It opened in the summer of 1999, a glistening, picturesque ballpark on the banks of the Passaic River, a place with such promise and hope for what was once a downtrodden area in downtown Newark.
It met its demise some 20 years later, an abandoned respite for hundreds of homeless, with wild weeds patrolling the outfield where Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson once played and along the infield where Edgardo Alfonso took his last professional strides.
Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium, built just 20 years ago at the cost of approximately $30 million of taxpayers’ funds, began to get taken down last week by construction crews who were destroying the once-majestic facility to start the process of building the kind of commercial and residential development that can be found all over New Jersey these days.
And as the construction cranes demolished the right field stands and tore down the main concourse, memories flooded by for someone who spent hundreds of hours in the ballpark, either serving as the public address announcer for games or acting as the official scorer – or in a lot of cases, both, for either the Newark Bears baseball team or the local colleges, namely Rutgers-Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology.
The first introduction to Riverfront Stadium, as it was called when it first opened in July of 1999, was as a curiosity-seeking baseball fan, someone who wanted to see if the ballpark was worth all the excitement and hype that came with its opening. Indeed, it most certainly was, as amazement and awe were the only words that could describe the first impression.
In the winter of 1999-2000, the Newark Bears’ owner and former Yankee and Met catcher Rick Cerone, a Newark native, inquired whether a certain local sportswriter would want to get involved with his team. The invitation was first to be the official scorer for the Bears, which was gladly accepted.
In the summer months, the idea of being paid to watch professional baseball games more than intrigued me. It brought me back to the summers of 1977 and 1978, when I worked as the official scorer and public address announcer for the Jersey Indians, a minor league affiliated team that played in Roosevelt Stadium, another location that was razed in order to build a housing development.
So in the summer of 2000, I started doing official scoring for the Newark Bears, a team that featured Ozzie Canseco, the brother of the more famous Jose, and Bayonne native Joe Borowski, who at that point was hanging on to his pro baseball career before being rejuvenated with the Florida Marlins, Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, earning the distinction of being one of a handful of relief pitchers to lead both major leagues in saves.
The Newark Bears played in an independent baseball league called the Atlantic League, the brain trust of an amazing man named Joe Klein, a long-time baseball lifer who determined that there was a market for pro baseball outside of the affiliated clubs.
It was an idea that obviously worked, because the league has lived on after Klein passed away in 2017.
The Newark Bears got better in 2001 and featured both Canseco brothers and former New York Met All-Star Lance Johnson, former Yankees World Series hero Jim Leyritz, former Texas Rangers slugger Pete Incavaglia, former Yankee top prospect Hansley “Bam Bam” Meulens and former Chicago Cubs ace right-hander Jaime Navarro. That team drew more than 250,000 fans to Newark and lost in the Atlantic League semifinals.
A year later, the Bears won the Atlantic League championship after finishing the regular season in fourth place. That team featured 46 different players, the most in the Atlantic League. Players were coming and going all summer long. By then, I was the back-up PA announcer, so I got a major kick out of announcing first baseman Tom Hage’s name, sounded exactly the same as my own.
By 2003, the team started to fall off a little and so did attendance numbers. The team went from second in league attendance to fifth, losing more than 50,000 fans than went through the turnstiles the previous year. Former National League batting champ Bill Madlock was the team’s manager and by then, the 44-year-old Henderson, trying desperately to hold on to his professional career, joined the team.
It rekindled the memories of a 19-year-old Henderson and a 17-year-old official scorer and PA announcer being together in Jersey City with the Oakland A’s Class AA affiliate Jersey Indians at Roosevelt Stadium. Funny, the reunion between me and “The Man of Steal” didn’t exactly bring warm and fuzzy moments, but Henderson did remember the 1976 AMC Pacer that drove him back to his Duncan Avenue apartment after games.
In 2004, Jersey City native and former major leaguer Willie Banks arrived for his first of four seasons with the club as either a player or eventually pitching coach. Henderson returned for the final season of his historic professional career.
By 2008, the team started to hit the skids financially. Former owner Marc Berson filed for bankruptcy protection. Frank Boulton, the successful owner of the Long Island Ducks in the league, purchased the Bears for $1 million and actually ran the team with a profit in 2009 with Hall of Famer Tim Raines as a manager.
“The Rock” was an absolute joy to work with. There were so many days spent in his office, just telling stories of his legendary career. I would go into his office to secure the lineup and spent an hour or so just talking baseball with him and his assistants, namely former All-Star Mike Torrez and former MLB catcher Ron Karkovice.
Raines spent three years in Newark. Some of the other names that played for the Bears included World Series hero Scott Speizio, slugger Daryle Ward, former Met Carl Everett and beleaguered Met relief pitcher Armando Benitez, still one of the most hated players to ever play for the Mets.
In 2010, the Bears had fallen on extremely tough times. The product on the field was dismal, posting a 53-86 record. A year later, the Bears moved to the Can-Am League, a lower classification that also housed the New Jersey Jackals.
By then, prior owner Tom Cetnar partnered with local chiropractor Dr. Doug Spiel and his girlfriend, former New Orleans dancer Danielle Dronet.
That association brought an end to pro baseball in Newark. It was clearly a bumbling circus of ownership.
Dronet once said to me that the Can-Am League was looking for a “rooster.” I tried to inform the woman that it was called a “roster,” a list of the Bears’ players. She insisted it was a rooster. So I went looking for Foghorn Leghorn.
It was only the first of many blunders Dronet would make as team owner. She also told me that she didn’t want any hints of team losses on the website because “losses were negative.” That ended my association with the team.
Dronet posted on the Bears’ website that Justin Bieber was going to perform a concert at the stadium in October of 2012. There’s only one problem with having an outdoor concert in October. It’s called temperature. Bieber never agreed to any concert there, causing Dronet to have even more egg on her face.
The Bears would operate to minimal crowds in 2012 and 2013. By the end of the 2013 season, the Bears were done.
From that point, the stadium fell under disrepair. It was owned by Essex County, but no one put in the time for its upkeep. Rutgers-Newark and NJIT continued to play home games there through the 2018 season, but the stadium was condemned soon after and then slated for demolition this year.
And the demolition crews finally got around to performing their work last week.
It’s a shame that such a beautiful ballpark should meet its demise in just 20 years. No one in their right mind could have ever imagined that such a thing could happen. I had to sit there and watch the crane destroy right field to believe it myself.
When the new development goes up on the site that was once Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium within the next few years, most people might even forget that there was a ballpark there. Like the famed Frank Sinatra tune, “There Used to be a Ballpark.” It will be a wonder whether there will even be any mention of the once-breathtaking ballpark. It’s a shame that things didn’t work out better for the Newark Bears and that great edifice.