yet entered our vernacular. Had that championship celebration occurred a year later, it may have been labeled a “superspreader” event. Nobody in 2019 would have imagined that MCU Park would lay empty the following year. A chance to defend the title evaporated, along with millions of other goals and hopes worldwide. In 2020, the Cyclones organization only defended its existence and the health of its employees. Coronavirus had struck.

However, despite the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season, the year was not static or boring for teams across the country. In fact, it was anxiety inducing and overwhelming. Major League Baseball’s restructuring of the minors resulted in 42 MiLB squads losing affiliation with MLB (MiLB now has a total of 120 teams—four per MLB franchise). All teams were financially ravaged by the pandemic, as minor league club profits come almost exclusively from ticket and merchandise purchases.

In defiance of never-before-seen obstacles, the Cyclones survived. While most assumed the Brooklyn team would remain affiliated with the New York Mets, fans were nonetheless relieved when it was officially announced that the Cyclones were to be kept. Formerly of the now-defunct New York Penn-League—a Class A Short-Season league—the Cyclones were elevated to the High-A East because of the restructuring. This surprised several baseball insiders, who had predicted the Brooklyn club would replace the Binghamton Rumble Ponies as the Mets’ Double-A affiliate (Binghamton remains the Double-A affiliate).

Whether surviving contraction or not, MiLB teams across the nation laid off scores of employees due to monetary struggles. The Cyclones, a stable franchise and perennial leader in New York Penn-League attendance, was one of the few teams able to keep all of its full-timers. The staff, though, endured modest pay cuts: five, 10, or 15 percent, depending on salary.

One of those fortunate employees is the voice of the Cyclones, Keith Raad. The radio broadcaster and account executive is grateful to have his positions as well as support from the Cyclones and Mets.

“Human resources was terrific,” Raad says. “There were outreach groups that checked in with us regarding our health and otherwise. And throughout the pandemic, I’ve been tested frequently for COVID.”

About to get married, Raad is surprisingly undaunted by the fragility—-exacerbated by the pandemic—-of a sports media career.

“I’m in no matter what,” he states doggedly. “I never think about doing anything different. In this business, things can get rough financially at times. But if I had another career, I would always be thinking about baseball.”

Like a pitcher who hasn’t been on the mound in a while, Raad went months without putting on the headset when the pandemic was raging last spring and summer. When restrictions eased this past fall and winter, he found himself back in the booth, calling games for various Wagner College sports and spotting for Army football announcer Mark Fratto at West Point. He even helped produce Howard University men’s basketball games for ESPN2.

Meanwhile, minor league front offices nationwide, some on the precipice of financial disaster, found creative ways to make money and facilitate fan interaction. Some franchises turned their stadiums into large restaurants with curbside pickup (the ballpark food delivered by mascots and workers); a way to keep their kitchen staffs employed and remind fans they still existed. Others hosted fireworks extravaganzas, high school graduations, sports award ceremonies, or drive-in movie nights. It was manic marketing to avoid bankruptcy.

Not as economically desperate, the Cyclones did not have to resort to these drastic measures. Additionally, MCU Park was an alternate training site for the Mets last summer, limiting the Cyclones’ use of their home. Nevertheless, the team remained engaged with its passionate fans. Through social media and video calls, the Brooklyn club held virtual “garage sales,” promotional giveaways, and bingo and trivia nights.

Other entertainment included “Cyclones Cinema,” in which a player would watch a renowned movie for the first time and live tweet his reaction. In the fall, fans could order “mystery boxes” filled with Cyclones paraphernalia, such as bobbleheads, mugs, and jerseys, and then pick them up at the stadium. To connect with the surrounding community, the team launched its “Spread the Yum” campaign, an effort to support local restaurants.

“Community outreach is super important to us and is something [assistant general manager of the Cyclones] Gary Perone emphasizes,” Raad notes.

The Cyclones even produced a Facebook video series. Titled “Slice of Life,” the podcast-like production began at the start of quarantine and extended into the summer. Each episode included the charismatic and down-to-earth duo of Raad and Billy Harner, the team’s communications director. They discussed baseball, current events, pop culture, viral videos, and personal memories.

“The idea for ‘Slice of Life’ came from him,” Raad says. “He was home with his kids and just saw a lot of bad and sad news about everything happening in the world. We wanted to promote something good, something people could smile about while stuck inside. Some people even said it made their days, so we were happy about that. [Graphic designer] Brendan Bowling did a great job with the graphics. And the name obviously came from the connection between Brooklyn and pizza.”

Raad and Harner returned in February with “Amazin’ Starts Here,” a podcast dedicated to the Mets farm system. The show has already featured interviews with top Mets minor league prospects, coaches, executives, and experts.
Despite the team’s admirable and effective efforts to keep in touch with fans, nothing beats the ballpark experience, especially at a buzzing Coney Island. In addition to fun promotional dates such as “Seinfeld Night” and “Brooklyn Amazins Night,” Raad simply misses “the life in the stadium, the people, the sound of the crowd, and putting on a show every night.”

All of that will return soon. The Cyclones’ first game is set for May 4 and their home opener will be May 18. The team expects to have limited capacity at 7,000-seat MCU Park to ensure social distancing, but guidelines are subject to change as the season progresses. During a normal year, the High-A season would begin in April, but MLB delayed the start of the minor leagues to limit the number of players at preseason camp and thus lower the risk of a coronavirus outbreak.

