I am… in general, a sports fan. Â Except possibly for hockey, I am not a sports “fanatic” (much to my wife’s appreciation, and probably to the chagrin of many major sports and their advertisers). Â No place has my hot and cold fickleness been more apparent than it has been with baseball. Â Baseball has broken my heart (not in the “my team lost” kind of way), disgusted me, annoyed me and turned me off to their product more times than I care to count over the years.
Now, in fairness, I guess some of it does have to do with “my” team. Â A fan of the New York Mets (on again and off again), I have watched an organization assemble a team Â that has had the character of a hot steaming pile of garbage (more than once). Â Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman, Bret Saberhagen to name just a few from “The Worst Team Money Could Buy” club. Sure, there are players like that in every sport, those types quickly fade away and are out of the game, not given additional lucrative contracts.
But it goes beyond just “my” team. Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Mark Maguire and others that ran up home run totals as MLB looked the other way, allowing the long ball to try and bring fans back after the 94-95 baseball strike. Oh, and yeah… baseball work stoppages. Does any “union” have less of a reason for its members to go on strike than Major League Baseball Players? (And yes, I blame the owners as well, this is not just the players, but the teams themselves willing to shell out millions of dollars while pricing fans right out of the game in favor of corporate sponsorship and high priced suites, etc).
So, I have been in my “off again” part of my relationship with baseball, for what has been probably the longest stretch of time, somewhere around 7 years. As part of a writeup I was (well I am still am technically) looking to do on New Jersey sports, I went to see and photograph a Newark Bears game. Â Never did I imagine that one evening in a ballpark would remind me about every single factor about what I used to love about the game on so many different levels.
The evening was a perfect storm of things that roped me back in. Â The last time I was at a baseball game, which happen to be a Shea Stadium, some of the best players on the field that day included Edgardo Alfonso and Armando Benitez and much to my surprise, those two players were there… sporting Newark Bears uniforms, in fact the Bears have no less than 5 former major league players on their roster, adding for Angel and Cardinal Scott Spiezio, former journeyman pitcher Willie Banks and Daryl Ward who was most recently played with the Chicago Cubs. Â The remainder of the team is made up of players that never quite got their shot, or perhaps haven’t gotten their shot yet for one reason or the other in the “big leagues.”
Now without trying to make people out to be more altruistic than they really are, I am sure that their is certainly some money factor involved. Â Every one of these guys would, if the opportunity presented itself, to jump (or jump back) to the MLB level and the payday that could involve, but their is still something different about players at this level of baseball. Â When all is said and done, these players are playing with pride, with determination, with heart that far exceeds whatever nominal salary they are making at this level of play. Â They have to play that way if they want to get noticed. Â It is palpable, you can “feel” the difference in effort, and while it is true that the level of play may not be quite as high as the majors, the hustle and effort factor, for me more than makes up for it.
I watched not only the game on the field, but the few fans that made it out for a game on a weeknight while school is still in. Â It was a very sparse crowd watching the game, and so far the Bears are sitting in last place, but that did not affect any of the young kids (or even the adults) in attendance. Â They cheered their team, they begged players for autographs, took photographs with the mascot, and chased down foul balls into the stands. You couldn’t tell by the enthusiasm and excitement in their eyes that this was a “lesser” game than one in an MLB ballpark. Â Seeing the kids enjoying this game, brought back some really great memories of going to baseball games with my dad when I was a kid. Â We went to games both at Yankee Stadium as well as Shea, but there was no difference between those games for me, than when we went to Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City to see the Oakland A’s Double A team play. Â It was very cool to watch these kids with that excitement.
I even got a little bit of excitement of my own. Â Like any kid that has ever attended a game, I always wished for that opportunity to catch a ball hit into the stands, but it neverÂ happened, and as I sat there, I watched one young boy that dutifully attempted to dash from his seat and try and run down any ball hit on his side of the stadium (did I mention the crowd was sparse this day?). Â But other, older and faster kids always beat him to the ball. Â They were roaming free around the stadium, while he sat next to his dad right behind the visiting team dugout (it was a very sparse crowd), meaning he really had no shot, but he got his hopes up each time, only to have them dashed, and walk dejected back to his seat. Â I knew that look… and that feeling, all too well. Â I remembered being that kid.
As we went to the home 6th inning, I was once again on the visitors side of the field so I could get some pictures of the lefty hitters due up at the plate. Â The first player up was Scott Spiezio. Â After getting several pictures with my camera, I quickly switched over to my phone so I could share a picture via TwitPic as well. Â As I snapped that shot, he fouled off the pitch, and it was headed straight for me. Â With my camera in my right hand, I stood, and reached out with my left. Â At 44 years old, I caught my first foul ball at a game. Â Almost directly below me, I saw the young boy (who was now being aided by his father in his quest to get a baseball hit into the stands) looking up. Â He was, he felt thwarted again and began to make his way back to his seat. Â I beckoned to his father, pausing to speak to him first and to get his approval (sadly in this day and age, such steps I feel must be taken), and gave the ball to the boy who was a mixture of elated… and stunned. Â I posted about it on twitter, and received some nice comments from people about how nice I was to do such a thing. Â But, for me, I think anybody with kids, in the same circumstances would do the same. Â Besides, I think I got more out of it, than if I had actually taken the baseball home. Â I got the memory of catching that ball. Â I got the memory of how thrilled that kid was to get that ball, his smile as he grabbed and stared at that baseball will stay with me longer than a dusty baseball on a shelf. Â To top off the evening, the last place Bears went on to win 4-2.
So, I got to see some players I used to love to watch in “the pros,” Â a night a great baseball, the first baseball I caught in a game, some great memories, and my love of baseball back. Â Quite the bargain for a $10 seat, don’ t you think?