During the June 24th game between the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Hudson Valley Renegades, I was on the field as my father and son threw out the first pitch. During that time, I had the opportunity to meet Cyclones left-handed pitcher Kurt Horne.
The British Columbia native was the Mets 2014 31st round draft pick. The tall left-hander eschewed an opportunity to pitch in college. Instead, at the age of 17, Horne decided to not only sign with the Mets, but to move to the complete opposite end of the continent to fulfill his dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player. Horne agreed to do an interview with me to discuss his path to the Mets organization and his development in the minor leagues.
The natural question to start for someone from Canada is why baseball and not hockey?
Ha ha! Of course, I grew up in a baseball family, I followed after my brother, doing everything he did.I also used to play in the backyard with my grandpa hitting Wiffle balls everyday after school when I was younger, so baseballs in my blood.
So at 6’5″ you were the little brother?
Well, my brother is 6 years older then me, so it took a while to catch up.
I take it your brother was a good baseball player in his own right.
If there is anything you can say about this Mets organization is that they like their tall hard throwing right-handed pitchers. Overall, you’d be hard pressed to find a pitcher as tall and as hard throwing as the Mets 2016 sixth round draft pick Chris Viall. This 6’9″ pitcher out of Stanford has pitched out of both the bullpen and the starting rotation, and he has been known to throw his fastball up to 101 MPH.
After being drafted, Viall was assigned to Kingsport where he showed the ability to rack up a high number of strikeouts. While Viall is preparing for his first full professional season, he was kind enough to answer some questions about how he is progressing as a professional pitcher.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, and congratulations on finishing your first season as a professional pitcher. In your experience, what has been the biggest adjustment from pitching in Stanford to pitching in the minor leagues?
I would have to say the largest adjustment between collegiate and professional baseball is which roles I am filling. At the college level, I had to come in at different times in the game; sometimes in relief, sometimes starting. Now at the professional level, the Mets organization stresses having a set routine and a specific throwing schedule. I enjoy being able to have that set routine in order to most effectively prepare for my outings and improve my skills.
Do you feel the Mets program is more conducive to success than the program you had at Stanford?
I don’t think I can really comment as to which was more successful as the two systems had slightly different aims. College baseball programs have to be primarily focused on winning with player development coming in second. So far in the Mets organization, I have been working primarily to improve as a player. Currently, I am very happy to work towards focusing on improvement.
What specific things have you worked on in the past year with the Mets that would help you become a more effective pitcher?
I have been working on simplifying my delivery in order to make sure I’m always in control and linear towards home plate.
You mentioned you have both started and relieved. Which role do you personally prefer?
I enjoy starting. While I have relieved in games and am comfortable with that role, I enjoy being able to have a specific routine in the rotation and knowing exactly what my plan is every day. Being able to see batters more than one time in a game is also a plus as I am able to adapt and improve my gameplan with multiple innings of work.
For those that have never seen you pitch before, what type of pitcher should they expect to see?
They should expect to see a tall, hard throwing right handed pitcher with a good mix of fastballs, change-ups, and curveballs.
Tall indeed. Baseball Reference has you listed at 6’9″. Is that accurate, or are you a little taller than that?
As of the last time I checked 6’9″ in bare feet is accurate, although I haven’t really challenged that number for awhile, most doctors’ height measurement devices max out around 6’6″.
I’m sure someone has asked you this before with how tall you are, but I’ll ask it to you anyway. At your height, why baseball instead of basketball?
In high school I originally played both sports, but in my junior year I decided to focus only on baseball. It was around that time that my velocity increased and my secondary pitches became more solid, so it was the correct decision at that time.
What are the advantages and disadvantages your height presents to a pitcher?
I think the main advantages I have are the ability to easily throw faster and the steep angle that I throw the ball to the plate. The only disadvantage I have experienced is that being taller introduces some coordination issues (such as repeating the same motions), but I mostly overcame this shortcoming when I got used to my height and increased my strength training load.
One of the things that stood out when you were drafted was your velocity. How fast is your fastball?
