This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com
Last week the Minor League Spotlight focused on the relatively young Golden Baseball League that has teams that represent areas from Canada to Mexico and west to Hawaii. This week, the Spotlight turns east, and turns the clock back in time to a team that plays in an area rich with baseball history.
Just a 20 minute train ride from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan lies Bears & Eagles Stadium, home to the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League. Since the early 1900’s, baseball has reigned just west of New York City and the Bears are the latest to draw crowds to their talented squad of baseball players.
The Bears put a great emphasis on baseball’s past in Newark, New Jersey and that is clear in every facet of their game. In addition to having the Bear and Eagle on their uniforms, the Bears & Eagles Stadium is named as a nod to the Newark Eagles of the second Negro National League that played in Newark from 1936-1948. The mascots, Ruppert and Effa, are also named in recognition of the past.
Ruppert is named after the stadium that was home to the minor league Newark Bears of the International League from 1926-1949 as well as home to the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues from 1936-1948. Ruppert Stadium was also home to the short lived Newark Bears of the American Football League in 1926. Effa is named after the wife of the owner of the Brooklyn Eagles who purchased the Newark Dodgers, merging the teams in the Negro League. The team was left to her, and she became the first woman to own and operate a professional team.
While the team and their stadium recognizes the area’s past in baseball, the team they field every day represents the present and future talent that you may recognize from big league clubs recently and will undoubtedly see in the future. The Bears have been led by future Hall of Famer Tim Raines, with 23 years of MLB experience himself, and former Chicago White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice on the coaching staff. Helping lead the offense for the current Bears is two time World Series champion Scott Spiezio. A postseason hero with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the St. Louis Cardinals, Spiezio is hitting .315 and currently has more walks(14) than strikeouts(13) on the season. A hitter with a good eye, the last time he finished a season with more walks than strikeouts was during his breakout year in 2002.
Long time New York Met and All-Star infielder Edgardo Alfonzo joined the 2010 Bears after spending last season with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan. The 12 year veteran marked his return to the United States with a two run home run against the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. Fellow former Met Armando Benitez joined the Bears pitching staff in 2009 and has remained one of the top relievers in the Atlantic League since. He currently boasts a 0.90 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 10 innings of work. Before heading to Newark, the 15 year MLB veteran with 2 All-Star appearances last played with Toronto Blue Jays in 2008. Another former big leaguer playing in Newark is Daryle Ward. Spending parts of eleven seasons with six clubs, the versatile infielder has been with the Bears since last season. Currently, Ward is leading the Newark Bears in home runs and runs batted in and ranks among the best hitters in the entire Atlantic League.
With just over 30 games played, there have already been eight players in the Atlantic League that have had their contracts purchased by major league organizations. With such talent playing for the Bears, you never know what you might see when you visit Bears & Eagles Stadium. When I attended a game on May 22nd, James “Bubba” O’Donnell flirted with perfection when he retired the first 16 batters he faced against the Long Island Ducks. O’Donnell is in his first season with the Newark Bears, after being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2008 and sporting a 3.97 ERA over 25 appearances with their short season Single A affiliate, the Boise Hawks. In eight games with the Bears, O’Donnell has a 3.27 ERA over 33 innings, half of which have come as a part of the Bears rotation.
Like many other teams, the Newark Bears have a strong presence in social networking, utilizing both Facebook and Twitter to reach their fans and offer special deals for “liking” the team and following them on Twitter. These websites are also great to follow the team and the players that have reached the majors and those that quite possibly could be wearing major league uniforms in the near future.
Keep an eye on the Baseball Digest Facebook Page over the next few days for an collection of photos from the May 22nd game against the Long Island Ducks that featured the near flawless pitching of James “Bubba” O’Donnell.
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Next Week: The Minor League Spotlight returns to affiliated baseball when it focuses on the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Double A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals!