Bad News, Bears: Baseball In Newark Is Dead

Bad News, Bears: Baseball In Newark Is Dead

The field at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium is ready for action. Unfortunately for baseball fans in Newark there is no longer a team to take that field. The 6,200-seat ballpark remains empty. The Newark Bears have gone into hibernation–and this time they may never wake up.

In many ways New Jersey remains a bastion for minor league and independent baseball. Affiliated teams such as the Trenton Thunder and Lakewood BlueClaws are thriving, as is the professional Somerset Patriots club. Other indies such as the New Jersey Jackals and Camden Riversharks are holding their own. In Newark, however, it’s quite a different story.

Despite a $30 million facility to house the team, the Can-Am League announced late last year that the Newark Bears would not operate in 2014. Now, the club has officially folded. Instead of the crack of the bat and all the family-fun shenanigans that go with small-time baseball, the Bears held a liquidation sale/auction last month to literally clean house. The Bears are gone and things are now quiet. Of course, for this organization, libraries and morgues were often louder than a typical game night.

Lack of fans tops the list when it comes to why the Newark Bears failed. Ownership even claims at one point the team gave away 1,000 free tickets and hardly a soul bothered to show up. Others believe ownership made its own bed. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit,” said Ken Oberkfell when talking about the demise of the Bears. The former manager of the club paints a depressing picture of bumbling mismanagement. “When [Rick] Cerone was there he had things moving in the right direction, but it was a different story under Doug and Danielle,” Oberkfell told Breitbart Sports.

Former New York Yankees catcher and Newark native Rick Cerone formed the modern day Newark Bears back in 1998. Douglas Spiel and his wife, Danielle Dronet bought the team in 2012, the year Oberkfell would be the skipper.

“I enjoyed it at first but I didn’t enjoy it much later on,” said Oberkfell. “We didn’t draw anybody. We didn’t have a lot of promotions. Things weren’t run right. We stunk.” It got so bad, Oberkfell stepped down from his position in August of 2012.

The team has in fact “stunk” for years but not too many were ever there to actually smell it. Oberkfell, a 16-year Major League vet and a member of the 1982 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals is now in his second season as manager of the Lincoln Saltdogs. He’s happy to be gone from Newark. “I love it here in Lincoln,” Oberkfell said. “It’s like night and day compared to what went down there.”  

It’s hard to argue with Oberkfell, a championship player and a guy who’s had success managing and coaching everywhere he’s been except that one rough campaign in the Garden State. Oberkfell was named Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America in 2005. Later he was back in the bigs, coaching with the New York Mets. Last year he guided the Leones del Escogido to a championship in the Dominican Baseball Winter League as their manager. A winner like Oberkfell just didn’t mix well with the no-win situation dealt to him in Newark.

What makes the collapse of the Newark Bears most tragic is that the team has a rich, winning history. At least the first inception of the club did. The city of Newark itself was also a great ball town for a very long time. Several baseball clubs called Newark home starting with the Newark Indians in 1902. The Newark Peppers of the Federal League followed in 1915. Then the Bears roared into town in 1917. The original Newark Bears, a Yankees top farm team, played in the International League from 1926 to 1949. In 1936, the Newark Eagles of the storied Negro Leagues came along. Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin were part of the club. The team won the Negro League World Series in 1946. Newark and baseball went hand in hand.

That was then.

Some will say Newark is just too close to the Mets and Yankees to have any shot at success with minor-league baseball. They’d be wrong. Look at the Thunder. One of the top teams in the minors today, Trenton attracts Mets, Yankees, and Philadelphia Phillies fans year in and year out. They’re fan friendly and know how to keep the people coming back for more. The other teams in New Jersey also draw. It starts at the top. Ownership has to have their finger on the pulse of their potential fan base. Newark Bears brass failed miserably.

Over the years the Bears have from time to time tried to capture the city of Newark. Past-their-prime players such as Jose Canseco, Ricky Henderson, and Edgardo Alfonzo were brought in to create a buzz. But after the initial gimmick, the turnstiles stopped turning. New Jerseyans are a shrewd lot. Chris Christie and Cory Booker aside, they usually see through the smoke and mirrors, at least when it comes to baseball.

Maybe more smoke and mirrors is exactly what the Bears were lacking. While the Thunder employs dogs for bat boys and the Patriots cater to families, Newark seemed to bumble its way through each season, especially after Cerone left.

You can also make a case for the less than friendly area as a reason for the lack of fans. Newark is a top crime city led by politicians soft on it…but it’s not as though Trenton is Beverly Hills. You have to be nuts to go anywhere near Camden without a Kevlar vest, yet the Riversharks still do enough to keep swimming. The Bears were not run properly and that is why they are gone.

The Bears floundered on and off the filed in recent years. After Superstorm Sandy rocked the area, Newark announced that Justin Bieber would be coming to town for a benefit show. Later, the club had to embarrassingly blame that falsehood on a promoter attempting to scam them. At one point there was even talk of a reality show about the married couple that owned the team. Another pie in the sky that burned beyond recognition. 

While the front office bobbed and weaved, the baseball team lost–a lot. Last season the team finished 26 games under .500. The club claimed to average 500 fans per game. The eye test proved that even that meager number was a kind estimate. 

As the Newark Bears crumbled before our eyes, the owners also broke up. Spiel and Dronet are no longer a couple. In fact, Dronet has headed back to her native Louisiana, leaving behind a team of ghosts and a big bill.

The city of Newark and Essex County, New Jersey will pay the debt for the stadium until October 2029. No liquidation sale or auction will help there. The Brick City Bruins leave an already cash-strapped community with a bear of a problem

Despite almost a decade and a half of baseball, the second installment of the Newark Bears came and went without much to show for themselves. All those years and we hardly knew them. We were too busy enjoying baseball like it oughta be at the many New Jersey ball parks that deliver. Several towns come through for the fans spectacularly. Newark was not one of them.  

Photo Credit: Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger