By Jim Hague
The Newark Bears will begin their 2011 season Thursday morning at 11.
It will mark the beginning of a new era for the franchise, as the Bears move from the old Atlantic League to the Can-Am Professional Baseball League, an independent league that features new rules, a shorter schedule and a neighboring rival in the New Jersey Jackals.
The Bears, who played in the independent Atlantic League since their inception in 1999, will feature some familiar faces.
Tim Raines, the seven-time National League All-Star and former New York Yankee standout who just missed gaining induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame last fall, returns for his third season as the Bears’ manager.
Ron Karkovice, the former White Sox slugging catcher, also returns for his third season as the team’s hitting and bench coach. Mike Torrez, the former Met and Yankee pitcher who was the Bears’ pitching coach for the 2009 season, returns as the general manager this year.
The coaching staff welcomes the addition of former Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz, who will be the team’s pitching coach this season.
The Bears will also don new uniforms this season and the coaching staff unveiled the uniforms at the team’s Media Day festivities last week.
The Bears will wear red, white and blue home uniforms this season.
“We wanted to do something to honor the U.S. troops this season, so we’re wearing red, white and blue at home,” Bears partner and CEO Tom Cetnar said in addressing the media on hand. “When the wars overseas are over, we’ll go back to wearing the home pinstripes. For now, we’ll wear the new ones.”
The new uniforms feature the broad navy blue “N” over the heart and the numerals in red.
Raines said that he was eager to begin his third season managing in Newark.
“I’m happy to be back,” Raines said. “Even though we’re in a new league (the Can-Am League), I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to try to teach these younger guys how to play professional baseball. It’s going to be different than what we had in the past, but I think it’s going to be a lot more fun, working with the younger guys.”
The Can-Am League requires teams to hold several spots on the roster for players who are complete rookies to professional baseball. It is done to prove that the Can-Am League is a developmental league first, giving younger kids a chance to get their first taste of professional baseball.
“These guys are looking for the chance to go to affiliated baseball and we’re going to give them that chance,” Raines said. “We probably have the most experienced coaching staff in the league. I’m looking forward to the challenge of working with these kids. I can promise that they’re going to hustle and play hard and give everything they have.”
Torrez is the former All-Star pitcher who had stints with the 1977 World Series champion Yankees and is known in these parts as the Boston Red Sox pitcher who gave up the famous home run to Bucky Dent as the Yankees won the 1978 American League East title in the one-game playoff.
Torrez likes taking the role of an administrator for the first time.
“I’m glad to be back and I was looking forward to being back,” Torrez said. “I know a little bit more now of the business side. We are going to have a great young team and the coaches we have are very experienced. We have a bunch of young guys who are eager to learn. I think the fans are going to see a great brand of baseball and we’ll give a lot of entertainment to the community.”
Torrez said that he’s already been busy as a talent evaluator, trying to bring the most talented players to the Bears.
“About 800 or so players were released by major league organizations last year,” Torrez said. “That shows you how many guys are out there looking for a job. It’s not easy. But I think it’s going to be a good process.”
Leyritz, who played for the Bears in 2001 for a brief stint (26 games), likes serving as the team’s pitching coach.
“I think it’s pretty special to be back in a position to help rebuild Newark and keep it growing in a positive manner,” Leyritz said. “We’re getting the opportunity to coach a group of guys like this who were maybe overlooked. I was never drafted, but I played 11 years in the Major Leagues. If I can help any of these kids reach their dream, then that’s why we’re all here. Not many minor league clubs have the kind of coaching staff like we have. These kids are getting the opportunity to learn a lot more than other minor leaguers.”
Leyritz likes being on the field once again.
“We want to make it fun for the people to come to the games, but we also want to give the people a good team to cheer for. Not many minor league clubs have this kind of a coaching staff. I think we should capitalize on that.”
Karkovice has given a full commitment to the team. He’s now moved to New Jersey full-time from Florida.
“I want to be part of the organization full-time,” said Karkovice, who was born in Union, N.J., but moved to Florida as a child. “It’s going to be a fun year working with the kids.”
“It’s really like a family,” Cetnar said.
The Bears will feature a roster that has as many as seven New Jersey natives, including Burt Reynolds. No, not the famed actor from “The Longest Yard,” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” But the Burt Reynolds who played high school baseball at Bloomfield Tech and becomes the first-ever Newark native to play for the Bears. Reynolds hit a monstrous homer in a spring training game last week.
The Bears will face the Rockland Boulders for games on Thursday and Friday at 11:05 a.m., then games Saturday at 6:35 p.m. (Fireworks Night) and Sunday at 1:05 p.m. It should be a very interesting season in a new league for the Newark Bears.