SAN FRANCISCO – On the afternoon of Game 2 of the World Series, one of the summer's most popular figures at AT&T Park was not heading to the game. A college junior majoring in journalism, Tyler Huffman had been a guest of the San Francisco Giants for much of the summer. Now the open invitation was gone.
Instead he and a group of friends, all college students, were left to contemplate a reality none imagined they would ever face …
What to do when the baseball player around whom your existence is based is suddenly exposed as a cheat?
For three wonderful months, Huffman and his friends came to Giants games in white shirts and pants and bow ties. They called themselves the Melkmen in honor of the Giants' left fielder and the National League's leading hitter, Melky Cabrera. Their appearances at AT&T were hailed with huge cheers and a scramble for photographs until the morning of Aug. 15, when word came down that Cabrera had failed a test for performance enhancing drugs and was given a 50-game suspension.
Then the Melkmen disappeared.
"When Melky got suspended, I guess we got suspended too," Huffman said laughing on Thursday afternoon. He was speaking by phone, well into his classes at San Jose State University. The group of them – Thomas Davis, James Knecht, Justin Cheung, Ivan Gutierrez, Markus Gutierrez, Patrick Gotingco, Robert Midson, Harry Jamerson and Huffman's father Rwan – became ghosts just like Cabrera. But Huffman said he's not upset at the Giants for acting as if they don't exist.
Nor can Huffman hate Cabrera even if he admits he was angry for a time after the suspension. "He really was a big part of the team," he said.
He was a Cabrera fan during his brief run as a celebrity; he will be one after.
"It's not like he was hitting bombs at AT&T Park," Huffman said. "He was hitting singles."
Mostly he'd rather remember the best summer a college kid could ever have – the summer they all became stars.
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It was never a reach for Huffman to wear a milkman costume to the ballpark. Dressing up for games has become a tradition at AT&T Park where fans wear panda hats for Pablo Sandoval, who is nicknamed the Kung Fu Panda, or strange black beards for pitchers Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo.
In fact, Huffman and his friends were watching the early game of a Giants-Mets doubleheader on television in April when the conversation turned to which of the new players had a chance to be the next big thing. They wondered if perhaps they could start a trend. Someone suggested dressing like angels for center fielder Angel Pagan, but that seemed too obvious. Then a fan appeared on the screen holding a sign that read: "Get Melk." It was a remnant from Cabrera's days with the New York Yankees, but it got the group to thinking. What about becoming milkmen?
Huffman's mother Lisa designed the costumes, making bow ties and the boys dug through their closets for white shirts and bought white pants. They made the hats. And soon a sensation had been born.
They introduced themselves as the Melkmen on May 18 when the Giants played the Oakland Athletics. They wore their new outfits and sang and waved to Cabrera, who went 2 for 4 that game. They danced "The Bernie Dance," but given their dairy theme they named it "The Milkshake."
The Melkmen were instant stars. After their second appearance at AT&T, the Giants' marketing department called with a deal: The Melkmen could get free passes to the games if they promised to promote San Francisco players for the All-Star Game. The Melkmen quickly agreed. And the next three months became a whirlwind. They came once or twice a homestand, wearing their milkman outfits and dancing The Bernie as fans surrounded them begging for pictures.
One day a local broadcaster, Greg Papa, asked Huffman if the Melkmen were interested in adding Melkmaids because he knew a couple of women who wanted to join them. The Melkmaids made their debut in mid-summer in what best could be described as Little Bo Beep outfits.
Huffman tried to convince the Melkmaids to wear cow costumes but the idea was met with resistance.
"Getting girls to dress up as cows is a tough sell," Huffman said.
The next two months were magic. The Melkmen had their own Facebook page and Twitter account (@TheMelkMen). Eight times the Melkmen came to AT&T Park: "The Giants were 7-1 in those game, I'm just sayin …" Huffman said. But with the fun came a burden. The Melkmen had gone from being a group of college kids on a lark to official representatives of the team. They had to watch what they said. They couldn't drink. They took pictures with children. The day after games they woke up exhausted. At times they wished the craze would die down so they could watch the games.
"We were six mascots," Huffman said.
But they loved every minute. And looking back, the last day was the best. They met Cabrera and his mother, presenting her with an official Melkman hat. They took pictures with one of Cabrera's children. Everyone was happy. There were so many smiles it seemed this could go on forever.
Then two days later Huffman noticed an odd message on @TheMelkMen: "Say it ain't so Melky," read a tweet. He typed Melky Cabreara into a search and this is how he learned the awful truth about Cabrera's suspension.
"I felt like I had been punched in the stomach," Huffman said.
As quickly as the Melkmen's fame came, it disappeared. The Giants stopped offering passes. The white shirts and bow ties disappeared into the closets and the Melkmen ceased to exist.
But the comments didn't. The anger poured in: on Twitter, on Facebook, on the streets. Wherever the Melkmen went there was rage.
"People acted as if we gave him the PEDs," Huffman said.
In a way it makes sense. Some of Cabrera's people produced a fake website in clumsy attempt to make the positive test look like an honest mistake. Cabrera disappeared from public view. The Giants seemed to distance themselves from the league's leading hitter. The fans needed someplace to vent. So they screamed at the only place they could find.
"The Melk's gone bad," one person remarked.
"The Melkmen should wear labcoats," someone else said.
The host on a local radio station said: "OK Melky's gone but, at least we don't have to see those ridiculous Melkmen anymore."
For Huffman and his friends, it was a sociology lesson they never could have gotten at school.
"They love you when they love you and they hate you when they hate you," he said.
But then again, this is what happens when the baseball player around whom your existence is built is exposed as a cheat.
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