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."

The view from below: minor-league ball on Long Island
The view from below: minor-league ball on Long Island

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."


Here ya go, kid: Mighty Duck Bud Harrelson.

The Ducks have been an instant sensation in sports-starved Suffolk, regularly selling out their 6000-seat park in their inaugural season. (The visiting Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds, by comparison, were recently outdrawn by a high school game across the street.) Perhaps one reason is the league's best food—fish sandwiches and chicken nuggets aren't exactly standard minor-league fare.

The Ducks roster is utterly star-quality-free (Chuck Carr, centerfielder for the original Marlins team that lost 98 games in 1993, is as close as they get), but the dugout features none other than Miracle Met Bud Harrelson, who helped found the league back in 1996. Working the third-base coach's box, Buddy deftly fields two foul balls bare-handed, drawing the largely sedate crowd's biggest cheers of the night.

But what EAB Park lacks in excitement, it makes up for, well, in ducks. The sound system blares duck-themed effects at every break in the Van Halen soundtrack, while greeting foul balls with a cavalcade of crashes and beeps that sound like someone lined a shot off Roger Rabbit's windshield. At the club's Waddle-In Shop, the brisk business in noisemakers has taken its toll, forcing management to post a sign: NO QUACKERS TONIGHT.

Jersey Jackals
(Northern League, May 26- Sept. 1). Tickets: $4-$8. By public transit: DeCamp bus No. 66 from Port Authority to Montclair State University. Colors: red and black. Oversized mascot: none, unless you count 275-pound DH-coach Matt Stark. Famous names: Infielder-turned-knuckleballer Mark Lemke.

If you didn't know this was Yogi Berra Stadium, the huge silhouette of Yogi that adorns the front gate might tip you off. Or the Yogi Berra Museum next door, which features memorabilia from Yogi's career (Yogi's 1955 MVP trophy! Yogi's glove when he was 14!), along with some nice historical photos and such baseball mementos as Phil Linz's harmonica. The place is so suffused with Yogi, you half expect a shrine with chanting disciples invoking the spirit of the Buddha of the Backstop.

Built into a hillside, the Jackals' home turf makes good use of the topography: A slope beyond right field is open to fans for $4 a head. Most refreshing of all, there are no luxury boxes, save one: a balcony behind first base that is for exclusive use of the Berras. The Northern League does feel less big-league than the Atlantic, in part thanks to economics—with a salary cap and limits on veterans, rosters are even more anonymous—but also for its homey familiarity, with kids scrambling around the ballpark getting autographs of the homegrown stars.

"I covered those Mets teams with Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla," says Jim Cerny, the Islanders broadcaster who handles media relations and play-by-play for the Jackals during the hockey off-season. "It was not a pleasant experience. To come here, where if somebody's lucky they might make it to double- or triple-A, but otherwise they're just here because they love it, it rubs off."

Still, there's a certain irony to a league where the greatest honor is to escape. "Guys here, they want to learn, they want to work, they want to try to get out of here," says Jackals pitching coach Vance Lovelace, a high school teammate of Dwight Gooden's whose moment in the bigs lasted four and two-thirds innings in the late '80s. "If you can give someone that opportunity, you've done your job."

Queens Kings
(NY-Penn League, June 20-Sept. 6). Tickets: $7-$10. By public transit: E, F to 169th St., transfer to Q30 bus. Colors: purple and gold. Oversized mascot: "Name the Mascot" Night was Monday. Famous names: none.

Staten Island Yankees
(NY-Penn League, June 20-Sept. 6). Tickets: $6-$10. By public transit: Staten Island Ferry to the S62 bus. Colors: midnight blue pinstripes . . . of course. Oversized mascot: none. Famous names: Dave (son of ex-big-league catcher Lance) Parrish.

In the files of Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden are letters from the Atlantic and Northern leagues, expressing interest in a Brooklyn franchise should a stadium become available. But approval for a Yankees farm team in the city was contingent on the Mets getting one too, and so New York's first minor-league franchises were granted to its Major League clubs, over Golden's protests.

This means fans will get a chance to see young players in the pipeline to the Bronx and Flushing—Staten Island's marketing slogan is "Yankees Made Here." Emphasis is on young: Most are just out of high school and college, and the oldest King is a venerable 24. Add in the short-season schedule, and you can understand why Golden was miffed.

With its planned Coney Island park delayed by legal challenges, the eventual Brooklyn club is squatting at St. John's University in Queens, which has seen its own neighborhood protesters. ("I hear they're going to throw batteries at us," one King quipped nervously before the home opener.) The team is also made up of Blue Jays; because the Mets' contract with their Pittsfield single-A affiliate runs another year, they found a stopgap solution: buy a Jays farm club in Ontario and move it south with its load of Toronto prospects. In 2001, the Queens Kings will join the Mets system; the following year, the club should relocate to its new Brooklyn home.

The Staten Island Yankees have no such complications, entering their second season at the College of Staten Island, with an $80 million, taxpayer-subsidized waterfront stadium set to open in 2001. The team holds its first Bat Day on July 16, and eagerly awaits the first "Verrazano Bridge" series once the Kings relocate to Coney. It could produce some strange rooting allegiances, admits Staten Island co-owner Josh Getzler: "We have Mets fans who come to us because we're the local team."

The Yankees regularly sell out their home park, and the two affiliated clubs are only likely to get more attention once the new stadiums open. But if indie-league believers are right, leagues like the NY-Penn are dinosaurs. "I honestly think independent baseball is the future of the minor leagues," says Jackals manager Kash Beauchamp, son of onetime Met Jim, and a Northern League alum. "Major League salaries are getting to the point now where I think in 10 years, each club will have three minor-league teams and the independent leagues will do the rest."

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