As I mentioned at the end of my previous entry, my good friend Leon Feingold was invited to try out for the Newark Bears, and he invited me to tag along. It was a tough decision at first because I’d been planning to go to Yankee Stadium (and really looking forward to it) but I realized quickly that the potential for once-in-a-lifetime baseball awesomeness was much greater with him. Remember when I got to sneak into Citi Field with him on April 15, 2009? Yeah, good things happen when Leon is around so I scrapped my Yankee plans and took New Jersey Transit with him to the stadium in Newark. (The photo on the right shows us on the train, and in case you’re new to this blog, Leon is the one wearing black.) It was an easy ride. Seven bucks for a round trip from Penn Station. Two stops. Twenty-five minutes. Short walk from the station to the stadium.
A little background on Leon…
He’s 36 years old, 6-foot-6 (if you round up), and 240 pounds.
He pitched in the minor leagues (in the Indians organization) in the 1990s.
He recently pitched professionally in the Israel Baseball League.
He once ranked 12th in the world in competitive eating.
He’s the vice-president of the New York chapter of Mensa.
…and I love him. As a friend, thank you. Perhaps even like a brother.
The Bears were scheduled to play a game at 6:05pm. We arrived at the stadium about five hours early and walked right inside the front gate:
There was no security. No one ever hassled us. It was the most laid-back atmosphere you could imagine–minor league baseball (or in this case independent league baseball) at its best.
This was the view to the right as we crossed the concourse behind the plate:
We headed to the left, and of course I took a photo of the incredible open-air concourse down the foul line:
I don’t count minor league (or independent league) balls in my collection, but still, I appreciated the heavenly set-up for foul-ball catching.
This was my first time at the ballpark, officially known as “Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium.” Leon had been here before and knew his way around so he led me inside though an official-looking reception area and into the media room:
Did you notice the backdrop on the right? We still had lots of time to kill, so Leon posed for a few pics against it:
That’s not trick photography. He’s not holding a miniature ball. Leon’s hands really ARE that big, and as a result, he can throw a nasty split-finger fastball which basically moves like an 82-mph knuckleball. Every time we play catch and he throws it, I fear for my teeth, nuts, and life.
We wandered down some stairs and ended up here:
Down the hall to our left, there were Gatorade coolers and BP screens and other random pieces of equipment lying around:
Even though it wasn’t a major league stadium, I was still thrilled to be there and just soaking it all in. In fact, I think it’s better that it wasn’t a major league stadium because if it were, there would’ve been security guards crawling all over the place. Instead, I was treated to a pure, uninterrupted, behind-the-scenes look.
Leon needed to change into his uniform, and since he didn’t have a locker in the clubhouse, he changed in a storage room down the hall:
Look what was in that storage room:
There weren’t any security cameras in there. I could’ve stuffed 20 balls into my backpack and no one would’ve known the difference. But I didn’t do that. I had opportunities throughout the day to take balls, but I didn’t pocket a single one. I just wanted to inspect them and photograph them.
I was surprised to find three different types of balls in the basket, one of which appeared to be autographed:
Any theories about whose signature that might be?
Leon and I were both invited into the clubhouse. Here’s what it looked like:
At one point, there were about 15 players milling about, blasting salsa and later rap, playing cards, eating, swinging bats, and getting dressed. Armando Benitez walked by. Then Tim Raines, the manager. Then Shane Komine. And Willie Banks. And Keith Foulke. And Ryan Bukvich. And Alberto Castillo. And Tike Redman. These were ALL guys who had played in the major leagues. Some (like Komine) only had a cup of coffee while others (like Foulke) were World Series heroes. One guy (Leon thinks it was Charlton Jimerson) started changing right in front of us, without warning, and when he took off his shirt, I thought I was at a bodybuilding competition. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such big arms up close, and it made me realize how tough it is to make it in baseball. You have to compete against guys like that just to REACH the major leagues. I suddenly felt a strong connection to David Eckstein.
