By Neil deMause
NEWARK, N.J. -- I'd never watched a sports franchise die before. Oh, sure, I'd seen teams die metaphorically -- I'm a Mets fan, after all -- and I once watched from afar as an entire league, the women's American Basketball League, disappeared midseason without so much as a black box to mark the spot of its demise.
But I'd never actually observed a team's final breaths, up close and in person. So when word came that the Newark Bears, an independent minor-league baseball team that I'd been to see eight or ten times over the years, would be holding a liquidation auction on Saturday morning at their home park, I made plans to go, even if I wasn't exactly in the market for a nacho cheese dispenser or a team bus.
As it turned out, I wasn't the only fair-weather Bears fan who had this idea. On arriving Saturday morning at Riverfront Stadium, the brick-and-concrete ballpark that the city of Newark spent $30 million to build for its then-new team in 1999, I found a long line snaking out of the team's former administrative offices, where anyone with a $100 deposit to plunk down could register to bid on what was left of the Bears organization. There were the restaurateurs and other minor-league team staffers who had come looking for deals on office furniture and kitchen supplies; but there were also plenty of families and curiosity seekers who gazed around in confusion and excitement at a baseball stadium that had been temporarily transformed into an auction house.
The overall effect was a bit like going through the belongings of a late relative: sad, but with an undercurrent of "I wonder what I might be able to snag for myself?" The fans immediately gravitated to a rack of game-used jerseys, sifting through them for their preferred sizes, trying to puzzle out which actual players might have corresponded to which numbers.
The Bears franchise, I should explain, has had a somewhat odd historical trajectory. The Bears claimed to trace their provenance back to 1917, but that's giving credit for the unrelated International League team of the same name that played from then until 1949. (In that team's final seasons, it was a Yankees farm club; a 21-year-old Yogi Berra caught for Newark in 1946, slugging 15 homers in just 77 games.) The new Bears were a different phenomenon entirely: An entry in the unaffiliated Atlantic League, launched in 1998 by Frank Boulton -- owner of the Yankees' Double-A team who was peeved that the parent club wouldn't let him relocate to within their territorial limits -- on the premise that fans would turn out to see quality baseball at affordable prices even without any formal connection with the big league player pipeline.
In the early years, it more or less worked. If there can be said to have been a heyday of indie ball, it was the tail end of the 1990s: Mike Veeck's Northern League St. Paul Saints were selling out games nightly, and it seemed as if minor-league baseball was just what fans jaded by MLB with its high prices and labor disputes were crying out for. In Newark, once the Bears' new taxpayer-provided home was ready -- the team spent a season and a half playing "home" games in Bridgeport, Connecticut, alongside their competitors the Bridgeport Bluefish -- crowds of several thousand were not uncommon, following along to cheers led by Johnny Number One Fan, a resident of neighboring Harrison who'd made his own custom jersey and foam-rubber bear claw. Management, led by former Yankees catcher Rick Cerone, brought in lots of semi-famous former Mets and Yankees (Jim Leyritz, Carl Everett, both Jose Canseco and his twin brother Ozzie, and once a 44-year-old Rickey Henderson) by promising a chance to catch the eye of the big leagues just across the Hudson, and fans seemed happy enough to have some familiar names to write in their scorecards, even if the quality of play was not much above A-ball.
The good times, though, didn't last. By 2011, after a brush with bankruptcy, the team announced that it was dropping from the more-or-less-respectable Atlantic League to the Can-Am League, a league that two years previously had seen one of its teams evicted from its stadium mid-season for nonpayment of rent, with its city landlords enforcing the point by parking a tractor on home plate. Attendance, already on the decline, nosedived; the last time I took in a game in Newark, the players on the field outnumbered the paying fans, and the Bears' center fielder departed the game, the team, and so far as I know professional baseball entirely by staging a mid-game tantrum in which he tore off his jersey and stormed out of the dugout. In the Bears' final season last year, the team went 37-63, finished dead last in a five-team league, and announced following the season that they wouldn't be returning for 2014.
The Bears' third baseman their final season was Joe Poletsky, a Quinnipiac College star and Atlantic League washout who managed a .255 average in Newark. Back at the jersey rack on auction day, Joe Poletsky Sr., his father, was sorting through the options. (His son couldn't be there because he's currently playing for the Frontier Greys, a team in the indie Frontier League that plays all its games on the road, shades of Philip Roth's Ruppert Mundys.) "We came for his jersey," he said with an edge of frustration. "But they don't have it."
There was also the small problem that this was an auction, not a clearance sale: Fans who asked how much for an individual jersey were told that the entire rack was going to be bid out as a single lot. Auctioneer Bill Barron, sensing a market inefficiency, stepped in and offered to put jerseys up for bid one at a time, and eventually several dozen fans went home with jerseys bearing the numbers of players they had undoubtedly never heard of, for anywhere from $5 to $30 a pop, plus fees and sales tax.
Real bargain hunters, meanwhile, had stumbled onto an even better deal: A storeroom that housed caps, sweatshirts, and other surplus merchandise deemed too much trouble to bother auctioning off. ("This is great!" enthused one teen picking through sweatpants. "It's like shopping, only without having to pay!") In what had been the Bears team store, a supply closet coughed up everything from metal Newark Bears lunch boxes to, for some reason, a can of white hair spray (for touching up baselines, perhaps?), plus the find of the morning: a stash of pristine Newark Bears-logo-emblazoned yarmulkes.
Back outside, Barron had moved on to the bigger ticket items. A full-body, if somewhat worse for wear, bear mascot suit with a pink cap went for "about $200" to an employee of the Staten Island Yankees, who figured the team could find a use for it. ("Maybe our mascot will want a bride or something.") The head of original Atlantic League-era Bears mascot Ruppert the Bear -- named for the same Jacob Ruppert who owned the Yankees in the Babe Ruth years, and who inspired Roth's name for his fictional Newark-based team -- went to a Bears fan named Kieran Fagan, who said he spent $220 on the item as a reminder of happier times.
It was a day for sentiments like these, and while nobody really doubted why the Bears are no more -- it's tough to make a go of baseball as a business when people won't even turn out when you give out free tickets -- Fagan was not the only fan present who was a bit puzzled as to how exactly a team once hailed as a sign of Newark's renewal had disappeared so fast. The economic crash didn't help, certainly, nor did the glut of other teams, from the affiliated-ball Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees to other indie teams like the Can-Am League's Jersey Jackals, that had sprung up in the Bears' wake. (Fagan admitted that he'd drifted away from Newark after moving to Morristown, a 20-minute drive from the Atlantic League's Somerset Patriots.)
Mostly, though, the Bears' demise is a reminder that minor-league ball is a tough business, and a bad bet to last as long as the promises (and the construction debts) that arrive with a team's first opening day. Buried deep in that Grantland article about El Paso tearing down its City Hall to make way for a new stadium for its Triple-A team, after all, is a brief mention of how the owner who made that city's previous Double-A team a success got the city to build a new stadium, then flipped the team for a 10,000 percent profit to George Brett, who moved it to Springfield, Missouri. If entrusting your heart to a major-league team is a risky endeavor, doing so with a minor-league team is a relationship that starts with two strikes against it.
For now, the Bears' former home will play host to college and high school games, while Newark officials shop around for another team to win and/or break their hearts, and fans make do with other local teams. And, for many, some tchotchkes bearing witness to a soon-to-be-forgotten ballclub.
Asked what he would do with an oversized bear head now that he'd won it, Fagan hadn't a clue: "I think we're just going to keep it around the house. I'll be sure to wear it once a year in memory of the Bears."
Photos by Neil deMause
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.