Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bear Witness

I saw the Newark Bears on Saturday and had a couple realizations; one easily quantifiable, the other still theoretical. The first is I have seen more Bears games than any other team except (in order) the Mets, Yankees and Brooklyn Cyclones. I was surprised because I am not a fan of independent league baseball (with the exception of the St. Paul Saints where the game is irrelevant to the enjoyment). I wish I could make a logical argument for my disconnection but it's conceptual. In minor league baseball, players generally are advancing towards the major leagues until they aren't, at which point most find another career and some go play independent league ball. Without the developmental framework, I don't have another way to conceive of independent, professional baseball. It's an entertainment product with a weak brand identity?

My structuralist and existential qualms notwithstanding, I have seen a half-dozen or so Bears games. Melvin, who does not suffer from these philosophical questions, has proposed numerous outings while living in or visiting New York City. I always agree to go because it often includes dinner at Seabra's Marisqueria, in Newark's Ironbound section. I have fallen in love with Seabra's A├žorda de Marisco, a traditional Alentejo "dry soup" consisting of shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops and cubed bread with an olive oil, garlic and fresh coriander sauce, topped with a poached egg. (Photograph by Ricardo, aka zone41, from Wikipedia.) It all gets stirred together into a delicious fishy, garlicky, starchy, eggie stew.

I saw last weekend's game with my brother, my niece and my older nephew. None of them are baseball fans but it was a social outing for my brother's church, and I appreciate their asking me to join them. Bears starter Kelvin Villa (four years in the Braves organization; a year and nine games as a Royals farm hand) allowed eight hits and walked four in six innings. The Somerset Patriots parlayed that into one run in each of the second, third and fourth innings. The three-run tally might have been higher but for a couple Bears double plays. The Patriots' starter, Brian Adams (42 innings en Marzo y Abril con los Broncos de Reynosa), held the Bears to three hits and a walk while striking out a career-high ten. But then the Bears bats came alive when Adams was relieved by Tim Lavigne (Triple-A, 2005-2007). Fourteen-year major leaguer and two-time all-star Carl Everett hit a long solo home run, followed by a walk and a two-run shot by Eric Munson. As the hero of the game, I will dispense with the parentheses for Munson (no relation to the Yankee catcher), who was a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers in 1999. Munson (mid-trot) spent parts of the 2001-2007 seasons (and one game in 2009) in the major leagues. A career .214 average couldn't keep him in "the show" and the Padres released him in June.

No score in the eighth and the 3-3 tie held. My brother, who had been looking forward to the post-game fireworks since the fourth inning, was beginning to worry about extra innings but he needn't have. Munson led off the ninth and was awarded first when Lavigne hit him. He went to second on a sac fly and after another fly out, Pablo Ozuna (309 games over seven intermittent years in the majors) hit a two-out single to center that brought Munson home. The throw got to the plate first but Munson, a catcher himself, crashed into Jason Belcher (reached Double-A) and knocked the ball lose, winning the game. The fireworks, by July4Ever, were excellent; less bursts of light and more fields of color. A video on YouTube from after the Bears' July 4 game might give a better sense of the distinction I'm trying to make if it had higher resolution.

My second realization is my experience of the Bears, and my hesitant expectations for all independent league baseball, has been colored by the team's home town. Newark is depressed, and that's depressing. Walk down Broad Street and you'll see blight like the former S. Klein department store, which closed over three decades ago. (The clock doesn't work either.) How did this happen? Some point to six days of riots in 1967 that left 26 dead, hundreds injured and property damage in excess of $10 million. (At the fortieth anniversary of the riots, the New York Times prepared a slideshow of historic and contemporary pictures.)

But the civil unrest--sparked by a rumor that a black cabdriver arrested for a traffic violation had been killed by the police while in custody--was as much a symptom of where Newark had been headed for some time as it was the beginning of a new era. Industry had been leaving the city, followed by the white middle class. Much of the remaining African-American population suffered from unemployment, poverty, poor housing, and a general disenfranchisement from a white-dominated political structure out of touch with one of America's first black majority cities. After the riots, many in the black middle class also left. Out-migration accelerated in the 80s and 90s as the largest city in New Jersey went into a death spiral. Poverty worsened. Educational attainment declined and in 1995 the state took over the local school system. Time Magazine called Newark "The Most Dangerous City in the Nation" in 1996.

Cory A. Booker--the smart, industrious and charismatic mayor first elected in 2006--has said he wants Newark to be "America's leading city in urban transformation." Metropolitan New York City is expected to grow by 2.5 million people by 2025, a 13 percent increase. A recent planning document dares to imagine Newark gaining not just a proportionate share--37,000 new residents--but perhaps as much as 50 percent more. The city's population is estimated to have already grown 9,000 since the 2000 census. If the city is going to grow its way out of crisis, it will need to tackle its high rates of unemployment, poverty and crime; rebuild a housing stock that is both deteriorating and unaffordable; and create a new downtown with high-density residential buildings, regional shopping opportunities and connections to the Passaic River.

And why not? Port Newark is the world's fifteenth busiest port. Newark Liberty International Airport is the fourteenth busiest in the United States, tenth for cargo. An estimated 60,000 students attend six post-secondary schools. Three Interstate and two United States highways, plus numerous other roads, serve the city. There is Amtrak service, five New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines, an interstate subway, and two light rail lines. Downtown has handsome public spaces and beautiful buildings from all periods, preserved by lack of investment. (By comparison, the S. Klein mothership on Union Square in Manhattan was replaced by the architecturally undistinguished Zeckendorf Towers.) The 1929 New Jersey Bell Telephone Building (above) was designed by Voorhees, Gmelin, and Walker, who specialized in Art Deco architecture. The massing, reveals and sea-green fenestration make the Mutual Benefit Life Building, from 1957, one of my favorites in the International Style.

However, until Newark can make its assets pay greater dividends for its residents, a trip to "Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium"--and I suspect the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Prudential Center sports arena as well--will remain a melancholy day-trip for many, in spite of good company and fine play on the field.

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