I don’t have a particularly close relationship with my paternal grandfather. When I was young, we would talk and he would tell me old stories about the Glory years of the Yankees, his affinity for old Rock and Roll, and his days in the military. As I grew older, we had less and less in common, and our relationship has now been reduced to the cursory hand shakes, quick jokes, and catching up that accompanies the relationship of two men with little else in common. Despite my less-than-stellar interpersonal relationship with my grandfather, two things from his life have stood out as mine has progressed: his love for the Yankees, and his upbringing in Newark.
To be clear, “Pop-Pop” hasn’t told me the ins-and-outs of growing up in mid-20th century Newark, New Jersey. A lot of what I know about my former city of residence has been culled from history textbooks, word-of-mouth, and my own first-hand experience in the city that the Northeast Corridor left behind. Still, his descriptions of a better town and a better time always stuck out for me. To know how far a city has fallen in one man’s lifetime is tragic and shameful. Yet, the reason I have always held on to my grandfather’s descriptions of a better time in Newark is because I believed, in my heart of hearts, that the city could have a renaissance. Nestled between New York and much of the Jersey suburbs, Newark holds potential to be an idyllic gateway city, one that could boast stunning cultural diversity, a wide range of attractions and businesses, and some of the finest educational institutions around.
Alas, my grandfather’s memories and my vision for Newark are struggling to come to fruition. Despite its popular mayor’s best efforts, the city still sports a dangerously high crime rate, troubling unemployment, failing schools, corruption, and an overall sense of economic frustration and divisiveness. Mayor Cory Booker has done a lot for the city, trying to rive residents’ sense of pride in the town and break with the corrupt policies of the city’s past (the 2005 documentary Street Fight does an excellent job of portraying Booker’s first, unsuccessful bid to oust corrupt former Mayor Sharpe James.) Still, poverty is a deep hole. To put expired icing on a terrible cake, the recent recession has only made things worse:
Newark has been hard hit by the downturn in the economy, according to census bureau statistics that show the poverty rate jumped from 23.9 percent in 2009 to 30.2 percent in 2010. Nationwide, 46.2 million Americans — or 15.1 percent — lived at or below the poverty line in 2010. That translates to an income of $22,314 or below for a family of fou
To be sure, Newark isn’t all bad. The Newark Light Rail is clean, safe, efficient, timely, and reliable (at least to the extent that public transportation can be). The city recently opened a brand-spankin’ new stadium for the Red Bulls, an affiliate of Major League Soccer. Despite work to be done, crime is dropping, something that would have seemed difficult to imagine just a few short years ago. Finally, lest we ignore a cliche but necessary observation: it goes without saying that Booker’s charisma and national
platform have at least brought a modicum of national interest to the blighted City. The fact that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg contributed $100 million just to revitalize Newark’s schools should count for something.
Back to sports, the Red Bulls aren’t the only game in town anymore. Between establishing the Prudential Center as a permanent home for the New Jersey Devils hockey team and welcoming both of New York’s professional basketball teams temporarily, Newark has sharpened its chops on professional sports and the viability of the City in supporting those teams.
Then there’s baseball. Despite my grandfather’s hours of stories involving Yogi, Whitey, Casey, Scooter, and the crew, one thing he never really talked about was his own hometown’s support of the great Yankees organization. Until 1950, the city hosted multiple minor and/or Negro league teams, the most notable being the Newark Bears (a minor league affiliate of the Yankees). The team left after 1949, never to return. Nevertheless, as NJ columnist Jerry Izenberg points out, the original Newark Bears outfit ranks as one of the best minor league teams of all time. As he explains,
Newark, the city where I was raised to love baseball and where the Yankees’ Triple-A farm team, voted the greatest minor league franchise in the 20th century, was the emotional metronome to which the soul of an entire city marched.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that current state of baseball affairs is much less utopian. In 1999, the (independent) Atlantic League-affiliated “Newark Bears” set up shop in the city for good, sharing Riverfront Stadium with the college teams of nearby Rutgers-Newark and NJIT. Unfortunately, the Bears have set to regain the magic that their namesake suggests, turning out poor attendance numbers despite their stadiums’ prime locations. Even their annual regimen of former all-stars has not helped the team catch fire. Take a look at their current roster and staff.
If Tim Raines doesn’t do it for you, check out recent roster members. What with Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco not being able to create some magic, the Bears have resorted to PR stunts that would make the most indy of indy-league promoters cringe. To wit:
The Newark Bears are planning a send-off for departing pitching coach Jim Leyritz as their season winds to a close. Leyritz, you’ll recall, was acquitted of DUI manslaughter last year, and as part of the Bears’ send-off, the team will make a $2,000 donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Which is very nice of them. But they’ll do this on the same night as their weekly Thirsty Thursday promotion, which will proceed as scheduled — beer pong tournament and all.
