Beating the Bushes

Minor-League Ball Flourishes in the Shadow of the Mets and Yanks

Old-school New York fans so often wax nostalgic about the days of the Giants and the Dodgers, it's easy to forget those were also the days of the minor-league Newark Bears and Jersey City Giants. When the majors had but 16 teams, dozens of minor leagues sprouted up in every town and burg—that is, until Branch Rickey and TV and expansion collapsed the minors into the desiccated "farm system" of today.

But one person's memories are another's market vacuum, and so new leagues are once again spreading like crabgrass across the small cities and suburbs of America—only this time they're mostly independent of Major League teams. First came the Northern League, whose St. Paul Saints featured owner Mike "Duct Tape Night" Veeck, and cameos by Darryl Strawberry and J.D. Drew. It begat the Northeast League, an upstate New York assemblage that was later annexed as the Northern League's Eastern Division. And they kept on coming—the Atlantic League, the Frontier League, the Texas-Louisiana League—some prospering, others not so much: The four-team Golden State League opened in June 1995, then promptly folded a week later.

Unlike in the affiliated minors, where rosters are filled from above by the latest crop of big-league prospects, indie-league GMs have to scour the countryside for unsigned college standouts or veterans looking for one more shot. Kevin Reynolds, GM of the Atlantic League's Newark Bears, says it's gotten easier as his league has risen in stature. "Last year, you had to call agents," he says. "This year, this league is so good, I get four to five players a day calling me."

Since the indie leagues pay no mind to Bud Selig's clock, their schedules are spread all over the calendar, with start dates running from April to early June. To get a taste of the area's independent teams plus the city's two Major League-affiliated clubs, your intrepid reporter mounted his trusty train, bus, and ferry to visit the bush leagues of the New York region.

Newark Bears
(Atlantic League, April 28-Sept. 25). Tickets: $6-$8. By public transit: NJ Transit train to Broad St.- Newark. Team colors: purple and brown. Oversized mascot: Rip'n Ruppert the Bear. Famous names: Ozzie (brother of José) Canseco, Russ (son of Chris) Chambliss, Bobby (son of Bobby) Bonds Jr.

The Atlantic League has emulated its big-league brethren in at least one way: It won't place a team without the guarantee of a publicly funded ballpark. It's gotten six so far, with more on the way, but some teams have needed patience: Newark played its "home" games in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for over a year while waiting for Riverfront Stadium in downtown Newark to open last summer.

By its nature, an indie-league team is a collection of refugees; ex-Cards outfielder Felix José summered in the Atlantic League before being signed by the Yankees last off-season. "In an organization, a guy might be an insurance policy, and get stuck," notes Bears skipper Tom O'Malley, a veteran big leaguer who found his first managing job in Newark. "Here, a guy can play for any team if he's doing well."

Before game time, owner Rick Cerone (yes, that Rick Cerone) takes batting practice in faded jeans, then turns the field over to the less well known Bears, albeit some with famous surnames. Left fielder Bobby Bonds Jr., who looks a lot like his brother Barry, gets the biggest cheers from the Newark crowd, but first baseman Ozzie Canseco, who looks intensely like his twin brother, José, is the team's hitting star. Canseco began his career as a pitcher, blew out his arm, then resurfaced as a power-hitting outfielder, playing last year in the Mexican League. When rumors surfaced that he was to be kidnapped and ransomed, he promptly retired, only to be lured back by a phone call from a Bears official. The low minors and the Northern League, where he played in 1998, are in his estimation "nothing compared to this. This is a solid triple-A league. The ballparks are beautiful. You can't ask for more."

Canseco delivers the heroics on this night, depositing his league-leading sixth and seventh homers somewhere in the vicinity of the Passaic River. (By now, he's on pace for 61.) But the real center of attention is seated behind the first-base dugout: Johnny Number One Fan, wearing a custom Bears jersey and leading a "Let's Go Bears!" chant with a foam bear claw in a modified tomahawk chop.

Johnny, it turns out, is a regular guy from neighboring Harrison who showed up for the Bears' first win in Newark and has been a fixture ever since. "I'll be honest, it's hard not to come to a game," he says, megaphone in hand amid his "Bad News Bears" entourage. "It's affordable, and a place where you can bring your family. And this is a team that we can call our own. This is our house."

Long Island Ducks
(Atlantic League, April 28- Sept. 25). Tickets: $6-$9. By public transit: LIRR to Central Islip, taxi from there. Colors: green and orange. Oversized mascot: Quackerjack the Duck. Famous names: Manager Bud Harrelson.

If God had meant for us to go to a ball game in Suffolk County via public transit, he wouldn't have given us Robert Moses. Asked how to accomplish this feat, a Ducks PR rep demurs: "I'm not really sure. I don't think many people have tried it."

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Here ya go, kid: Mighty Duck Bud Harrelson.
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