My velocity varies. Last season in starts I was generally 93-97, but in relief appearances my fastball touched as high as 101.
Overall, who has had the biggest impact on your career?
Mark Eichorn. He was my pitching coach through high school and helped me tremendously on both the physical and mental side of the game.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received how to succeed as a pitcher and make it to the major leagues?
That would be to trust the process and set a goal to improve every day.
What are your goals for the 2017 season?
Increase strike percentage and increase pitch diversity. I’m moving away from just trying to overpower batters, as though that may work now there will be a point where I won’t be able to rely so heavily on my fastball to get batters out.
What has been your favorite memory as a baseball player?
My favorite memory was when I threw at the Stanford summer baseball camp going into my senior year of high school. I had always wanted to attend Stanford as it was about an hour away from my house and a great university, and walking off the field talking to Coach Stotz about my future at Stanford was an amazing moment for me.
Who was your favorite player growing up?
Growing up my favorite player was Matt Cain.
Do you try to model your game after his?
I don’t try to emulate his mechanics, but I do try to pick up on the way he goes about his outing. Cain seems to have a controlled bulldog mentality that toughens under adversity, and I try to bring that into my game as well.
Last year, former Mets minor leaguer Nicco Blank made a name for himself for leaving tickets for Taylor Swift to see him pitch. What famous person would you like to come see you pitch?
I guess I’ll keep the trend going and stick with Taylor Swift.
Are you inviting Taylor Swift because you’re a fan of her music?
To be honest I don’t really know many of her songs. I just want to keep the streak alive.
Do you know where you will be assigned next year?
I am not yet sure where I will be assigned.
I appreciate Viall taking the time to answer my questions while he is preparing for what should be a promising 2017 season. Given his arm and his ability to strike people out, he has a real future in the Mets organization, and I believe I speak for all Mets fans when I say we wish him well.
On July 2nd, my family was able to attend a Brooklyn Cyclones game courtesy of Nicco Blank. With him getting called-up, he was able to leave us tickets to attend a Cyclones game while he left seats for Taylor Swift for the Columbia Fireflies game. Overall, it was a great experience, and my family is grateful that Blank was able to arrange for my family to get tickets to the game.
For those that have never attended a Cyclones game, MCU Park is located at the end of the Coney Island boardwalk.
The Original Nathan’s Famous is within walking distance if you want to get a pre-game meal, and you very well might as there is no outside food allowed in the boardwalk. Security does check. Also, it should be noted that most of the concessions located within the ballpark is cash only. It should also be noted that MCU Park charges major league prices at their concession stands. Once you have had your pregame meal, it is time to head over to the ballpark.
It is quite fitting this statue is in Brooklyn as this is the city in which Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. The particular moment, whether or not it actually happened, is quite fitting as it symbolizes not just Robinson being accepted by his teammates, but also by all of baseball. This area is a good meeting spot and place to sit in the relative shade until the balllpark opens.
Similar to Citi Field, the ballpark opens an hour and a half before first pitch. Season ticket holders are given priority entrance, and once they are squared away, they will open the gates for general admission. Typicall, the promotion or theme night for that date will dictate whether or not there is much of a line outside the stadium. As we attended Seinfeld Night II, there was quite a line to get into the ballpark:
Other than these giveaways, the Cyclones hand-out programs to everyone that attends the game. For fans like me that like to keep score and buy the programs at games anyway, this is great. If you don’t have anything on hand and you want to get autographs, this works out great as the players can autograph either the cover or the inside where their player profiles are located. Finally, if you got to the game early and need to keep your toddler entertained, you can give it to him with the $4.00 pen he had to have from the gift shop to keep him entertained before first pitch:
Tickets to the ballpark range from $12.00 – $19.00, which would similar to the cost of Promenade seating at Citi Field. However, due to the fact that this is a minor league ballpark and there is only 7,000 seats, your seats are going to be much better than the seats you would get at Citi Field.
Fortunately, we were able to sit very close due to the generosity of Nicco Blank.
