For most Cyclones fans, this year was more than 74 games of baseball — it was an agonizing excursion into the darkest corner of a team’s heart and the brightest spot in its soul.
The Cyclones came within one game of reaching the finals, but this was also a team that dropped below .500 at one point during a disastrous middle stretch. Yes, they lost to the hated Staten Island Yankees in the playoffs, but they showed more than enough guts to win the most-coveted trophy in all of sports: the New York-Penn League championship.
It just was not meant to be. So with this year’s season at a close, we reflect on the team that almost pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in Cyclone history.
The “Mark Fidrych Major League Career Ender” award: Nelfi Zapata
The Cyclones’ rookie catcher made a name for himself when he homered off Yankee starter Phil Hughes, who was making a rehab start for the Baby Bombers. Zapata homered only one more time during the season, but Hughes never recovered, going 5-5 with a 6.00 ERA this year for the Yankees.
The “Cory Vaughn Award for Impressive Slugging”: Travis Taijeron
Centerfielder Taijeron clobbered nine homers this season, the most on the team and the third-most in the league, including a walk-off dinger on July 29 and a game-ending grand slam two games earlier.
The “Angel Pagan Award for Likeliest Cyclone to Make the Mets”: Danny Muno
Muno was the most consistent hitter all year long, leading the league with a .355 batting average — a Cyclone record! — and registering an astounding .486 on base percentage (those are Ted Williams numbers). Good luck getting him to talk about it, though; Muno was rarely seen talking to fans before the game.
The “Joseph Pulitzer Scoop of the Year” Award: Cole Frenzel
Frenzel joined the Cyclones after the season began, but quickly made name for himself as a steady first baseman with a wicked scoop — and a gnarly glove. The pocket of his beloved Rawlings mitt fell apart over a year ago, but Frenzel tied it back together with medical tape instead of ditching it. “Every ball sticks in the pocket. That’s why I like it,” he said. Look, Frenzel can use whatever he wants — especially with a .997 fielding percentage.
The “John Toner Memorial Defensive Play of the Year” Award: T.J. Chism
In the last game of the season, reliever Chism had just given up a run to the Yankees, putting the Cyclones in a hole. In the next inning, he put a runner on third with no outs. Giving up a second run would have been deadly, but Chism induced a hard ground ball back to the box — them promptly ran down the runner in a mad footrace to third. Nine pitchers out of 10 would’ve frozen the runner, then thrown to first for the out — but Chism wanted that threat cut down right then and there. The Cyclones didn’t end up getting the run they needed, but at least Chism gave them a chance.
The “Most Fireable Coach of the Year” Award: (tie) Frank Viola and Bobby Malek
It’s hard to know which of these underachievers to fire first — the pitching coach whose staff included only two pitchers to win more than three games, or the batting coach whose team led the league in strikeouts for the first half of the season. Malek’s hitters eventually turned it around, with the third-best batting average in the league, though they still struck out too often. And Viola’s pitchers ended up with the third-best ERA in the league. OK, bring them both back.
The “Wally Backman Award for Best Post Game Interviews”: Rich Donnelly
The Cyclones’ skipper may have ultimately failed to bring home the bacon, but his post-game one-liners, biting media criticism and philosophical attitude towards life and baseball — some delivered shirtless over a plate of some disgusting post-game food — left an indelible impression on the Cyclones press corps, whom he told after the first game of the season, “You guys must have all gotten C-minuses in journalism.” He didn’t match his predecessor Backman, whose rants and tirades are legendary, but Donnelly’s homespun crankiness, coupled with his baseball knowledge, made him fun to talk to.
The “Scott Kazmir Award for Player that Everyone Says is a Future Cy Young Award Winner”: Jack Leathersich
This Beverly, Massachusetts native looks like the next big thing. We spotted his talent early in the season, recognizing the fastball, which would split bats if only anyone could hit it, as well as his fall-off-the-table curve. He struck out 26 batters in his 12-2/3 innings this season — a crazy statistic that would give anyone a bit of a swell head. “I would say I’m confident,” he told us. “That’s the way you have to be as a pitcher. If you don’t act like that, you’re gonna struggle.” Nolan Ryan couldn’t have said it better.
The “Steve Cohen Memorial Award for Best General Manager in the Business”: Steve Cohen
It would be weird if we didn’t give this award — his 10th in a row — to Cohen, regardless of how the season turned out. Cohen did another bang-up job running the team and putting together a great roster, even though he has nothing to do with running the team or putting together the roster. That’s what makes him great.