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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Root, Root Root for the Home Team

Albrecht Dürer (1528), Matthias Grünewald (1528), and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1553) - Religious Artists

Tonight's adventure was a minor-league baseball game between the Newark Bears and the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, both members of the independent Atlantic Baseball League, at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium in Newark. I had helped a friend try to promote a group outing to the game, but as it panned out it was only four of us. In the meantime, I had one eye on the Stone Pony because the Gaslight Anthem was performing and -- given a certain amount of mutual admiration that's been going back and forth between lead singer Brian Fallon and Bruce Springsteen -- there had been some chatter that the Boss might make an appearance.

Most folks I know do not go to Newark on purpose. It has a bad reputation which is for the most part deserved. However quite a bit has changed in the past few years in the downtown area, which will hopefully continue to boost the circumstances for the people who live in the city.

The first major undertaking was the construction of a massive opera house, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. A few years later, it was joined by an 18,000-seat arena for the New Jersey Devils NHL franchise. Both facilities bear the logo of Prudential Financial, the largest corporation with operations in the city. Because this is Jersey, of course it couldn't happen without a few deaths, a few accusations of corruption, and a whole lot of upheaval. But the arena is done, the Devils (and -- for now the New Jersey Nets NBA team) and the Seton Hall men's basketball team have taken up residence there, with concerts and other events filling out the schedule.

Here and there, other signs of life are popping up. The McCarter Highway (NJ Route 21) which connects the city to the airport to the south and Route 3 and Passaic to the north, has been repaved with new lights and streetscaping, and former abandoned lots are now bustling new bodegas and furniture stores. Plans for a new hotel, the first to be built in the downtown area in nearly 40 years, were announced in February. And the city's population slide by almost a third since the riots of the 'sixties, has finally reversed.

Now, where were we again? Oh yes, baseball game. The Bears (named after a Yankees farm team who played in the Ironbound section of town from the 'twenties to the late 'forties) are not associated with any major league team, but sport pinstripes perhaps as a nod to that connection. In addition, we initially thought there were two teams sharing the stadium (hence the "Bears and Eagles" but in fact too is a reminder of the past: The Eagles were a team of the National Negro League who shared Ruppert Stadium with the old Bears. The current organization has a nice wall of fame above the grandstand with prominent contributors to both of these teams.

I have to agree with my dad that people who have not given minor league baseball a try are really missing out. For starters, it's an incredible bargain. Arriving at the stadium, we found a parking deck right next door for $5. Tickets to the game are only $10 each, and, sadly, we were able to sit right behind home plate because there were not many people there on this beautiful weeknight. Food and beverage prices were sane, unlike what one pays at major-league venues. The area surrounding the stadium is a business district, quiet at this hour. Outside the gates are the Broad Street train station and the Rutgers business school. From the stands, one can see the Manhattan skyline on a clear day, and to the north, the trains of the Morris & Essex line chug past on elevated tracks. A Hampton Inn hotel and some attractive new townhomes across the Passaic River in Harrison peek over the outfield wall (and -- by the by -- Harrison has it's own professional sports venue now, a 20,000 seat soccer stadium which is home of the New York (ahem) Red Bulls). From Section 105, this certainly didn't feel like a blighted city one should be afraid to visit.

Then there is the simple fact that you are -- because of the scale of the place -- much more connected to the game. Unless one happens to be privileged enough to score seats right down front, the experience at Yankee or Shea stadium is fun but I feel more removed from the action than when watching the game on TV. Here, we could hear the banter between the officials, watch the on-deck batter warm up, and -- in our case -- witness a player interact with regulars who he knows by name. The players seem move between teams more often than in big-league ball; I checked out the history of outfielder Randy Gress, and I won't be having his name put on a jersey anytime soon: he's played for ten teams in three years!

All the regular shenanigans like the seventh-inning stretch, games on the field for the kids, and "YMCA" are faithfully executed to keep the energy up. We were treated to a good game against well-matched teams where the lead passed between them several times, and ended when the Bears' pitcher Manny Mejia hit a two-out two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th. By this time I was listening to the live stream on the team website because a Certain Party's bedtime had come and gone. But he had also enjoyed himself and we all decided could definitely see making this a regular activity.

If you enjoy baseball you owe it to yourself to check out either the Bears or a team in your area. Sharing the Atlantic League with the Bears are the Somerset Patriots and the Camden Riversharks whom my sister and her family cheer on (read her thoughts here), and there's also the Trenton Thunder (affiliated with the Yankees), the New Jersey Jackals based at Montclair State University, among others. It's a great, cheap night out and they could use the support.

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