One of the newest Cyclones also has the best story.
Cuban-born Vladimir Hernandez — like many Cubans, his name is a nod towards Russia — once played on his country’s national team with the likes of Yankees pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.
During a road trip in 1999 to Mexico for the Pan-American Games, Vladimir Hernandez took a stroll out of his well-guarded hotel and never came back. To hear him describe it is like reading a script for a Hollywood action movie.
“It was very scary,” said the soft-spoken, affable Hernandez — the last guy you’d peg as a defector. “I have friends in Mexico who said, ‘You should stay with us. It will be better for you.’ My dream was to play baseball in America, so I agreed. The plan was all arranged. My friend would call me and I would slip out of the hotel. I walked around the swimming pool and then jumped the gate. I was scared, but my friends picked me up and took me out of there. If someone had seen me, it would have been very difficult for me back in Cuba.”
Just because he successfully fled the Cuban authorities didn’t mean Hernandez was out of danger. Fearing deportation, he stayed in hiding for two years, but managed to play baseball in weekend pick-up games. It was at one of those games where Hernandez was spotted by a Mets scout.
“He saw me playing and said, ‘You’re good,’” Hernandez recalled. “I said, ‘I’d like to play baseball, if God wills it.’”
After that, Hernandez — a graduate of Ho Chi Minh High School in his native Havana — asked for asylum from American authorities.
He was signed by the Mets organization and assigned to Brooklyn. In his nine games as a Cyclone, Hernandez is batting .310 with three runs batted in. He has also played a very smooth second base and even stole home in Sunday’s road game in Vermont. (It was part of a double steal, but still …).
And he always has a smile on his face.
Visit from Spike
You’re more likely to spot him waving a towel or taunting opponents from his front-row seats at Knicks games, but filmmaker Spike Lee stopped by Keyspan Park last week to make heroes out of a few minor-league baseball players.
Lee, with two runway models in tow, staged a fashion shoot for the October issue of Harper’s Bazaar at second base — and Cyclones David Byard, Forrest Lawson, Brett Kay, Ross Peeples, Tyler Beuerlein, Mike Cox, Angel Pagan and Robert McIntyre provided window dressing.
“It was a ball,” said relief pitcher Byard, who, with his David Wells good looks, is not the most obvious choice to be included in a Harper’s Bazaar fashion spread.
“Spike wanted us to just stand around the models and look like ballplayers, but some of us weren’t dirty enough, so before he started shooting, he told us to slide around and get dirty.”
Outfielder Lawson — one of several Cyclones who actually COULD be mistaken for a model — also participated, dancing around and mugging for Lee’s cameras.
“It was a lot of fun for us and it was great meeting Spike Lee.”
Byard, one of the funniest guys on the team, said the experience hasn’t left him wanting to trade baseball for a model’s life.
“No, that’s not for me,” he said.
Then again, Byard inexplicably won a Speedo swimsuit contest in Florida during spring training — not that he wants to talk about it.
“Definitely no comment on that one!” he said.
‘Newguy’ no more
New pitchers Lenny DiNardo and Brian Walker have earned the right to be called by their real names again.
It’s a rite of passage for any new Cyclones hurler. Until making his first appearance, a Cyclones pitcher is known to pitching coach Bobby Ojeda as “Johnny Newguy,” as in “Hey, Johnny Newguy, go to the bullpen and throw a little.”
“It was actually kind of confusing because Brian and I joined the team at the same time,” said DiNardo. “And we’re both lefties, so I couldn’t even be ‘Lefty Newguy.’”
Walker, a Miami native, shed his nickname with one inning of shutout relief and DiNardo, also from Florida, followed with his own no-run performance.
Give it a shot
The New York Mets will be hosting open tryouts at Keyspan Park on Friday, Aug. 3 at 9 am.
While it is almost impossible to make a baseball team in this manner, it never hurts to try.
Call the Cyclones at (718) 507-6387 for more information.
Pitcher Bret Herbison was promoted to the Mets Class-A affiliate in Columbia, S.C. (August 6, 2001 Issue)