Minor-league baseball: New Jersey players swing for the bigs

One-time major-league stars now playing in minor-league baseball look for a shot at redemption with New Jersey's Newark Bears.

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    Minor League baseball players who once played in the majors swing for redemption in tucked-away ballparks such as Riverfront Stadium in Newark, N.J., home of the Newark Bears – hoping to be called.
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    Scott Williamson, pitcher for the Newark Bears.
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Tike Redman, the former outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles, is standing at the ready in shallow center field at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium in Newark, N.J. It's not yet noon, it's only the second inning, and the mid-August sun is beating down on him like a fire hose, soaking his navy blue cap and pinstriped uniform in sweat.

The Passaic River flows just beyond the outfield wall, past the netting that was erected eight years ago to protect the traffic on McCarter Highway from the moonshots José Canseco used to hit here. The river offers no cooling breeze. Ravaged by more than two centuries of industry, the brown waterway rushes by, as oblivious to the 32-year-old's major league dreams as it is to the dolorous landscape downriver.

Ramiro Mendoza, the long reliever from the New York Yankees' late-1990s championship teams, is on the mound, pitching with the same cool, unflappable demeanor that was last seen by a national audience when he was with the Red Sox during the 2004 American League Championship Series.

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An independent minor league game against the Camden River Sharks is a long way from that magical 2004 postseason. But that's not to say it's an insignificant contest. Just like the city they're playing for, the former major-leaguers on the Bears roster are fighting – play by play, pitch by pitch – for a return to past glory.

The chances of getting back are slim. Like your better financiers across the Hudson on Wall Street, the big league general managers prefer their assets with more upside. But there are major league scouts in the stands at Bears games, even this late in the season, waiting for a glimpse of overlooked brilliance that tells them to take a gamble on a quick return on their investment.

With two outs, a runner on second, and a 3-1 count, Mendoza delivers a slider that hangs in the middle of the plate. Recognizing the mistake, the batter uncoils. Smack! The ball turns into a pea as it makes its way in the direction of the Passaic. But Redman is already in pursuit, having turned his back to the ball at the crack of the bat.

Follow the ball's flight and you can't miss the big-time backdrop in the distance. Roughly eight miles in front of Redman, the financial district of Manhattan looms. From this vantage point, the silhouettes of its skyscrapers appear as anonymous gray blocks on the horizon. But their promise is clear. If Redman runs hard enough, those blocks may come into sharper focus. For now he has to stop at the base of Riverfront Stadium's outfield wall, where, after an about-face, he looks up and snatches the ball right out of the sky.

Three outs, inning over, and Mendoza's two-run lead is safe for now.

A call to the dugout

Meanwhile, Mark Skeels, then-general manager of the Newark Bears, is awaiting Redman in the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse, clutching a cellphone and a piece of paper with a phone number scrawled on it.

Moments earlier Skeels had been on the phone with Joe Klein, the commissioner of the Atlantic League, for which the Bears play. The Milwaukee Brewers organization wants Redman to join their Triple-A squad ASAP, with a chance to be a September call-up with the major league team. When a major league organization says ASAP, that means Redman will need to call the Brewers to hash out the details between innings. During the game he will then run through a mental checklist of what he needs to do – basically, throw his clothes, bats, and gloves in a suitcase before hopping the next plane for redemption.

Skeels had passed the news on to Tim "Rock" Raines, the manager of the Bears who's better known for being one of the greatest base stealers in major league history. Now, as Redman trots in from center field, Raines hangs his beefy arms over the dugout fence and stares down his leadoff hitter with a devilish smile.

"Yo, Tike," he calls out. "Milwaukee wants you, man."

Redman wipes the sweat from his brow and rolls his eyes dismissively as he skips down the dugout steps, grateful for the half inning's respite from the blazing sun.

Raines is known for teasing his players – "especially … the guys who've been there before," Raines later admits – but Redman's not in the mood today. Quarter to noon is early in the day for a professional baseball player, and 95-degree weather will knock the sense of humor right out of you. And besides, Aug. 19 is late in the season for the bigs to come calling.

"I'm serious, Tike," says Raines. "Skeels is in the tunnel right now with a phone number. Milwaukee wants you to call immediately and give 'em an answer."

Redman looks up and, realizing the news is no joke, is overcome with a sense of relief. This is why he's been toiling in Newark all summer for a meager $2,000 a month, minus clubhouse dues (the fact that he has to pay them is a humiliation in and of itself). This is what he's been waiting for.

"It's just being in the big league stadium, seeing the fans, and that sense of achievement," Redman confides after the game (a 10-8 victory over the River Sharks), when asked what excites him most about the prospect of being back in a major league uniform. Redman is standing outside the showers of the Bears clubhouse now, wearing a pair of sandals and black Under Armour shorts, anxious about making his plane. "And then, you get in the batter's box and just lock in...."

Redman's eyes widen as he mimes his batting stance, looking toward an imaginary mound that features a Tim Lincecum or a Roy Halladay, or some other such major league challenge.

