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New York State of Mind 

Still basking in the glow of their affiliation with the New York Mets, the Zephyrs open this week with high hopes for another winning season.

It didn't take long for New Orleans Zephyrs General Manager Mike Schline to figure out that this was a whole new ballgame. In September 2006, the Zephyrs, which had been the AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals for the previous two seasons, signed a new agreement with the New York Mets.

'The Mets flew us up to New York to sign the agreement and put us up in a hotel, took us to a game and put us in a suite," Schline says. "They treated us first class."

The carpet that rolled out for the visitors was as red as a Rockette's lipstick. The Mets held a press conference and, in the nation's largest and most baseball-besotted media market, trumpeted the new partnership. Schline, who was accompanied by Zephyrs Chief Operating Officer Ron Maestri and Zephyrs broadcaster and Mets legend Ron Swoboda, was awed by the reception.

If Zephyrs officials believed this initial encounter portended future success, it was with good reason. The Mets, who have the highest payroll of any team in the National League, have earned a reputation as big spenders capable of luring the best players in Major League Baseball.

So it's no surprise that last year, in their first season as a Mets affiliate, the Zephyrs had their finest campaign since 2001. They won 75 games, claimed the South Division title and advanced to the Pacific Coast League Championship Series, where they lost to the Sacramento River Cats.

Expectations haven't changed this season. Manager Ken Oberkfell, who won't know which players he'll be coaching until the roster is set this week, says the Zephyrs will once again have a talented mix of prospects and veterans. About this year's team, he makes one prediction: "We will be fundamentally sound and we'll have fun."

The Zephyrs open the regular season at home this Thursday (April 3) against the Nashville Sounds.

The Zephyrs, who hadn't finished higher than third place in a four-team division since 2003, reaped the immediate rewards of the Mets' winning philosophy. Switching parent clubs from the Nationals to the Mets was a bit like moving from Miss Hannigan's orphanage to Daddy Warbucks' mansion.

'The caliber of players they brought in to play baseball here are players you're not going to get unless you're paying them big dollars," Schline says.

Consider the Zephyrs' 2007 opening day roster. Sprinkled among the young prospects were proven major league players such as pitcher Chan Ho Park (a former 18-game winner with the Los Angeles Dodgers), infielder Fernando Tatis (who hit 34 home runs and drove in 107 runs in 1999 with the St. Louis Cardinals) and outfielder Ricky Ledee (a two-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees). Oberkfell says the Mets' commitment to winning at every level sets the organization apart.

'It seems like the Mets are able to get more six-year free agents (players who were drafted at least six years ago)," says Oberkfell, who played 16 seasons in the major leagues with six different teams. "They've spent a little bit more than other clubs to get six-year free agents. It's an opportunity to be with a great organization."

Schline says the Mets make a special effort to sign players for the express purpose of contributing to the AAA team, so called "Four-A players."

'A "Four-A player' is a nickname for a guy that has always put up big numbers and been kind of a standout player at AAA but has never really made it in the major leagues," Schline says. "And the Mets will go out and sometimes sign these guys who they don't necessarily think will help the major league club but they know will help the minor league team. And a lot of teams won't do that."

An example of a "Four-A player" is first baseman Andy Tracy, who led the Zephyrs with 23 home runs and 87 runs batted in last year but was never called up by the Mets.

Most of the players who will make up the Zephyrs' roster this season spent the month of March participating in the Mets' spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Just who makes the big-league club and who is relegated to the minors usually isn't determined until shortly before opening day. But Zephyrs fans can expect to see a number of returning players from last year's team.

Catcher Robinson Cancel, shortstop Anderson Hernandez, third baseman Fernando Tatis and outfielder Ben Johnson, who showed promise before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last August, are among the position players who are likely to be back in New Orleans.

Jason Vargas, Adam Bostick, Steve Schmoll, ace reliever Willie Collazo and Mike Pelfrey are some of the pitchers who could suit up again for the Zephyrs. The 6-foot-7 Pelfrey had stints early and late in the season with the Mets last year, and is considered one of the top prospects in the organization.

Vargas could be a late arrival to New Orleans this season. He underwent hip surgery and may not return to action until June. But he says he's optimistic about the Zephyrs' pitching staff.