I went and used the bathroom, not so much because I was dying to pee, but mainly just to check out the facilities. Pretty simple. Looked like a college gymnasium bathroom. There was half a sunflower seed shell atop my urinal. On my way back to the main room (where Leon was waiting for me), I passed the training room (where several players were sprawled out on tables) and a modest assortment of snacks: peanut butter crackers, Hostess cake-type sweets, etc. There were a few dozen boxes of balls that several players had already signed. The whole place was noisy and cluttered and somewhat shabby in spots–nothing as glamorous as the few major league clubhouses I’ve been lucky enough to set foot in, but far better than any locker room I ever got to use as an aspiring college player a decade earlier.
At around 2:30pm, half an hour after Leon had been told to arrive, no one had come for him. The clubhouse was clearing out, so we headed out too. We walked down the carpeted hallway, out through a tunnel behind home plate, and onto the warning track:
(Leon, if you’re reading this, do us all a favor and get a haircut. I know I shouldn’t be talking smack about your [or anyone’s] hair, given the fact that I’m losing mine, but seriously, that bushy mess is starting to look like a mullet.)
There were a few guys playing catch in right field. I had my glove with me, just in case, and Leon asked if I wanted to throw. I was about to say yes when I noticed a couple batters starting to take early BP:
There was only ONE person shagging balls in the entire outfield, and it was a teenaged kid–one of the players’ sons, I think–so I asked a few people if it’d be okay if I went out there and “helped” by shagging. They were delighted that I offered (less running for them) and of course I couldn’t have been happier to be out there.
Leon surprised me by going in my bag and grabbing my camera and taking a few pics. Here I am out there:
After 20 minutes or so, the hitting stopped and the throwing started, so I headed back to the foul line and took some photos. Here’s one that shows three former major leaguers (plus Leon):
Here’s another shot from high up in the stands, just short of the foul pole…
…and here’s one that shows Bukvich pitching to Castillo, with someone (not sure who) standing in like a batter:
Benitez wore headphones onto the field:
I guess you can do whatever you want in Newark when you have 289 big league saves.
After the throwing ended, several of the pitchers gathered near the foul line. You can see Leon on the right, and do you know who’s standing with his hands on his hips?
I shagged some more during regular BP (that must’ve lasted an hour) and I really felt like I was a player. I mean, I was standing in the outfield, surrounded by players, doing what all the players were doing: catching fly balls and scooping up grounders and firing them back in toward the bucket. At one point, I made a really nice running/leaping/over-the-shoulder catch and immediately looked around to make eye contact with everyone. I was all like, “Yeah! Who saw that?! Who saw that?!” but the answer was: nobody. In my world, it was a great catch. In their world, it’s just…a catch.
This was the view from deep right field:
Did you notice those clouds? The visiting team (the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs) had started taking BP, but the sky got darker and the grounds crew began removing equipment from the field, and that was the end of that. I’m totally jinxed by the weather. I can’t even get a full BP in the Atlantic League. (I should mention that when the visitors were taking BP, I didn’t feel right about running all over the field with them, so I grabbed a seat in the front row down the right field foul line. During the next 10 minutes or so, three balls landed in the seats near me — all of which were sliced by righties — and I tossed them all back onto the field. I’m telling you, I didn’t keep a single ball. Leon even walked over at one point and tried to hand one to me, but I wouldn’t take it.)
Leon had disappeared for a while toward the end of BP, and I figured he was pitching in the bullpen. I could’ve walked out there (the ‘pens are located behind the left field wall) and watched him, but I didn’t want to intrude on his big moment. I’d brought a book. I was happy to just sit and read and look at the field. There’s something about baseball fields — any baseball fields — that make me feel like I’m meant to be there. I’m most at peace with myself and with the world when I’m standing on a baseball field. I feel like I’m home, like I’ve reached the promised land, like I’m in a place that I’ve always dreamed of being. In my mind I’ve always been and always will be a major leaguer. There’s no other way to describe it.