I’ll leave that intellectual gem right there for you to ponder. With a demoralized community, no real talent to speak of, a crippling recession, and two baseball monoliths just across the Hudson, the Bears would and should do anything possible to bring a spark to their ballpark and the community. Essex County, home of the Bears and Newark, did just that (via Izenberg):
The Yankees’ current Triple-A franchise is anchored in the twin cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, an area in northeast Pennsylvania that has always supported baseball on some level. But the Yankees organization decided that PNC Field, the Triple-A team’s home park, is in desperate need of renovation. The job will take all of 2012.
And back in New York, management came up with a magnificent public relations idea. Newark had been the bellwether of all Yankee minor league teams dating as far back as when Jacob Ruppert was paying Babe Ruth’s salary across the river. Newark, through horrendous mismanagement, has seen its minor league team dissolve.
Newark has a ballpark. With that in mind, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman visited the city’s Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium, which does need work. He met with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. Together, they hammered out an agreement that could be done for the least money.
The details of the deal are still sketchy, but you get the point. The Yankees quickly found a temporary home for their AAA team, brought the farm closer to home, and apparently even got the deal done at a bargain rate. From Essex and Newark’s end, the deal makes just as much sense. Revitalize the sports scene; bring in highly touted talent and prospects like Austin Romine, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances; and prove that the city can support baseball and almost-pro baseball. Unfortunately, like most things involving New York baseball that make no sense, the Metropolitans had to have a say.
See, under arcane anti-trust exemptions and baseball rules from almost a century ago, major league teams have a say about such decisions in their geographical territory. Because the New York Mets (at least theoretically) play baseball in Newark’s geographical region, they have a right to block a deal. Why? Again, we are talking about the Mets, so an explanation is bound to be convoluted or inaccurate:
The Yankees tried once more. They repeated that this was just for a single year. They said that if the Mets agreed for just that one season they would offer an evergreen matching proposal. In essence, they would give the Mets the same shot if they had a team with a minor league park in jeopardy, no matter how many eons into the future.
The Mets declined, saying their organization would only do something like that with mutual and immediate reciprocity as they did when the Yanks put a minor league team in Staten Island and allowed the Mets to do the same in Brooklyn.
At this point, let’s remember that the Yankees have offered the Mets money. Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman reportedlast night that the offer to the Mets was only around $250,000. Even so, its $250,000 more than the Mets have right now. Between their Bernie Madoff-ties and failure to secure financing in the form of a minor stake in their team, Mets ownership would be taking the money and running down Routes 1&9 as we speak. In any situation where they can improve their finances with no loss to the team, Mets management should be jumping all over it. Instead, they are rejecting the proposal on principle and principle alone. While I would like to believe (as a friend pointed out) that the Mets are concerned about their own financial well-being, their refusal is outrageous and a farce.
First of all, the Mets are in dire financial straits. Any attempt to resign Jose Reyes this off-season or build a competitive team will require at least some spending, particularly given the woeful state of the Mets’ farm system. Add in their failed talks with David Einhorn, and its clear that the Mets should be willing to accept an infusion of cash (however little) for a move that doesn’t affect them.
Next, the argument that the presence of a AAA team in Newark will somehow harm the Mets is nonsense. New York Magazine writes
Perhaps the Mets are afraid they’d attract fewer fans from New Jersey with such a high-level team playing there next year. Perhaps they view the AAA team as an opportunity for the Yankees to market themselves to suburban fans.
Neither of these arguments hold much weight. Something tells me that, although attendance at Riverfront would pick up, no minor league team will be able to match the amenities and talent put on the field by the big-time club in Flushing (terrible as they may be). The concept that suburban fans will similarly abandon the Mets is a farce, considering that the entire top half of the state is capitalized by both teams. Neither the Yankees nor Mets would gain an advantage by establishing a foothold in a state they already dominate, fanbase-wise. Even if you want to argue that minor league presence makes a difference, you then need to explain how the Trenton Thunder or Lakewood Blueclaws haven’t given larger footholds to the Yankees and Phillies, respectively.
It seems to me that we are still missing information. True to form, the Mets are being evasive and not explaining their explanation. Whatever it might be, it doesn’t seem to hold water in my book. Consider NYM’s other suggestion:
Or, who knows, maybe the Mets just don’t want to do the Yankees any favors, regardless of what it means to Newark.
I’m a firm believer in a line between sports and more important realities, and this is one of them. Had they approved this deal, Mets ownership would have gained much needed cash and good faith from the Yankees for future minor league endeavors. Instead, by blocking this deal, they gain nothing. Conversely, the Yankees lost a convenient temporary home for their AAA squad. Most importantly, though, Newark loses a potential cog in a much-needed, albeit temporary economic recovery. Who knows what would happen had the Mets not blocked this deal. Maybe, down the road, Newark could gain a real minor league team, one with future major league stars and institutional support from a real team and renovations and all of the other things that come with being a respected city. Instead, Newark is left with the Bears, and hopes of a town long-since forgotten by history. For the foreseeable future, both me and my grandfather will be left reflecting on better days.
P.S. At least the Bears and beer pong night are still around!