Sept. 18, 2006 is a night John Mincone will never forget. After winning that summer's Empire State Games, Mincone and Team Long Island were honored at Shea Stadium. After the pregame ceremony, Mincone, who was beginning his senior year at Half Hollow Hills East High School, was thrilled to watch the Mets clinch the NL East championship.
Five and a half years later, the Mets gave Mincone an even bigger thrill, signing him to a minor-league contract.
"I've been a Mets fan my whole life,'' Mincone said. "We were at Shea Stadium all the time. It's awesome to be in the organization that I grew up watching."
The Mets and Mincone didn't find each other right away. Life in the minors is rarely that simple. His path to Brooklyn, where he is now pitching for the Class A Cyclones, had a few pit stops.
After one season pitching for Suffolk CC-Brentwood, Mincone was picked by the Cubs in the 11th round of the 2009 draft. But he was released in March 2011 while recovering from an ACL injury.
Mincone pitched for the Windy City Thunderbolts of the independent Frontier League in 2011.
Then, in March 2012, the Mets offered Mincone a minor-league contract after watching him throw that offseason. His dream had become a reality, but it came with one caveat -- he would be moved to the bullpen.
Although he had always considered himself a starter, Mincone took to the adjusted throwing schedule of a relief pitcher quickly and had the best season of his pro career. He appeared in 20 games for Brooklyn in 2012 and finished 2-0 with six saves, a 1.82 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 292/3 innings.
Roughly one month into his second season as a reliever, the lefty has settled into his role nicely, and now prefers it to starting.
"Mentally, I'm more prepared than last year,'' he said. "Last year, every time the bullpen phone would ring, my heart would sink. I was very anxious. This year, I'm more relaxed. I'm able to tell what kind of situations I'm going to be in and when to start getting loose.''
Through Friday, Mincone is 2-1 with four saves in nine appearances, posing a 0.84 ERA in 102/3 innings.
Mincone still gets back to Melville often and takes in a few games at Citi Field. Last season, he was in the stands for R.A Dickey's 19th and 20th victories.
The experience of attending a ballgame is much different now.
"I go there now in hopes that I'll be there in a couple of years,'' he said. "It really does help to go out to those games and watch the guys out there. I watch the hitters and see the pitchers' tendencies. It's kind of work for me but at the same time, it's fun. Baseball is not work. I have a blast.''