I went to my first Major League baseball game in 1983, and a year hasn’t gone by since without me setting foot inside a stadium. That’s obviously not happening this year, but it doesn’t mean I’m letting this tire fire of a year go by without seeing real, live, professional baseball in some capacity – at least not once I learned that there was actually the chance to do just that.
With affiliated and independent minor league seasons canceled this year, clubs have done anything they can to bring in some money. From fireworks shows with attendees staying in their cars to drive-in movies to outdoor dining, the minor leagues are doing what they do best – innovating.
Independent teams have been able to go one step further: Playing actual baseball games. In lieu of a Frontier League season, northern New Jersey and Rockland County, N.Y., have the six-team All-American Baseball Challenge. The ballparks of the New Jersey Jackals, Sussex County Miners and New York Boulders are hosting two teams each, with games Thursday through Sunday in each ballpark, through Labor Day Weeknd. Yogi Berra Stadium at Montclair State University is home to the Jackals and the Jersey Wiseguys. Skylands Park serves as home field to the Miners and Skylands Cardinals – a nod to the former New Jersey Cardinals of the New York-Penn League. And Palisades (Credit Union) Park in Pomona, N.Y., is where you can see the Rockland Boulders (apparently not affiliated with the New York Boulders) and New York Brave. In each case, the second team listed was created just for this 32-game replacement for a season.
A press release in mid-July announcing the challenge – six teams does seem a bit light for a “league” – described it as an “all-star caliber, recreation league” that features “top-level talent from both minor league and college baseball as part of the outdoor family fun series.” So yeah, we’re not seeing Double-A or Triple-A players here, unless it’s one of the Jackals, Miners or Boulders players from 2019 who reached one of those levels previously.
But still! It’s actual, live baseball, with wood bats. It’s 398 to center and 308 down the lines. It’s third basemen who can make the throw to first on a line, not that high arc that you see on the field in Sunday morning beer leagues. So with Yogi Berra Stadium just minutes from my home and Skylands Stadium less than an hour away (though a beautiful country drive), I was determined to catch at least one game. Scheduling conflicts and weather prevented it from happening until today, when we went to see the Miners face the Jackals in Montclair.
I bought tickets for my wife and me online and had them scanned on my phone for entry to the ballpark. All seats are general admission, allowing you to physically distance from other fans at your own discretion and comfort. Masks are required for entry and when moving about the ballpark – walking the concourse, visiting the team store or restrooms, and buying concessions. And fans complied … except for the expected flocks of children scurrying after foul balls, but they were of the age where masks aren’t mandatory. Those kids sprinting after every foul ball might have been the most normal thing about the whole day.
We found a picnic table in the shade on the first-base concourse and watched the first five innings there. Just after first pitch, I tried counting the fans and estimated maybe 100, but after an inning I could tell that there were more than that, so let’s call it 200-300. Finding a spot to ourselves was pretty easy, unless you wanted to be in the shade, which was at more of a premium. After the first five innings, we hit the concession stand for a beer, then found a shady spot along a fence down the third-base concourse. As the sun sunk lower in the sky, the shadows eventually reached the bleachers in front of us, so we settled into the last row.
It was just so nice to hear the crack of a bat again, the smack of a fastball into the catcher’s mitt. Up on the concourse, speakers played a mix of pop hits even during at-bats, but when I moved down to the front of a section at one point to take photos, I realized the music could not be heard closer to the field.
Sounds from the field, however, made their way up to us – the left fielder calling off the shortstop for a fly ball, the coach’s support to the batter from the third-base box, a pitcher’s exultation after a strikeout ended the inning with the bases loaded. The sound may have carried the other way, too. When the Sussex second baseman made a nice diving play for an out at first, a fan shouted, “Nice play, second base!” and while the player showed no acknowledgement, I’m certain he heard it so long as he’s not used to blocking out all noise from the stands. But in this environment, it seems like it would be hard to distinguish kudos from the stands from what’s coming out of the dugout.
The game sailed along early. Jackals starter Nick Carrell didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning, but then gave up two runs. His Miners counterpart, Tyler Luneke, gave up single runs in the fourth and seventh – with a second run in the seventh cut down at the plate when the Jackals third-base coach hesitated and then sent a runner from second on a single. Without the initial stop sign, Chris Carpio probably scores, as close as the play was. Luneke ended up going the distance, but it was tied, 2-2, after nine innings.
So we go to a home run derby. No extra innings – no need to prolong things for the sake of traditional baseball when the game’s probably pushing three hours and you don’t want fans getting lax about their masks and distancing. In the first round, each team selects a hitter to take five swings. If one hits more home runs than the other, the game’s over. If they’re still tied, then it goes to a one-swing sudden-death exchange until one side goes deep and the other doesn’t.
As the visiting team, Sussex took its hacks first, sending up third baseman Jason Pineda – with shortstop Cito Culver pitching to him. Pineda launched two homers, setting the mark that the Jackals would have to beat.
Batting for the Jackals was Bill Pearson – who didn’t even play in the game. This home run derby was his BP session, in a sense. Pearson’s first three swings came up empty, meaning he had to go deep on his last two just to send the derby into sudden death. He did just that.
Pineda and Pearson returned to the plate for the sudden-death session, with each coming up empty on his first swing. In the third round Pineda fell short by what looked like a foot – a high drive to left-center banged off the top of the wall, despite the pleas and encouragement from the Miners’ dugout.
Pearson, with his one swing in the third round, came through, sending a high drive to left field that left the yard and sparked a celebration with his teammates.
With no chance I’ll make it to Citi Field or First Energy Park this season, with no fans there to cheer the home team or boo the visitors in the Major or affiliated minor leagues, I’ll take any baseball I can get. And this game didn’t let me down.