Forget money, forget fame, forget, even the major leagues: managing the Brooklyn Cyclones is the best job in baseball.
So the usually acerbic Rich Donnelly was bubbling over when he was told last week that he would be leading Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer again this year. He was so charged up that his excitement nearly electrified the phone when we reached him down in Florida for a one-on-one interview about the upcoming season, keeping his players motivated, bad baseball, his thoughts on the Brooklyn Nets, and how the Staten Island Yankees better kick their training regimen into overdrive if they want to defend their league championship this summer:
Courier Life: So Rich, you’ve been in the Cyclones’ front car before. How great is it to have the best job in baseball for another year?
Rich Donnelly: Look, I’ve been in the big leagues 28 years and spent 44 years in baseball overall, but last year was one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve ever had. Actually, [former Cyclones’ manager] Wally Backman warned me about that when I took the job. He said, “If you don’t watch yourself, you might actually have a good time!” We’re lucky here: most rookie teams don’t draw thousands of people a night, and here we average almost 8,000 a night.
CL: Let’s face it: last year did not end the way all those fans expected it to. You guys made the wild card, but dropped two out of three to the hated Staten Island Yankees and failed to win the championship again! Will the wild card be good enough this year, or have you set your sights higher?
RD: We actually want to go a step further [than a wild-card spot]. Brooklyn fans are used to winning and we want to continue that tradition.
CL: Spring training has started, so you’re down in Florida with the rest of the Mets organization. How’s this year’s Cyclones squad coming together?
RD: It’s hard to say right now. I’ll have a better idea after April 2, when 25 players down here will head up north. And we’ll add players with the draft. We also have a bunch of kids coming in from the Dominican Republic.
CL: In the past, you’ve toured the country as a motivational speaker. What have you been telling your guys in the off-season to keep them focused?
RD: I call a number of them and I tell them that they really should be prepared for spring training. In the old days you could sit around all winter and just show up for spring training, but now everybody is working out all-year round.
CL: Drop a little coaching wisdom on us. What do you keep under your baseball hat when managing a team like the Cyclones?
RD: The thing [Detroit Tigers manager] Jim Leyland used to preach every day — and I was with him for 14 years. He used to say that we’re not playing against the opponent, we’re playing against a game of bad baseball. We want to play a clean game, which means you throw strikes, you catch the ball, you run the bases well, and you don’t play sloppily. If you play clean games, the wins will take care of themselves.
CL: Right now, the Cyclones are one of the biggest sports draws in Brooklyn, but that could end once the Nets move to their arena Downtown. Are you worried about losing some of that thunder?
RD: Not at all. They’re a big league team, you know? I’ve been a big [Nets coach] Avery Johnson fan since he was coaching San Antonio and I’m gonna be a big Nets fan. I pretty much like all New York sports teams.
CL: Even the Staten Island Yankees?
RD: [Laughs] I don’t root for them. It’s a great rivalry. We’re looking forward to seeing them again this year.
The Brooklyn Cyclones open the 2012 season against — you guessed it — the hated Staten Island Yankees on Monday, June 18 at 7 pm. Call (718) 507-8499 for tickets.Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at erosenberg