Eventually I caught up with Leon and a few older gentlemen near the 1st base dugout:
It was right around that time that fans were being let into the ballpark. Any autograph collectors reading this? If so, I would suggest that you invest in a $7 train ride, go see the Newark Bears, and make yourself happy. All the Bears players seem to file out onto the field through that tunnel right behind the plate, and of course there’s no security to stop anyone from going down into the seats alongside that tunnel. Seriously, go get some autographs. Carl Everett is even on the team. Who doesn’t want Carl Everett’s autograph? (Yesterday I never saw him up close, although I think I caught one of his fly balls during BP.)
While Leon was schmoozing it up, I wandered down into the dugout and inspected every inch of it. I peeked into the bat rack and noticed a pink slip of paper at the bottom of one of the vertical cubby holes. I bent down and grabbed it and had a look:
Yeah, I took it. Whatever. It had the previous day’s date on it. It wasn’t even the original–just a carbon copy. If the Bears wanted it, they would’ve kept it. I figured it would have a happier home with me than in some random landfill.
Then it started raining, and as I ducked inside the tunnel with Leon, I could see the grounds crew racing to cover the field:
What happened next?
A rain delay.
Ryan Bukvich passed the time by trying to putt golf balls into a plastic cup in the hallway outside the clubhouse:
Leon and I got to talk to him for quite a while, and what can I say? The guy is supercool. I told him about my baseball collection, and he told me that when he makes it back to the major leagues, he’s going to look for me and hook me up with a ball. I told him about the list of players and coaches who’ve thrown me balls. Leon even pulled it up on his phone, and we all looked at it together for a minute. I gave Bukvich my card, and he gave me his email address, so hopefully we’ll stay in touch.
Tim Raines walked by while we were out in the hallway. So did Ron Karkovice, who’s also a coach on the team. There were players and coaches all over the place, and there I was, just hanging out with them and shootin’ the sh*t like it was no big deal. In a way it wasn’t a big deal. They’re just guys. Most of them are in their 30s, just like me, and they all love baseball, just like me, so why should it be a big deal to hang out with them? I don’t know, it just IS. I’ve been a huge baseball fan for such a long time, and as a fan, you’re always kept on the outside. When there’s a rain delay, you’re either hiding in the concourse at the stadium or watching reruns of “Seinfeld” at home. You’re never killing time WITH the actual players, so yeah, it was a big deal. Some of the players even recognized me after Bukvich told them that I was the guy who’d caught those home runs last year at Yankee Stadium and been on Leno, so in a way, I was famous to them, which was cool as hell, but mainly, *I* was the one who was honored to be in their presence.
Leon had to get back to New York City. I suppose I could’ve stayed and kept hanging out at the ballpark, but he was really my link to all the behind-the-scenes stuff, so I left with him and got one last look at the field on the way out:
I could’ve stayed and just sat in the stands and watched the game and tried to catch foul balls, but that would’ve felt like a major letdown after everything I’d experienced. I just wanted to go home, and of course I wanted to ask Leon all about his tryout.
As we rode NJ Transit back to the city, he told me that Alberto Castillo had caught for him with Tim Raines and pitching coach Mike Torrez looking on. (No pressure.) They didn’t have a radar gun on him, but Leon thinks he was throwing in the mid-80s and *could* get back up to 90 with the right workouts and guidance. Speaking of guidance…the Bears did not offer him a contract, but they DID tell him that he can come back and work out with the team anytime, and that they’ll continue to work with him and get him back into shape…which means they saw his potential, but he’s not yet ready for game action. That was no surprise to Leon. He knew he wasn’t ready. His pitches had sick movement, but his velocity was a bit down and he had no command.
That’s pretty much it. Leon had some meeting to go to at 6pm, so as soon as our train pulled into Penn Station, we went our separate ways. I headed home and heated up some day-old General Tso’s chicken (and pork fried rice) and watched the Yankee game. (There’s really no point in watching the Mets anymore.) Good thing I didn’t go. I heard that it had rained in the Bronx, too, and that BP was canceled early on.