The Newark Bears were at the top of the Atlantic League two years ago. They had just won their second championship in six years, and did so by knocking off their rivals, the Somerset Patriots. But, despite this success, there was still something missing.
“At first, the lack of people in the seats wasn’t too much of a concern,” Marcus Nettles, a staple in the Bears outfield in 2007, said. “But, halfway through the season you need that fanbase to give you that extra support.”
The Bears were annually among the league’s lowest-drawing franchises and that meant little money was coming in. On Oct. 24, owner Marc Berson decided he could no longer continue operating in the red and folded the franchise before eventually selling it. News of the initial collapse was first reported on AtlanticLeagueBaseball.com.
“We are pleased with the results of (Thursday’s) court decision that will keep the Newark Bears playing baseball in ’09,” Berson said in an exclusive statement. “…we wish the best of luck to the new ownership team.”
The Bears have faced a number of challenges since their inception, but none may be greater than Newark itself.
“The biggest hump to get over was the stigma of Newark,” former assistant GM Jim Cerny said when I reached him on his cell phone. “We tried everything from traditional to grassroots marketing, but that was the biggest issue.”
The Bears have worked hard to make the surrounding area a safe welcome mat for fans visiting the ballpark. Police officers patrol the streets on game days and the team added a multi-level parking garage just beyond the right field wall.
“Perception is perception and that’s a pretty hard thing to break. My car, as well as several players, got broken into a few times,” said former Bears bullpen catcher John Evans, one of 17 people interviewed for this article.
Three different owners – not including the Bases Loaded Group, LLC, which has agreed to purchase the Bears — felt they could bring fans through the turnstiles; each one failed. It may have been Rick Cerone, the team’s initial owner, however, who put the Bears in a position where they’ve never been able to recover financially.
The former New York Yankees catcher had a strong friendship with Atlantic League CEO Frank Boulton from their days with the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Class-A Carolina League team that Boulton founded. Cerone, who had a stake in the Blue Rocks, was looking for new business ventures in 1995, and when he learned of Boulton’s concept to launch an independent baseball league in the Northeast, he wanted in.
Cerone, who was born and raised in Newark, thought New Jersey’s largest city would be an ideal place for a baseball team. After all, it had been almost 50 years since one played there. On June 14 of that year, Newark was awarded the second franchise in league history. The other went to Atlantic City, a team Boulton himself owned.
Cerone called owning the franchise a “dream” and sought nearly $22 million in public financing to build a stadium in the city’s Ironbound section. Newark’s then-mayor Sharpe James worked hard to get the proposal passed, telling the New York Times, “baseball belongs here.”
At first, the ballpark was supposed to be part of a state-of-the-art “Sportsplex,” which would also feature a 12,000-seat soccer stadium. But, community protests and lawmaker opposition altered those plans and pushed the groundbreaking back nearly three years and to a new downtown location. Construction finally got underway on May 6, 1998, and by the time the stadium was completed, its price tag soared to $34 million, making it the priciest ballpark in the country.
Despite having no home, the Bears still became one of the Atlantic League’s original eight teams. For their first two and a half seasons, they played all of their games in temporary home stadiums, first in Bridgeport and then in Augusta, N.J. Meanwhile, their own ballpark continued to be worked on – slowly, albeit — and the city and Cerone were still hammering out the numbers on a 10-year lease.
“I don’t think there was ever any hostility with the players because they didn’t have a real home,” Camden Riversharks GM Adam Lorber, a former Bridgeport group sales executive in 1998, said. “You’re talking about guys who were getting paid to play baseball.”
The final details of the Bears’ original lease agreement with the Essex County Improvement Authority had a number of provisions in it. Among them: The county was to receive $1 million a year in revenue, 25 percent of all concessions and advertising, 75 percent of luxury box sales and $1 from every ticket sold. The ECIA, which was responsible for selling the suites, would have also banked all revenue from naming-rights for Riverfront Stadium; however, they were never able to find a buyer.
Days before the team moved into its new stadium, many pieces were still unfinished. There was no ticket office, luxury suites were not furnished and much of the front office staff was still being assembled – all key pieces to turning a profit. Cerone was injecting tons of money – about $2 million of his own cash — into a club that wasn’t ready to move home.
“Cerone spent too much money and that started them on a bad foot from the beginning,” Evans said. “It never really turned the corner from there, which is a shame.”
At the time, Cerone told the Associated Press: “I’ve invested all my money in this team and I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it wouldn’t work.”
It never worked and the team has lost money every year since the park opened. In February 2001, Gov. Christie Whitman began a state aid proposal to build an arena in Newark for the Nets and Devils. In it, she included provisions that would allow the teams’ owner, YankeeNets, to take over the debt owed on the 18-month-old Riverfront Stadium. That deal, however, fell through and Mayor James began to express his disappointment with the way the Bears were being operated.
Two years later, Cerone sold 50 percent of his stake in the Bears to Patriots owner Steve Kalafer. Everyone knew Cerone had his name attached to the club, but it was Kalafer who was calling the shots.
Kalafer already had a successful ball club is Somerset County, and was hoping for the same in Essex. He also had his sights set on a plot of land near what’s now the Izod Center. Several people close to the team at the time believe Kalafer’s real intentions were to use the Bears to promote his proposed Bergen Cliff Hawks club and get a stadium built. Due to a number of lawsuits, however, that’s yet to happen.