One of the benefits of being so close and being at a minor league park is you are close enough to get autographs seemingly no matter where you are sitting. Most, if not all of the players, are ready, willing and able to provide autographs. My son was quite fortunate as many Cyclones players, including Colby Woodmansee, Darryl Knight, Harol Gonzalez, Blake Tiberi, and others, signed my son’s Cyclones pennant. In particular, Knight stood out in his efforts to sign autographs for everyone despite the fact that his left arms was in a sling. Personally, I was hoping to snag an Edgardo Alfonzo autograph, but that was not in the cards for the day.
Another benefit is that since you are sitting close no matter where you sit, the chances are very likely that you are going to catch a foul ball. The one I caught was courtesy of Blake Tiberi:
I should mention that my son took all the credit for catching the ball (and yes, we did have the quick panic moment of him thinking about throwing the ball back onto the field):
I will say that it was nerve wracking at times being that close to the field with a two year old. While my son is good and will sit to watch a game, his attention span does wander at times because he wants to see what’s happening as all two year olds do. Considering how fast the foul balls were coming in, I did take some time to go around the ballpark to see if there were other things for my son to do.
Right outside the left field stands was a pitching game. For just $2, you were given three balls. If you were able to hit the catcher’s mitt, you were given a Cyclones hat:
Considering, I spent $4.00 on a pen, the $2 hat was a welcome surprise.
In addition to the Cyclones game and the pitching game, the other main attraction for the fans is Sandy the Seagull, who my son was just dying to meet:
Eventually, as the game ended Sandy made his way down to where we were sitting much to the excitement of my son:
Honestly, I’m not sure if this, winning the hat, or catching the foul ball was the highlight of the night for my son. But that’s the thing about attending a Cyclones game with your children – it’s a fun experience. Everyone, Taylor Swift included, should go out and see a Cyclones game to enjoy a great night at the ballpark. We enjoyed every minute of it, and we thankful to the Cyclones for creating such a family friendly atmosphere and to Nicco Blank for giving us the tickets.
Normally, I’m much more in tune with a Mets game than I was last night. Generally speaking, no matter where I am, I’m getting play-by-play someway, somehow. I didn’t last night because I was at the Brooklyn Cyclones game with my family, and courtesy of Nicco Blank, we had great seats:
Courtesy of Blake Tiberi.
In any event, by the time we got to the car, I knew little about the game. I knew Bartolo Colon started the game. I knew Neil Walker hit a two run homer. I knew the Mets were up 4-3. I was just fuzzy on the rest of the who, what, where, when, or why about the other five runs that scored.
There was another thing I knew. Jeurys Familia was going to close it out.
So far this year, Familia is a perfect 28 for 28 in save chances. He has a career 2.49 ERA, 1.182 WHIP, and an 8.9 K/9. He has a career 149 ERA+. He’s consistent. He’s durable. He’s the best closer in the National League, and he’s amongst the best in baseball. As a fan, he’s a closer that gives you confidence. That’s a rare feeling for Mets fans.
Sure, John Franco usually got the job done as evidenced by his 424 career saves. That’s the most for a lefty closer. That’s also 424 times he gave some poor Mets fan a heart attack for his Houdini acts.
About the only closer I can come up with during my time I had any confidence in was Randy Myers. Back in 1988 and 1989, he was great as the Mets closer. You had confidence when he took the mound. It was the opposite feeling when the Mets brought in Franco to start the 1990 season as the closer. It began a 14 year high wire act that was followed with the Benitez’s and the Braden Looper‘s of the world.
It’s been 18 years since the Mets had a closer they can trust not to give everyone a minor stroke when they take the mound. Familia is different than his predecessors. When Familia enters the game in a save situation, he’s getting the save. He typically does it without giving you a heart attack. When he enters the game, you know he’s converting the save.
It’s about the one thing I knew for certain about the Mets game yesterday.
