Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Newark Bears ~ A Resilient Brick City Species

From the desk of:  THE BRICK CITY NINE

The Urban Grizzlies Endured Another Troublesome Summer in an Unfamiliar Environment.   Encroachment, Scarcity, and Long Cold Winters are All Part of Being a Newark Bear.

Offensively speaking, the Quebec Capitales had nary a player rank within the top ten in any of the big three categories; Avg.; HR; RBI.  One Cap player placed eighth in batting.  And one Cap placed tenth in RBI.  That's it.

But when it came to pitching; pitching; pitching; -  Quebec had an abundance.  That said, the Quebec Capitales rode the strength of their hurlers all the way to a championship over the New Jersey Jackals in the 2011 Canadian/American League Finals which concluded back on September 16th.   The title was Quebec's fourth in the seven year history of the CanAm League; and their third consecutive championship.

There have only been three other teams to win a CanAm Title.  Two of those clubs are no longer in the league. The Worcester Tornados remain as the only other club still in the circuit to claim a title.  Two former champs, the Sussex SkyHawks and the Nashua Pride, have folded since celebrating their titles. 
The Nashua Pride once played in the Atlantic League too; like another team; the Atlantic City Surf.  They both won Atlantic League Championships before switching over to the CanAm League; and inevitably folding operations.

And there-in lies our segway intended for the Newark Bears Baseball Club.

So how did the two time Atlantic League Champions do in their first year playing in the CanAm League? 

Well..., they finished 41-52 overall; good for 6th place.  Their finish was only one win better than the 7th place expansion Rockland Boulders' record.  And the last place New York Federals shouldn't be entered into this conversation as they were pretty much drafted into service.

Offensively, the Bears wound up being a light hitting group after Daryle Ward's contract was purchased and Tim Raines Jr.'s season tailed off.  Daryle Ward was a key slugger right up until his departure.  And after a furious start, fans as well as his team mates; not to mention his Pop; watched Tim Raines Jr.'s production fizzle in the second half of the season. 

If anyone, you'd have to declare Danny Santiesteban the team's offensive MVP.  His .328 batting average was tops on the team and ranked eighth in the league.  His team leading 74 RBI were only six off the top spot.  But 13 home runs; while good enough to lead the Bears; was a distant ten knocks from the CanAm leader.  Danny also finished first on the Bears in games; doubles; and triples.

Brandon Watson still qualifies as a Most Valuable Bear.  He led the Newark Bears in runs scored; at-bats; and hits.  His .323 batting avg. ranked second on the team only a few percentage points behind Santiesteban's mark as well as being second to him in games played.

But Quebec's championship proved you didn't need to slug your way towards a title.  What you needed was pitching; pitching; and more pitching.  Unlike Quebec, that's something the Bears didn't have in abundance.  No; in this department, the Bears were hungry for help.

Twenty-seven year old starting pitcher; Alex Smith was the only berry they really had.  Alex Smith pitched to a 10-3 record for the Newark Bears which ranked him sixth in the circuit.  The CanAm leader had fourteen wins.  His 3.39 ERA was quite remarkable considering he walked more batters that he struck out; fifty-six versus fifty-two.  In 111.2 inning pitched, he allowed 103 hits.  After Alex Smith, pitching was the Bears' Achilles heel all season long.  And many times; too many times; Coach Raines was forced into very unconventional methods of handling his pitchers.

But how did they do?

They joined the CanAm League for a reason; primarily because of their struggles at the gate.  The title goes back to Quebec again; the league attendance champs.  They pulled in three times more fans than the Bears did.  And what of Newark's nearest neighbors?  The expansion Rockland Bouders led the contingent of American based teams.  They along with Quebec were the only clubs to break the 100,000 mark.  New Jersey pulled in 85,000 fans which ranked them 5th in the league and 35,000 fans ahead of Newark.  New Jersey averaged 1,700 fans per game.  Newark was the only team beside Pittsfield, not to average better than 1,000 fans per game.  And in Pittsfield's case, their attendance situation is understandable.

The plan was to switch Independent leagues so as to cut operating costs due to the club's falling on hard times.  The Atlantic League became too costly for them to operate in while faced with an increasingly absent fan base.  And so the CanAm League provided a financially friendlier alternative in which to continue operations.  Did it help?  I have no idea.  I'm not privy to that information.  Do I hope it helped?  Absolutely.

With the conclusion of this past season, the book keepers may have truly realized a tangible and welcome reduction in costs.  But did it put the Bears and Newark Baseball on a safer river bank of survivability; even if just by a few salmon?  Again, I wouldn't know that.  But I still sense the Bears live a precarious existence.

With the recent maelstrom resulting from Fred Wilpon's blocking the N.Y. Yankees from placing their AAA-Scranton club in Newark's Riverfront Stadium for one season now subsided, I for one didn't see how that would have been a good situation for the Newark Bears, outside of some cosmetic upgrades to the park and a token infusion of petty cash. 

And here's why.

Newark baseball needs a permanent solution.   And it needs to be untethered from affiliated baseball. They need an incredibly original thought that does not take Gotham City into account.   That’s every-one’s problem.   They are Newark; not NYC.   They need something done independently with the concentration focused wholly on Newark and where the fan base should be coming from.  Their base gate must come from the nearby neighborhoods in order for any team to survive there.   They are surrounded by organizations respectively pulling in healthy gate receipts.; including a once gate challenged S.I. Yankees club just few years ago, who are now coming off their three best years attendance wise.

A one year stop in Brick City by a prospecting travelling road show would have done more harm to Newark than good.   The more I think about it, the worse I think the idea of having upper-level minor league ball around here is.   It’s akin to allowing Wal-Mart into the city and effectively putting Mom-and-Pops out of business.  Why snub noses at the Law of Diminished Returns?   Minor League Baseball teams are very important pieces of local economies outside the NY metro area.   It’s best if they remain on the outskirts of town.   We need to stop being so centric about where we live and how much clout we think it brings.

So with the Scranton Yankees planned invasion safely behind them now, the Bears need minds who can make Baseball work in Brick City and get them standing on their own four paws again.  Carpet Baggers need not apply.  Newark needs a Newark inspired solution.

Perhaps, until then, hibernation will go well for the resilient urban Bears, and a season of plenty finally comes their way next Spring.


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