“I became part of the ownership group to make sure the Bears were viable,” Kalafer, who said the Bears and Cliff Hawks would have targetted completely different markets, said. “I sold my interest in 2005 because I had no other business interests in the city, but Marc did.”
That year, Berson bought out both Kalafer and Cerone. Berson, who helped found the NJPAC, was a businessman first and baseball fan second. Had he been equally both, the team might have fared differently. After all, it was often his outside projects that often impeded his day-to-day involvement with the club.
As the years passed, Berson also began to experience a lack of support from the community, as well as some tension with the league. Those were two contributing factors that led him to pull the plug on the franchise.
“To be honest, there are a lot more major issues in the city of Newark than the Bears. The success of that team was and could have been a revitalization of Newark,” Cerney said before the team was sold.
The city all but stopped promoting the baseball franchise and their focus shifted to the new Prudential Center. As former infielder Mike Just, a Woodcliff Lake, N.J. native, told me: “One of my neighbors asked me what team I played for and I told him the Newark Bears. His response was, ‘Newark has a pro baseball team?’”
Even the Devils are in a fight with the city over their arena’s lease. Regardless, the Prudential Center is everything the Bears hoped The Den could be, including drawing big names.
“If you don’t see the politicians and the CEOs coming out, that takes away a lot of their credibility,” former Bluefish GM Charlie Dowd said.
As for his relationship with the league, Berson felt like an outsider.
“Berson would look for help from the league, or to toss ideas around, but a lot of the time he really felt his comments or suggestions fell on deaf ears,” a former team employee who requested anonymity because of the situation said. “It became very much a power struggle.”
That same employee went on to list a number of concerns Berson raised, including how the league planned to fund its traveling team, the Road Warriors. Boulton thought it made sense because teams would make additional money off the extra home games. But, Berson disagreed, which made him one man against several owners, most of whom owned multiple teams.
“We thank Essex County, the City of Newark and the Atlantic League which have been great partners to us,” Berson said in that same statement, the only comment he’d give for this story.
“Marc is very dedicated to the city Newark, which made him a very busy guy,” Boulton said. “The Bears would benefit from a more hands-on owner, or at least representative. They need to know what goes on on a daily basis and can’t wait for surprises.”
On at least two occasions, I’m told, Berson passed on attending the league’s annual meetings, including one in Florida last month – team’s were also there for the Mike Veeck Seminar. The Bears’ former owner felt his opinions would go unheard, thus making the trip a waste of time and money. At this year’s gathering, one of the topics of discussion was what to do now that Berson decided to stop running the team.
Meanwhile, back in Newark, the team’s front office staff knew the franchise was on life support. They were told not to pay any of their vendors, and that made it impossible to do business. (Several players I spoke with from last year’s team said they always received their paychecks on time.)
“When you’re in the office, not picking up the phone because somebody is wondering why they’re not getting paid, that made it pretty stressful,” said one team employee.
On Friday Oct. 24, a staff meeting was called for 11:30 a.m. in the conference room. In all of five minutes COO Jeff Hirsch explained why Berson had to cease operations, citing financial reasons. All but three employees – GM John Brandt, controller Ken Bossart and groundskeeper Carlos Arocho – were told to pack up and leave.
One week later, Berson filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He hasn’t said how much money the team has lost since he took over, but sources tell me it’s in the neighborhood of $600,000 last year alone.
Over the next three weeks, Boulton’s desk received at least three offers to purchase the Bears. Only the Bases Loaded Group, however, stepped up with a $1 million letter of credit to ensure they’d be able to operate through 2009.
“I read about them folding in the paper,” co-owner Tom Cetnar said, referring to the Star-Ledger, which credited AtlanticLeagueBaseball.com with breaking the news. “I reached out to Marc and asked him to meet and within six days everything came together.”
On Thursday, a Newark judge decided BLG was able to buy the Bears for $100,00, and take over its nearly $5 million-dollar debt. Included in that number is $805,761 in back payments from their lease, which had been reworked earlier this year. It was a move made to give the Bears more flexibility to turn a profit.
“The lease was re-done in January and gave more responsibility to the team,” Brandt, whom many players speak highly of, said. “The lease became more of a partnership and we were really just hoping to come out even last season.”
“We are going to immediately ask the community, the city, the schools and clergy to become our partners,” Cetner said in his first interview since the deal was completed. “We have a lot of work to do, but this is going to be a great thing for everyone involved.”
BLG is confident that they can turn around the franchise and are planning some big changes. Among them include a facelift for Riverfront Stadium, new uniforms and a new skipper, future Hall of Famer Tim Raines.
“I’m confident we can make this team a success. We want people to be proud to bring their families here,” Cetnar, a Newark native, said.
News of the Bears’ possible demise came just weeks after another one of the league’s original teams, the Bridgeport Bluefish, were about to fold. Boulton stepped in to buy the franchise – he had been supporting the club financially in part last season — and thinks there’s still a chance to be successful in southern Connecticut.
“We’re really trying to get Bridgeport to reach its potential,” Boulton said. “We’re putting in a new field and working on a full desk of things there.”
Boulton feels baseball can draw big crowds in Newark too. If BLG is active and stays involved than the Bears can – and will – be successful. It’s a success that depends on the support of the fans, community and league; three essential pieces that can help keep baseball in the city for good.