Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Stadium in Decline


Independent baseball leagues are different than the affiliated minors, though fans often confuse the two. All players in the minor leagues are signed to a contract by the parent MLB club and the entire system is designed to develop top prospects into major league players. The independent leagues, as you can probably guess, are not affiliated with the majors, instead providing an opportunity for washed up and undrafted players to continuing pursuing their dream. There are several independent circuits around the country, including the Can-Am League, which welcomes back an Ottawa franchise this season.

The only stable thing about these leagues is instability, with franchises coming and going every year. To be sure, there are great success stories like the Winnipeg Goldeyes and St. Paul Saints of the American Association, but when you realize that they used to be part of the Northern League; you will understand the nature of the business. Every year, a few clubs move or disappear completely. One notable example was the Newark Bears, who began operating in 1998 as a charter member of the Atlantic League and lasted 16 years before entering enforced hibernation.

Founded by original Blue Jay Rick Cerone, a Newark native, the Bears did all right at first, playing out of a new ballpark just a few minutes from Newark Penn Station and attracting famous major leaguers such as Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco to drive ticket sales along with baseballs. As time passed and the novelty wore off, Cerone sold the team and things went from bad to worse. A league championship in 2007 mattered little as the team ultimately fell victim to its location. Newark is simply not a pleasant place to visit and with several other New Jersey based teams competing for limited entertainment dollars, fans chose more convenient (and reputedly safer) destinations to spend their money. The Bears moved to the Can Am League in 2011 with Tim Raines as manager, but only lasted there for three seasons before finally folding.



So what happened to that shiny new ballpark? It still stands and retains its original name: Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium in honour of long-departed minor and Negro league clubs. It's only 15 years old but barely used as only the NJIT Highlanders call it home these days. NJIT is a Division 1 independent that hosts between around 20 games a year at Riverfront, and with the season nearly over, I decided to pay a visit yesterday to see how the ballpark was faring without a major tenant. The answer was not pretty.



The first sign of a lack of maintenance was outside, where the sign was missing an 'S' on Bears, as you can see above. The Bears auctioned off every bit of equipment last year and so there are no ticket sales, concessions, or anything else for that matter, not that the 42 fans in attendance needed anything. A few remnants of the old tenants can be found, including a lineup board and standings from the last game the Bears played in 2013.



The Ring of Honor is also still in place, with some famous names who once piled their trade in Newark, but it too is starting to look worse for wear. All in all, the visit was rather depressing.



One of the attractions of the ballpark was the view of downtown Manhattan, but it is barely visible just to the left of the batters eye. Oh, and that brick on the wall is just covering of some sort, likely to block out all the advertising that was never taken down.



The field is in good shape, so you can't say that the stadium has fallen into disrepair. Still, in the only restroom available, a couple of the urinals have been ripped from their spot on the wall, only to rest on their side a few feet away. It might be the work of vandals, but at any rate, nobody is bothering to fix it. It is an odd feeling to be watching a game in what is essentially a ghost ballpark and I suspect the Highlanders will eventually have to move elsewhere.



Speaking of the Highlanders, there was a game played with Hofstra visiting, but it was hard to watch. College teams use their best pitchers during the weekend, so midweek games usually see the worst starters and that seemed to be the case in this one. The first inning saw 2 walks, 3 HBP, 1 WP, and 5 runs. By the 5th, it was 11-4 for Hofstra so I headed home, glad that I had a chance to get inside the stadium but swearing off midweek college baseball. The Pride held on for a 13-7 win if you care.



Notes

Newark was a great minor league stop during the first half of the 20th century. The Negro League's Newark Eagles included Hall of Earners Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and the club won the 1946 Negro League World Series. As well, the original Newark Bears were minor league affiliates of the Yankees at one point.

The Bears are for sale should you have a desire to lose a lot of money in a short time.

Next Up

The AHL playoffs begin on Wednesday and the schedule maker was kind enough to have Manchester and Portland play on back-to-back nights in each city over the weekend, allowing me to add two more AHL rinks to my total. Even better, both towns have AA ball teams on a homestand (including Toronto's affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats). I'm hoping to catch 4 games in 3 days, so check back next week so see if I managed to do so.

Best,

Sean

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