Rookie Mystiques


Staten Island Yankees assistant general manager Jason Smorol was sitting behind his cluttered outer borough desk recently, recalling his days as GM of the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York­Penn League (A ball). He was reminiscing about one particular discussion he had before a game with former Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher Johnny Podres, then a special adviser for the Philadelphia Phillies (with whom the Muckdogs are affiliated).

“[Podres] says, ‘Look at that. Look at the [Oneonta] Yankees.’ I look at them, and he says, ‘What are they doing?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. They’re hanging out.’ He says, ‘That’s right, they’re hanging out. They’re all together. Look how big they are. Look at how they’re all dressed the same way. Look at how their bats are. Their bats are all the same way. Look at the way their gloves are. Their gloves are all the same way. Look at our guys.’

“Our guys are all over the place. Some were in the dugout; some were playing. ‘They’re gonna beat us tonight, 6-1 or something like that,’ Podres said.

“I don’t know what the score was, but they beat us,” Smorol said and laughed.

“Everybody emulates a lot of what the Yankees do. The Yankee way is something different from everybody else. And this is just the start of my relationship with the Yankees. I’m learning about what the Yankee way is. It’s pretty impressive so far,” Smorol said.

Learning the Yankee way will be the goal of some 30 players, aged 19 to 23, who have come to Staten Island with bats, gloves, and spikes in hand. It’s all part of the new Staten Island Yankees, the New York­Penn League franchise that, prior to this season, had been based in Oneonta, NY. (Well, sort of. In what Staten Island’s director of media relations Steven Solomon calls “the equivalent of a double switch,” Oneonta is now a Detroit Tigers affiliate, while Watertown, NY, which was the Indians’ franchise, has become the Staten Island Yankees.)

So the Staten Island franchise has essentially been created from the ground up in a mere four and a half months. The club will play its home games at the refurbished College of Staten Island Field (capacity 4500). That is, until the year 2001, when the team moves into a new stadium to be built next to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on the banks of the East River. The controversial, taxpayer-funded facility promises a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center.

Beginning this week, with their first practice under legendary University of Florida coach Joe Arnold, the players will be put through a rugged test of baseball Darwinism. This “short league” calls for a schedule that makes the NBA’s lockout-lessened season sound downright luxurious. Try 76 games in 79 days.

“They’re fighting for a job. So it’s real professional in the way they approach it,” Smorol said. “They teach them the Yankee way. It’s the first time they’ve ever played baseball for a job. They’ve got to come to practice at a certain time, have to wear their uniforms a certain way— the Yankee way— they have to shave their faces, nobody wears their hat backward, whatever the Yankee rules are. They learn to ride buses; they learn to play baseball every day.”

All this for $850 dollars a month (before taxes) and, most important, the right to call themselves Yankees. But that right comes with a unique price tag.

“When we go to a ballpark, no matter where they are, people want to beat the Yankees,” Smorol said. “Because [this team] represents the Yankees, they represent the best. When we come to town, they don’t think they’re playing the Staten Island Yankees. They think they’re playing the New York Yankees.”

The Bombers’ first-round pick in the recent amateur draft, David Walling, a right-hander from the University of Arkansas, understands that mystique. “Every kid dreams of playing for the Yankees,” said Walling, who will start his pro career in Staten Island. “Ruth, Gehrig, all the great ones played there. This is a dream come true.”

For the people of Staten Island, there’s the promise of baseball and the chance to see Walling and third-round pick Alex Graman, a southpaw from Indiana State. Ultimately, the Staten Island organization asserts, there’s the opportunity to see the next Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, or Mariano Rivera— just a few of the current Major Leaguers who paid their dues in the New York­Penn League. There’s also the off-chance of seeing current Yankees in rehab stints.

“It’s definitely New York Yankee country,” says Solomon. “Staten Island is a very independent-minded community, and they’ve been screaming for their own athletic identity. The response has been overwhelming.”

While demand for tickets (priced from $6 to $10) has been high, not all games are sold out. That’s by design. “There is a greater opportunity for walk-up ticket sales, which is a great concern of ours,” said Solomon. “We want everybody to be able to come. It would be too easy to just let businesses buy up season tickets. So we’re equally as concerned about entertaining and serving the needs of the fans as we are the business community.”

Guess the franchise does have a lot to learn about the Yankee way.

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