With Hojo at Helm, ‘Clones hoping to Repeat

In 1987, fresh off the team's World Series title, the New York Mets took a chance. Instead of re-signing World Series MVP Ray Knight, New York felt that switch-hitting Howard Johnson was ready to be a full-time player for the first time in his brief major league career.

He responded by hitting 36 home runs and driving in 99 runs in his first year at the hot corner, became the first player in franchise history to have three 30-30 seasons, and is the Mets all-time leader in game played at third base.

Now, as a first-time skipper, the same organization is betting that Johnson can once again meet a high level of expectation, and build on last year's remarkable inaugural season of the Brooklyn Cyclones.

"Last year, no one knew what to expect," said Johnson, whose tutelage as hitting instructor for the Cyclones last season resulted in the league's top offense. "Then all of a sudden, Brooklyn was a cool place to be again."

Now replacing Edgar Alfonzo as skipper (Alfonzo is now hitting coach at Single-A Port St. Lucie) Hojo will take the reins for Brooklyn, which will open its 2002 season on June 18, at the Ballpark at St. George, home of the rival Staten Island Yankees, who the Cyclones dispatched in three games of last year's divisional playoffs.

Johnson knows Brooklyn fans _ unlike last year _ have now had a taste for winning, and will expect the team to make a comparable defense of last season's New York- Penn League co-championship. (After winning Game 1 of last year's championship playoff at Williamsport, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cut short the rest of the playoff series.) According to Hojo, acquiring a winning attitude is a crucial part of player development.

"We want to develop winning players. To do that, you have to win ballgames, " Johnson said. "Nobody's going to learn anything by losing all the time."

As many fans of the Brooks already know, this year's cast of characters will be completely different, as most of the 2002 roster's makeup will come from the Tuesday's MLB draft.

The challenge pf producing a good team every season could be a crucial part of any future success of the Cyclones. However, that kind of pressure being put on an organization to win, even at the lowest levels of the minor leagues could be a good thing.

The Mets 2001 draft was rated fifth overall by Baseball America, and several of those players, Lenny DiNardo, Brett Kay, Jay Caliguiri and Frank Corr, were standouts last season.

"We changed things a little bit (last year)," said Mets assistant general manager Jim Duquette. "We've more of an emphasis on drafting positional players in the higher rounds, which is something we haven't done much of in the past."

Still, it will be difficult to repeat last season's impressive body of work.

In addition to record-setting crowds, they had the league's best record (52-24), highest team batting average, most home runs and lowest earned-run average.

But Hojo says at the very least, he plans to make sure this year's version give the hometown fans an exciting team to watch.

"I'll manage the way I played - aggressive," said Johnson.

A two-time All-Star, Johnson hit 228 career home runs and stole 231 bases.

"We want our players to feel like we're going to make things happen. We'll push the limit a little bit, " he said. "Last year we had a good mix, we did a lot of running and a lot of hitting and running. I'm not one to sit back."

Well, they have the attendance thing covered, having sold about 98 percent of their tickets for the upcoming year. But with faces changing every season, it is unknown if the Cyclones can ever recapture last season's magic.

Once again, expectations don't seem to bother Hojo.

"I want to have an even better year than last year," said Johnson. "Bring it on!"

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