The last of the Newark Bears baseball team was up for grabs earlier today. The bus, the lawnmowers, the mascot’s costume, the nacho cheese dispenser, all offered up in a liquidation sale, the proceeds of which might put a dent in the team’s debt.
Fifteen years of mostly sub-.500 baseball, seven different ownership groups, two leagues, two championships, and ultimately ending in a fire sale.
But the Bears did leave some memories. Originally owned by former Yankee and Newark native Rick Cerone, the Bears were a brief and tentative home to some fairly recognizable baseball names like the Canseco brothers, Ricky Henderson, Jose Lima, Jim Leyritz and Carl Everett.
None was a bigger name than Jose Canseco. I watched Canseco as a Bear in 2001. These were still relatively good times at Riverfront. There were several concession stands open, a rooftop bar atop the first base stands, an outdoor grill behind home plate and a picnic area in left field hosting after-work parties. Those amenities gradually slipped away as the years went on.
Perhaps still accustomed to Madonna-caliber accommodations, Canseco apparently wasn’t too happy with Riverfront’s ambience. This is a guy who made a name for himself by publicly ratting out teammates for drug use. As a Bear he ratted out less fortunate teammates for sleeping in the clubhouse. His one really significant contribution to the 2001 squad was to buy a refrigerator for that clubhouse.
On the night I saw Canseco he was, to my surprise, in center field. Independent minor league teams are usually woefully short on depth and the Newarkers had more guys suited for the DH spot than center field. I don’t recall any of his at bats and suspect they weren’t very memorable. But I did get a good look at why he shouldn’t be in center field. Late in the game, the Bears ahead by a run or two and a couple of the visitors on the basepads, a wicked line shot was hit toward Canseco in center. He ducked and let the ball go past him to the wall, clearing the bases. Clearly at this level of minor league baseball they are playing for the name on the back of the jersey, not the front. That’s assuming your team has names on the backs of its jerseys. (The Bears didn’t.)
I came back in 2002 and saw a real power hitter. Jimmy Hurst’s muscles were bulging out of his uniform and when you saw him swing you suspected he might send a ball across the river to Harrison. Before the night was over he caught hold of one, hitting a towering shot that sailed out of the stadium, over the high fence in left field, and presumably out onto Route 21. Hurst hit 35 homers for the Bears that season and had 100 RBI’s, awesome numbers for an independent minor leaguer.
I couldn’t imagine why a guy like that was playing for the Bears. Did he wither away when faced with a curve ball? Was it a drug test result issue? I was curious about his career and did some research. He was a draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1993. His major league career consisted of 17 at bats as a September call-up for the Detroit Tigers in 1997. After his big season in Newark he signed with the Hiroshima Carp in Japan. A year later he was back in the U.S. and bounced around the independent leagues for a few more years, the last in 2008 with the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks.
In 2007 I had the privilege of watching the Newark Bears win one of their two Atlantic League championships. On a Sunday afternoon in September, the Bears beat the Somerset Patriots in game four of the five-game championship series to win the title three games to one.
But there was a sad note to this championship that portended to the limited future of this team. A significant part of the crowd at a minor league baseball game is usually there because of a group outing, a promotion or because sponsor tickets have been dished out. These folks usually aren’t there for the playoffs since they are scheduled spur of the moment. There were only a few dozen fans at Riverfront for what promised to be the title-clinching game of the 2007 Atlantic League championship series. Most gathered behind the Bears dugout and cheered and chanted for their team as if it were the World Series. As the Bears made the last out, the team celebrated on the field. The fans celebrated in the stands. They saluted each other. It’s just that there weren’t very many more fans than there were players.
My last Bears game was last summer. I went to a mid-week day game. Most of the area’s minor league teams have a couple of these games each season and start them at 10:30 or 11 in the morning. The goal is to draw large groups from summer camps and town recreations programs. I’ve been to these late morning games in Little Falls and in Trenton and both the Jackals and the Thunder are able to pack their stadiums. But Riverfront Stadium on this day was a ghost town. I couldn’t help thinking as I left the stadium that the end had to be near. It was.
According to the league statistics, the Bears drew an average of 453 fans per game in 2013. Based on the games I attended, I suspect that was an overestimate. So the team had its last intimate gathering today at Riverfront Stadium where the most optimistic of attendees could bid on not just the equipment but intangibles like the naming rights for the dance team, the Honey Bears.