Therefore, High-A teams are planning for 120 games instead of the standard 140. Even with the 20-game decrease, the Cyclones will be on the diamond more than before—the Brooklyn club played only 76 games per year, half of them at Coney Island, as a short-season team. The High-A regular season will end in September, which is the norm.

The “Baby Bums” will be a member of the High-A East’s North Division, along with the Aberdeen IronBirds (Baltimore Orioles), Hudson Valley Renegades (now affiliated with the New York Yankees), the Jersey Shore BlueClaws (Philadelphia Phillies), and the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Washington Nationals). Aberdeen and Hudson Valley are familiar foes from the New York-Penn League, while Jersey Shore and Wilmington will be new opponents.

Raad and Harner predict some of Brooklyn’s top players from 2019 might make the 2021 roster, as it’s common for short-season standouts to ascend to High-A ball. While the official roster has yet to be released, the new coaching staff has been made public. Ed Blankmeyer, the former legendary St. John’s Red Storm baseball coach, will serve as the 12th manager in Cyclones history.

Blankmeyer was hired in early 2020, but never got his shot to manage Brooklyn due to the MiLB season cancellation. Instead, he helped run the Mets’ alternate training site at MCU Park last summer. His bench coach will be Mariano Duncan, who played 12 seasons in The Bigs. New Yorkers may recognize the name—Duncan was on the World Series-winning 1996 Yankees team that featured another Mariano.

Raad and the Cyclones are excited about the upcoming season.

“High A will be a great brand of baseball,” Raad says enthusiastically. “Although there will be some cold games due to the longer season.”

The voice of the team was never too concerned about MLB’s contraction efforts in relation to Brooklyn, but does note the sudden change of levels creates unprecedented circumstances.

“We all felt pretty confident that we would remain affiliated with the Mets,” he says. “But the timing and trickling out of the restructuring news over social media made us want to know more so we could immediately know how to plan. It will be a quick turnaround into this season, but we are very excited.”

Veteran New York City journalist Gersh Kuntzman, an avid Mets and Cyclones fan, understands both the pros and cons of MLB’s remodeling of the minors.

“It’s bittersweet,” he says. “Minor league baseball is great for families since it isn’t expensive and you can sit close to the field. Over 40 towns lost the most important part of their summers. But I’ve been to small towns around the country and am sure some teams needed to be cut. For example, the Vermont Lake Monsters are one such team because they were not supported by Burlington.”

Currently the editor of Streetsblog New York, Kuntzman covered the Cyclones for much of the team’s first decade, as a freelancer and as editor of the Brooklyn Paper. He even once tried being the team’s mascot, Sandy the Seagull, for a game and wrote about the experience (the journalist has an unconventional streak—he was the first to provide mainstream coverage of the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island). Kuntzman is a “Baby Bums” expert and believes the move to High A will benefit the team and its fans.

“It will be high-quality baseball and one step closer to the majors,” he says. “The Cyclones have always sent great talent to the higher levels and this will only continue that trend. “The Cyclones were never just another Coney carnival attraction, but this move will make it even more professional.”

When the club debuted in 2001, Kuntzman expected a “hokey” operation and experience. To his surprise, it was more of a corporate atmosphere.

“The Cyclones never had that Middle-America feel,” he observes. “Sometimes it felt like a company that wasn’t connected to the rest of Coney Island. That’s because the Mets owned them, not a smaller group or family. Dick Zigun [co-founder of Coney Island USA and unofficial ‘mayor’ of Coney Island] was disappointed the team didn’t contribute as much to the ‘show’ that is Coney Island or to the overall revival of the site.”

However, Kuntzman, also a playwright, offers a theater analogy to explain why the Cyclones’ businesslike approach is successful.

“Going to a Cyclones game is like going to an off-Broadway show instead of to one at an unknown Bushwick loft,” the journalist asserts. “The Bushwick loft has its charm, but you know you’re getting something professional at the off-Broadway show.”

Kuntzman has attended many Cyclones games over the years, including road and playoff contests. One of his fondest memories is watching, with awe, an “MLB-type play” by the Cyclones’ defense in 2001: A runner on the opposing team was trying to score from second base and outfielder John Toner threw a missile to catcher Mike Jacobs. Jacobs had feigned giving up on the play, but then immediately caught the ball and tagged out the runner—who had not slid into home, thinking it wasn’t necessary due to Jacobs’ effective acting job. That’s baseball.

The journalist also enjoyed interacting with Cyclones managers, among them Wally Backman and George Greer.
“Backman was such a classic baseball hand from the country,” Kuntzman says with a chuckle. “He was very colorful and used old-time expressions. Greer took more of a unique, scholarly approach to the game.”

Kuntzman appreciates the “humanity of baseball that only real fans can understand.” He’s not alone. Brooklyn is home to many “real,” die-hard fans, which Raad recognizes.

“We love the fans and they love us,” Raad insists. “It was a borough that went nearly half a century without pro baseball. There is a big personality here.”

After a 603-day hiatus, Brooklyn baseball will be back.

 

Peter Kropf can be found at Muck Rack, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Comments

One Response to “Cyclones’ Roller Coaster Ride: Team Braved Turbulent 2020, Begins New Era”
  1. Down in Wilmington, we are looking forward to watching the Blue Rocks play the Cyclones, and the Jersey Shore Blueclaws, and the Aberdeen Ironbirds. These are going to be natural rivalries. At the same time, we are mourning the loss of so many long-time minor league teams, due to the brutal forced contraction of the minor leagues. It was an ugly thing for so many towns.

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