On a beautiful Sunday afternoon recently, Feldy and I went out to New Jersey, to take in the scheduled game between the Newark Bears and the Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds. Both teams are members of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball Clubs, the small league with a big, important-sounding name. The league's website tries to convince folks that it's serving an area otherwise underrepresented by baseball. Newark is about twenty minutes from Yankee stadium, so I wasn't buying it for a minute, but quite frankly, I'm sick to death of hearing about George Steinbrenner's overpaid squad, so off we went.

We each paid our $3.25, hopped New Jersey Transit's number 108 bus at the Port Authority and took off under the Hudson River. Without a doubt, that bus was the ricketiest thing I had ridden in the U.S. The windows rattled as if we were driving through a tornado. The driver did his part to jangle our nerves by taking curves much too fast, and exiting the highway for no reason, only to jump back on. He must have saved himself .005 seconds by going around the traffic. Super!

Against all odds, we made it to Riverfront Stadium without any major parts of the bus falling off. Our first glimpse of the place revealed a huge line of people stretching in front of the solitary entrance to the park. We thought we might be in trouble for tickets, but our fears were allayed at the box office, which was not only open, but had no line whatsoever.

Dave instructed me to stand firm and not take any bad seats, so I did just that. I asked the clerk for two of her best tickets, and she asked, "Box seats?" This sounded good, so I assented. What Dave had really meant, though, was that he wanted the cheapest tickets. For the rest of the day, I would pay a big psychological price for getting $8 seats, rather than $6.

We took our place in the line, which dissipated quickly as soon as the gate was opened. On the way in, we were handed our Sportscare (The Ultimate in Physical Therapy) growth charts, featuring a photograph of Ruppert the Rippin' Bear, mascot of the Newark Bears. Dave looked at his with disdain, knowing it wouldn't fetch much when he tried to sell it on Ebay after the game.

I got my first good look at the stadium, which I had heard cost a few million bucks, and was just a touch disappointed. The facade reminded me more of a small-town elementary school than Camden Yards. The seats were standard issue green plastic (with cup holders!), ultra-loud rock music blared from the many loudspeakers, and of course, the outfield walls were decorated in classic minor-league-ballpark-shill style.

The field, on the other hand, was a true beauty. Although nobody wanted to paint non revenue-generating numbers over a single square inch of advertising space, a small sign announced that dead center lay about 395 feet from home plate. The thick, dark green grass was cut in a concentric circle pattern, which set off the top quality infield clay quite nicely. Beyond the park, we could see the New Jersey Transit train tracks, and an old, black drawbridge over the Passaic River. A little further on, the twin towers of the World Trade Center poked their heads up.

A cursory wander around the stadium uncovered a video arcade, for when the Bears are stinking up the joint and the kiddies get restless, a "gourmet" restaurant, whose patrons all wore exclusive yellow wristbands and got to sit under shady umbrellas, and a giant, padded obstacle course, again for youngsters with attention deficit disorder. We stopped by a concession booth, where Dave bought himself what turned out to be a completely flavorless Italian Sausage, and some salted - yes, salted - peanuts. I was overjoyed. For some inexplicable reason, both Shea and Yankee stadiums insist on selling unsalted peanuts in their shells. I thought it was an East Coast defect that caused this abominable practice, but it seems that only residents of New York City like their peanuts without the most important ingredient. With food in hand, we took our seats, on the first base line, about fifteen rows back, with an excellent view. Dave moaned about how we could have gotten tickets for two dollars cheaper and seen almost as well, a refrain he would beat to death all afternoon long.

I had done a tiny bit of research on the Bears before heading out to the game. Surprisingly, they almost never commandeer the front page of the Times' sports section, or really any kind of mention at all, so I had to resort to the Bears' website. I found out that both Ozzie Canseco and Bobby Bonds, whose more famous brothers play in the majors, are both on the Newark roster. Ozzie, the holder of the Newark Bears all-time home run lead with 30, sports the exact same mullet hairdo as his brother, along with enormous arms and an air that he's just killing time before some major league club realizes what great things a big, slow guy who can hit high school-level pitching for power can do for it. His was the most sought-after autograph by the pen-wielding kids who had torn themselves away from the arcade, but he didn't give the poor suckers the time of day, and they had to resort to bothering the manager, Tom O'Malley.

The game got underway, but not before a group of little leaguers took the field and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (which curiously consisted solely of brass instruments) played the national anthem. The loud rock music had finally stopped, but was instantly replaced by a never-ending stream of goofy sound effects, including the famous flushing-toilet-after-strikeout, a personal favorite of mine.

Watching the two teams go at it definitely made us appreciate the unique grace of major league players. These guys looked like they might still be feeling the effects of puberty, especially when the pitcher went to cover the bag on a grounder to first base and ol' Ozzie waved him off. It seemed like all the parties involved in the play were scared to death they might get mauled, so they tread lightly.

That is not to say, though, that the competition was much less entertaining than at a major league park. If these guys were playing against the American League all-stars, there wouldn't be much of a game to speak of, but the teams were actually quite evenly matched. Wilson Heredia, who started the game for the Bears, struck out six Black Diamonds in as many innings, and only one ball left the park all afternoon. Only in the seventh inning did Lehigh Valley bust out with a wide lead, causing a little mustard-faced girl to despair.

Like all minor league games, the order of the day was community involvement and mentioning local company's names. Between almost every half-inning, somebody got on the field to participate in some kind of game for cheesy prizes, and the seventh-inning stretch was performed by a couple of kids on the Bears' dugout. The Newark Bears fan club was headed up by Johnny, annoying fan number one, who patrolled the stadium with a battery-powered megaphone, shouting whatever drivel popped into his head at any given moment. While you get characters like Johnny at major league games, they rarely get any attention from the PA announcer, and almost certainly don't get to go out on the field to spin around and around a bat, then run like drunken lunatics, crashing into the team's mascot.

The Lehigh Valley bullpen proved to be superior to that of Newark, and the Black Diamonds hung on for an 8-3 victory, after which the main event began. All kids get to run the bases, win or lose, after the game. The PA announcer stressed the words, "win or lose" at least fifteen times during the course of the game, and the strategy worked. Perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers should allow kids on the field after their games, to keep the stadium from emptying in the eighth. Dave and I stuck around to try and spot our mustard-faced friend and her brothers, but got distracted by a tiny little boy in green shorts. He took far longer than any of the older kids to get all the way from first to home, but that didn't stop him from squirting past the ushers and heading up the first base line. Dave correctly pointed out that the kids had been promised a trip around the bases, and that this boy was just trying to make a whole loop, but the little bugger turned at first and made another trip all the way around the horn.

Finally, Dave was satisfied that he had gotten eight bucks worth of fun, and we rushed off to the Broad Street Station, where the train took us back to town, for the low price of only three bucks apiece. The ride was smooth, quiet and fast, making us wonder why we had bothered with the bus at all. For my next trip to a Bears game, I'm definitely going rail all the way.

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