Over the past week, Mets fans have become aware of Brooklyn Cyclones reliever Nicco Blank due to his leaving tickets for Taylor Swift for Cyclones games. I had the opportunity to speak with him to get to know him as a baseball player, a person, and where his efforts to get Taylor Swift to attend a Cyclones game currently stand:
Mets fans have just started to get to know you with the news surrounding your leaving tickets for Taylor Swift to see you pitch at Cyclones games. If Taylor Swift were to take you up on the offer, what type of pitcher is she going to see?
Well first of all she’s going to love my walk out song, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to spot her dancing up in the suite as I warm up. If she can resist the temptation of looking at my flowing hair, the entire time she will see a pitcher that attacks hitters and isn’t afraid to challenge guys. After the game, she’ll definitely be beating down the doors to get an autograph. All joking aside I think she would really enjoy a Cyclones game. MCU Park is such an electric environment and we have a great team this year that is a lot of fun to watch!
This is now your third year in the Mets organization and the second with the Cyclones. How have you progressed as a pitcher from your days with Central Arizona College?
Since my days at Central Arizona, I have been working really hard to improve as a pitcher. I’m starting to understand I don’t need to throw every pitch with maximum effort to be effective. I want to be at an 80% effort and in control of my mechanics. Just trying to stay within myself and not do too much. This is where I see my most consistent results and consistency is what I need with the stuff I have. I’m learning how to be a pitcher and not a guy who just throws hard. Being around the coaching in this organization is a blessing for me.
What people have had the greatest impact upon your career?
There are numerous people who have impacted my career in a positive way but my parents deserve all the credit for where I am today. My dad taught me at young age that hard work and dedication would get me anywhere I wanted to go in life. My mom is my biggest supporter and has done more for me than I could ever repay her for. Both of them celebrate my success, get me through my rough days and always motivate me to chase my dream. I’m so thankful to have such wonderful parents.
What was the best piece of advise anyone has given you about how to succeed as a pitcher and make it to the major leagues?
When Daniel Murphy was down in Florida rehabbing in 2015, he shared with me his secret of slowing the game down and harped on believing in my abilities. Being confident and in control seems to be working for him, so I try to emulate that aspect of his game.
What are your goals for the 2016 season?
My main goal is to be on the St. Lucie roster by the end of the season. Improving my fastball command early in the count to limit walks is the biggest thing I’m working on now. Like I mentioned earlier, trying to throw my pitches with an 80% effort and being able to recognize when I’m overthrowing.
Lets let the fans get to know you a little bit more than your leaving tickets for Taylor Swift. What has been your favorite memory as a baseball player?
My favorite memory as a baseball player is winning state my senior year of high school. We were underdogs and beat the top three teams in our division all in a row to capture our first state title in 44 years.
Who was your favorite baseball player growing up?
Derek Jeter by far. Funny story is the first time I picked up a ball I threw left handed but since Jeter was my favorite I was going to be right handed and play short stop. My dad didn’t think I was going to be a pitcher so I always tease him about how nice it would have been for my career to throw left handed.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside of baseball?
I really enjoy cooking. You can catch me in the kitchen before home games whipping up a pregame meal. During the offseason, I spend most of my time working out and educating myself about exercise science and nutrition, which is one of the many things I’m interested in pursuing after my baseball career.
Favorite musician? Is it really Taylor Swift?
I am so eclectic when it comes to music so picking a favorite artist would be too difficult. Let’s just say if I were managing a baseball team, I would bat T Swift first to get the party started.
Have you heard back from Taylor Swift or her people yet about whether or not she is going to attend a Mets game?
Taylor hasn’t responded yet, but our front office staff now wants to get involved and get her to MCU Park for a game. I’m pretty hopeful that she will be at a game by the end of the summer.
I appreciate Nicco Blank for taking the time out to answer some of my questions and for letting Mets fans get to know him a little better. Hopefully, Taylor Swift will make it out to a Cyclones game at MCU Park before Blank gets called up to St. Lucie this summer. All Mets fans should head out to MCU Park to see him and the other future Mets players this summer.