'Top to bottom it looks great, there are a lot of veterans that could end up in New Orleans," says Vargas, whose 125 innings pitched last season were second most on the team. "And fans in New Orleans should be looking forward to another winning season. There is a lot of depth as a whole from starters to relievers in the system, which will mean some talented players will be in New Orleans."

Possibly the most highly touted Mets prospect is 19-year-old outfielder Fernando Martinez. He hit .340 in 18 Grapefruit League games with the Mets this spring training but was reassigned to minor league camp in the middle of March. Baseball America named him the Mets' No. 1 prospect in 2007. Martinez, who played centerfield for Double-A Binghamton, N.Y., last season, is likely to continue his rapid ascent.

Roster changes won't be the only differences on display at the "Shrine on Airline."

Zephyr Field, a field of dreams for so many minor leaguers since it opened in 1997, got an upgrade for the upcoming season. The highlight of the $1.2 million improvements is a new grass field and clay infield. The diamond was significantly beaten up and in need of a makeover. It had also served as the home field for Tulane's baseball team during the past two seasons. The team donated the old turf to Holy Cross High School, which will use it for its baseball field and football practice field at its new campus on Paris Avenue near the New Orleans lakefront.

Workers also replaced the stadium's drainage system, which was lethargic and no match for south Louisiana's summer storms. The end result should be shorter rain delays — news that will improve the dispositions of fans, players and umpires alike.

The club has also submitted a request to the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (aka the Superdome Commission) for an additional $2 million for future improvements in the concourse and restroom areas.

Overall, fans seem happy with the Zephyr Field experience. Last season, total attendance rose nearly 3 percent, or roughly by 7,000 fans.

Schline says that at the minor league level, the team's myriad promotions — the post-game fireworks displays and concerts, along with game nights featuring discounted beer and hot dog prices — are what drive attendance. But the product on the field can also crank the turnstiles.

'I did notice last year when your team wins and you're in first place most of the year and there's excitement and you're on top of the pack, then it does help your attendance," Schline says. "I noticed at the end of the year, the crowds really started to pick up."

Since arriving in New Orleans in 1993, the Zephyrs have had four different major league affiliates (the Brewers, the Astros, the Nationals and now the Mets). When it comes to prestige and largesse, the Mets are in a class by themselves. And while the Mets' association with the Zephyrs has gotten off to an auspicious start, it's not necessarily a long-term relationship. The two-year contract signed in New York in 2006 expires after this season.

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told a Syracuse newspaper that the Mets are showing "very real interest" in moving their top minor league club to Syracuse.

The Syracuse Chiefs have been the Toronto Blue Jays' AAA team for 30 years. According to Schumer, who is an advocate for the switch, Mets owner Fred Wilpon likes the idea of having the team's top two minor league clubs within 75 miles of each other. The Mets' Double-A affiliate is located in Binghamton, N.Y.

Zephyrs General Manager Schline says the Mets have made no statements about a desire to change affiliates. "I'm sure Syracuse would love to have the Mets," Schline says. "Who wouldn't? They're one of the premier teams in the country. But we have them and we're treating them right. And they'll ultimately do what they want to do. We're providing a great environment for them and we're going to make it hard for them to leave, that's for sure."

Schline points to facility and geographic advantages that major league clubs would be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

'We're a warm-weather city, and that goes a long way because there's a lot of teams up north that are getting games snowed out in April," Schline says. "They're sending guys to New Orleans right from spring training and it's just as warm here as it is in Florida. We just put in a brand new state-of-the-art playing surface. They're playing on as good a field as they're going to find. And that's all we can do. We want the Mets, and we hope that they come back."

click to enlarge "The Mets are able to get more six-year free agents. They've spent a little bit more than other clubs to get [them]. It's an opportunity to be with a great organization." Ken Oberkfell, Zephyrs manager - JOE MAITREJEAN
  • Joe Maitrejean
  • "The Mets are able to get more six-year free agents. They've spent a little bit more than other clubs to get [them]. It's an opportunity to be with a great organization."
    Ken Oberkfell, Zephyrs manager
click to enlarge Zyphyrs mascots Boudreaux and Clotile are popular with New Orleans fans. - JOE MAITREJEAN
  • Joe Maitrejean
  • Zyphyrs mascots Boudreaux and Clotile are popular with New Orleans fans.
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