Skylands Park made for fans

July 25, 1999

Skylands Park is New Jersey’s Field of Dreams.

Take the barn-style architecture, add the rolling hills and countryside, and throw in 32 eager, aspiring ballplayers wearing those classic – and classy – Cardinal uniforms, and people will come, Ray.

I went to a town called Augusta Monday, just a little early, and spent some time walking the trails of Stokes State Forest, just seven miles form the ballpark off Route 206 north. I passed the Appalachian Trail getting there, too. You might want to make a day of it, in part because it is a one-hour, 45-minute drive up that way from the Little Silver/Red Bank area.

You’ll know you are getting closer to Skylands park when Route 15 goes from four lanes down to two and you start seeing the neatly rolled hay bales dotting the fields around you. Then you’ll get to the intersection with Route 206 and a gas station on the corner. Make a right there, and you’ll see Skylands Park on your left – across the cornfield. It’s a big complex, with a batting cage, karate school and a small sporting goods store that serves as the New Jersey Cardinals gift shop.

I flew solo on this trip and bought an $8 box seat at about 5:30 for a 7:15 game. I sat in the first row, just five seats from the third-base dugout, and have never felt so close to a baseball game in which I was not playing. The on-deck hitters for the Hudson Valley Renegades, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ New York-Penn League affiliate, were so close I could have offered them some last-minute tips before they walked to the batter’s box. I could see the wrinkles in their jerseys. When Andy Diaz, the former Florida State star I recognized from last month’s College World Series, came out and warmed up for each at bat, the breeze picked up. He whipped his Louisville Slugger around so fast with one hand loosening up, I just hoped he did not lose his grip.

Skylands Park and New Jersey Cardinals games are for real baseball fans. You have to be willing to drive nearly two hours to watch two teams with maybe two or three recognizable names between them. There were not nearly as many contests and giveaways between innings – no advertising the giant Cardinal mascot, and only a few appearances by the roving microphone guy in the stands. The T-shirt slingshot came out a couple of times, and it was autograph bat night, so about 50 fans selected by their seat numbers won wooden bats which they could have autographed after the game. There was no karaoke on top of the dugout, which was music to my ears. Other than the fried dough and fresh-cut French fries, the menu selection is small and basic. It was more laid back and I loved it.

The first two innings were scoreless. The Cardinals’ B.R. Cook allowed leadoff doubles in each inning, but exciting plays by shortstop Damon Thames and centerfielder Tim Lemon – who threw Diaz out at home – kept the Renegades off the scoreboard. Hudson Valley starter Cody Getz – a lanky 6-foot-8 lefty – imitated David Cone for five batters, striking out four of them, but then got drilled on the right arm by a Lemon line drive. Getz went five innings, striking out seven, but allowed four runs on six hits in New Jersey’s 7-2 win.

Skylands came alive in the third when the Cards took a 2-0 lead on three consecutive hits, including two towering doubles. It seemed louder than any of the minor league crowds I’d heard so far this summer, but that may have been because I sat so close to the action. Fly balls do not seem to carry at Skylands, and I do not know if it was the weather, the pitchers, the hitters or the park. As a result, the two teams combined for five doubles, a triple, and a lot of long flyball outs to the warning track. But doubles and triples keep the crowd cheering longer anyway.

Without anyone to help with the food testing, I could only muster an appetite for the nachos grande and a huge Pepsi in a $2.75 Cardinals souvenir cup. The nachos ($4.25) came with plenty of cheese and salsa, and the jalapenos added the spice. Pretzels are $2.25, peanuts and popcorn $3.25. Bottled water is $2.50 and beers (Coors, Coors Light, Sam Adams among the choices) cost $3.25 for 16 ounces and $3.75 for 20.

After the game, the Cardinals players were given autograph pens and the fans who had won bats were allowed onto the field to get signatures from any of the players. I imagine the autograph book giveaway on Aug. 16 will be handled in a similar manner.

I enjoyed the scene for a little while, then made my way to the parking lot. It took only five minutes to exit the lot, then about three more to get back to Route 15. The field lights illuminated Skylands Park, which stood out in the night of that Sussex County cornfield. I turned onto Route 15 and the traffic disappeared, and I was swallowed by the country darkness.

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