"I didn't know if I'd make it back," he admits. "I know I can play, I wanna do this till I'm 40. I won't know what to do after that, and was certainly not ready to figure that out, but for now, I can put off thinking about life after baseball."

A parting of friends

As if on cue, Carl Everett, the former big-leaguer and present designated hitter for the Bears, walks by my interview with Redman.

"You gonna miss him?" I ask Tike, nodding in the direction of Everett.

"Of course he gonna miss me," Everett yells over his shoulder. "That's a dumb question!"

An imposing presence by reputation alone, Everett is the archetype of the cocky superstar athlete, known as much for his controversial behavior off the field as for his production on it. But aside from his opening salvo, Everett seems to have mellowed since his time with the Red Sox in 2000 and 2001, when "MVP" chants were replaced with catcalls of "Jurassic Carl," after the slugger declared to a reporter that dinosaurs never existed.

"Carl, you gonna miss Tike?"

"Hell no!" answers Everett. "Only thing I'll miss about him is [messing] with him."

A big smile spreads across Everett's face, with gleaming white teeth clenched around what appears to be a very expensive cigar. The stogie, along with his paunch and postgame attire of jeans and a T-shirt, make Everett look more like a rap mogul than a professional athlete.

"That's it," replies Redman. "He ain't gonna have nobody to mess with no more."

The two exchange playful punches to the kidneys before saying their final goodbyes.

"A-ight, big man!" says Redman.

"A-ight, be easy, bro," says Everett.

"Yes, sir."

"You know one thing that you can't do there that you do here."

"A-ight," says Redman, knowingly.

"Any parting advice, Carl?" I ask.

"I just gave it to him," says Everett, with the weight of 14 major league seasons behind him. "But that's an inside thing. He can't tell you."

And to expect anything approaching clarity from a man known for messing with writers would be foolish.

Life after prime time

Down the hall, outside the clubhouse door, then-team spokesperson and media relations director Jesse Suskin is seated in a plastic folding chair, holding a clipboard that keeps track of who has and who hasn't paid his clubhouse dues. Dues are $7 a day during homestands and, for the most part, pay for laundry and general upkeep of the clubhouse and are collected from each player at the end of every home series.

Suskin cuts a starker contrast against the players than most front-office guys. A whip-smart 26-year-old in a polo shirt and khakis, his appearance is more suited to a Connecticut country club than a minor league ball club in Newark. Collecting clubhouse dues is not part of Suskin's job description, but having recently lost their interns, the front-office staff has lately needed to chip in with such unpleasant tasks.

"They don't want to pay them, and I don't want to collect them," says Suskin, after the first group of players begrudgingly hands over untidy wads of crumpled bills. And though the whining from the players can be a bit much at times, Suskin is sympathetic. After all, it was less than a year ago that he was reporting to work in the Bush White House, where he worked for both the Presidential Advance Team and the Communications Office. Just like the former major league players adjusting to life in the Atlantic League, Suskin is making the best of his own wilderness.

I ask him how he made the adjustment from briefings with the leader of the free world to this.

"The same as the players do," says Suskin, with a smile that's upbeat and hopeful.

For some, however, the transition can be a bit rough. As Suskin tends to his clipboard, ticking off the names of a group of players who just paid their dues, Scott Williamson bursts through the clubhouse doors. Even before he's asked to cough up his share, he looks angry. A Louisiana country boy with close-cropped blond hair, Williamson is even more out of place in Newark than the former Republican operative asking him for his money. As a new member of the team, this is the first time Williamson has had to endure the humiliation.

"How much is it?" he asks in a thick Southern accent.

"Seven dollars a day," says Suskin. "It's a three-game series, so that's $21."

Williamson rifles through a wad of bills while muttering a list of complaints under his breath.

Then, out loud: "Don't even get no food?... [B]rutal."

With that, Williamson slams the cash into Suskin's hand and storms off. As he disappears down the hall, it's easy to understand Williamson's anger. Ten years ago, as a relief pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds, he was named National League Rookie of the Year. Today, in a barnburner that saw eight different pitchers take the mound, he didn't even get to warm up.

"It's a difficult road," says Skeels, of these former MLB players trying to get back to the bigs. "Hoping that there's somebody out there that's watching and been paying attention, that there's somebody out there that'll value what you know you can still bring to the table."

A way back to glory

Skeels played independent ball himself, back in the mid-1990s, before he moved on to law school and a career as a prosecutor in southern California, and eventually to the front office of the Newark Bears.

"Back then," he says, "playing in an independent league was really a fall from grace for the guys who were up in the bigs. But today, guys recognize that it can really be a way back for them. Just like Tike. He's the story that keeps many players coming back to Newark. The idea that, 'I can get noticed again, and I can get back to the big leagues.' It's not an unfounded hope. That's why Scott's here. And though he may not be too happy right now, I think he's got a pretty good shot of getting back to the show."

Where they are now

  • TIKE REDMAN is at Milwaukee Brewers spring training, fighting for a spot on the big league team.
  • CARL EVERETT and RAMIRO MENDOZA are returning to the Newark Bears for the 2010 season.
  • SCOTT WILLIAMSON is weighing his options, and considering retiring from professional baseball.
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