Life in the MLB Fan Cave is quite a sight

MLB Network party at the MLB Fan Cave MLB Network party at the MLB Fan Cave in Manhattan, New York. (April 2, 2011) Photo Credit: Mike Stobe

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

It was nearly 1:30 a.m. yesterday at the corner of Broadway and East 4th Street in Manhattan -- a time and place not unaccustomed to peculiar sights.

Even so, this qualified as especially strange: Two guys sitting in the cavernous space that used to house Tower Records, staring at a bank of 15 screens and hanging on every pitch of the Rays-Angels game.

The Angels had the tying run at second base with two outs in the 10th and Kyle Farnsworth was pitching to Howie Kendrick.

As the drama unfolded, Mike O'Hara and Ryan Wagner listened to Queen's "We Are the Champions,'' rooted hard for Farnsworth and eased the tension the way men do: by trading lines from "The Big Lebowski.''

Then, suddenly, it was over. Kendrick struck out, O'Hara turned off the music and he and Wagner were off into the steamy Greenwich Village night.

Clarifications are in order here. O'Hara and Wagner have nothing against the Angels, and each does enjoy watching baseball. To say the least.

But understand: Rays-Angels was the 15th game they had watched over 13 1/2 hours -- and their 926th since Opening Day. That left a mere 1,504 still to see . . . plus the playoffs.

Hey, it's a living. And the two men always will be able to say this with relative certainty: That they watched more major-league baseball in one season than anyone else on Earth.

"It has been surreal,'' Wagner said. "I still don't think it's sunk in yet.''

Such is life in the MLB Fan Cave, a funky promotion that calls for O'Hara, 37, and Wagner, 25, his "wingman,'' to watch every 2011 game, up to 13 at one time -- and as late as 4:40 a.m. for a Dodgers-Padres game in April that had four rain delays.

Wagner still has flashbacks to the sight that morning of congealed pizza that had been ordered at 9 p.m.

About 10,000 people applied for the job that technically went to O'Hara. Then MLB decided to add a partner in Wagner, another finalist. Voila. "We're forever bonded,'' Wagner said.

The gig was open to all, but it required more than baseball credentials. While watching games the men busily engage fans via social media. They also help produce videos for the Cave website.

(One featured Red Sox DH David Ortiz hugging Yankees fans on the sidewalks of Manhattan, another Rockies pitcher Huston Street asking directions to Houston Street.)

Wallflowers needn't have applied. O'Hara, an actor, comedian and musician, got the job while on tour with a punk rock band. Wagner was touring as the Cowardly Lion in a stage version of "The Wizard of Oz."

But make no mistake: Both are serious fans. O'Hara loves the Yankees and uncannily mimics stances of everyone from Derek Jeter to his favorite, Paul O'Neill. Wagner is an Orioles man.

While O'Hara and Wagner are the human stars, the 15,000-square foot space itself is a marvel -- a fan's fantasy come to life. (Tours are available Saturday and Sunday afternoons.)

There is a pool table with MLB-logoed red felt, air hockey, shuffleboard, a bar, a barber's chair and artwork such as a giant, stylized Willie Mays and an image of Jay-Z made entirely of gumballs.

There is a "Pepsi Porch'' onto which O'Hara likes to hit Wiffle Balls from below, a huge, eclectic, basement party space and an elevator decorated with words from famous play-by-play calls.

It's no wonder actors, musicians and current and former players have taken to the place.

The Yankees' Joba Chamberlain is a regular, signing both a pool cue and the can of bug spray used to get the midges off his neck during the 2007 playoffs in Cleveland.

Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive VP for business, grew up in the neighborhood, which abuts NYU, and said it is an ideal place to tap into young opinion-shapers.

What does the gig pay? O'Hara would only say he makes more than a peanut vendor and less than the major-league minimum, which is $414,000.

The studio is stocked with beverages from two sponsors, Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch, and interns fill lunch and dinner orders. Both men are unmarried. MLB puts them up in apartments nearby.

"Some people go, 'Wow, I would love to have your job,' '' O'Hara said. "Others say, 'Are you out of your mind?' ''

Said Brosnan, "Our people sometimes take for granted the enormity of the task that we've asked these guys to do.''

For most of the day and night Wednesday, each man either held a bat or a glove and ball as he watched, an unscripted ode to the game that has become a habit.

They try to keep it interesting beyond Yankees and Orioles games with quirky passions such as their adoption of an obscure Indian named Jack Hannahan.

When he hit a game-tying homer in the ninth, it drew the biggest cheer of the day. Until Kendrick's strikeout, that is.

There are no day games to watch Friday, but the place still will be buzzing in the morning. The entire Indians bullpen is expected to visit before heading to the Bronx to play the Yankees.

Monday will bring an even more special guest: Hannahan.

Said Wagner, "There's no better way to make a living, that's for damn sure.''

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