By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
It was a bright, sunny Saturday in April, the kind of day where baseball should have been played at a majestic and magnificent ballpark such as Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium in Newark.
After all, it was the kind of Saturday in April where baseball was played at the ballpark every year since 1999, when the Newark Bears rose from the ashes of an era long gone and brought professional baseball back to the Brick City for the first time in almost 50 full years.
Sure, Rutgers-Newark and NJIT have also called Riverfront Stadium home since the $34 million facility was opened 15 years ago. The Greater Newark Tournament, one of the oldest high school tournaments in New Jersey, has played its championship game there as well, not to mention the championship of the Newark Public Schools tourney.
Predominantly, the Newark Bears called the stadium home since its grand opening, playing more than 1,000 games there over the years. The Bears, first in the Atlantic League, then later in the Can-Am League, brought excitement to local baseball fans in the form of some former major league greats like Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson as a player and sure-fire Hall of Famer Tim Raines as a manager.
It was a great concept with a great facility in a great location.
So why did it come to this silly ending last Saturday, with the current owners of the moribund Bears franchise hosting this ill-organized and poorly run auction of practically everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor?
That’s what took place Saturday at the oncemajestic stadium. The last owners of the Bears, already declaring bankruptcy and pulling the plug on the operations, tried holding an auction of everything that was left, including kitchen equipment, landscaping equipment, the team bus and yes, even the team’s name.
But much like everything that current owners Dr. Doug Spiel and his former fiancée Danielle Dronet did after they took charge of the Bears’ franchise in 2012, this auction was bungled and poorly handled.
Just how bad? Well, without telling anyone beforehand, the organizers of the auction tried to pry $100 per interested bidder, regardless of what the interested person wanted to bid on.
That’s right. If you wanted to bid on a piece of memorabilia, like a photograph or an old jersey, you had to fork over $100 to the auctioneers.
It was not advertised prior to the event that there was such a fee to bid on the items.
It certainly was enough for many of the interested people to turn around and walk away. Many people who attended were fans who were hoping to hold on to the final few pieces of a time gone by. Others were people looking for bargains, on equipment like balls, bats and helmets.
Just the idea that the current owners would try to pull a fast one like that on their last fans standing is appalling enough.
But three hours into the proceedings, Spiel decided to pull the plug on the entire auction, when he wasn’t getting close to the prices listed in the auction.
On the biggest item, namely the team bus, Spiel was hoping to get $350,000, but the highest bidder came in around $100,000, so Spiel pulled it back.
When the auction came to an abrupt end at approximately 1 p.m., none of the kitchen equipment, like stoves, sinks and ovens, was on the auctioning block. That angered many in the restaurant business who paid the $100 auction fee, but never got a chance to bid on the items they wanted.
So recapping, there was an auction fee for Joe Average Fan who was hoping to bid on a jersey once worn by Armando Benitez or Edgardo Alfonso. There was an auction fee for the business person looking for a bargain on restaurant and landscaping equipment, but who never got a chance to make a bid, because the owners stopped the auction.
“It’s their prerogative,” the auctioneer told the people who were turned away. “It happens a lot in auctions, when the seller isn’t getting the price they asked for. So they just pull everything back.”
Will there be another auction? If there is, who will go? It was astounding how much media attention this auction received. The CBS Evening News-Weekend Edition, the national broadcast, had a portion of its broadcast focusing on the auction.
There were also articles in the New York Times, focusing on the owners and what they did in an attempt to save the team.
However, sad to say, those articles were pure fiction, because Spiel and Dronet both wanted to blame the city of Newark, blame the government bodies in Essex County, blame the location itself for the demise of the franchise.
The reports also said that Spiel and Dronet tried hard, did everything they could to make baseball work in Newark, and couldn’t do it. That idea is pure fiction, more than the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland combined.
I happened to work for the Bears on several occasions for many different owners from 2002 through 2012. I was the official scorer and public address announcer. I handled press releases and news conferences.
No one did worse for the Bears than the ill-fated tandem of Spiel and Dronet. They were in way over their heads when they got involved and had no idea how to run a professional baseball franchise whatsoever when they had to take over on their own.
Here’s proof: They wanted to hold a Pop Warner football night, with youngsters getting into the ballpark on a discounted price if they wore their football uniforms to the game. There’s only one problem with that. Football season is in September, not July. It would have been better to focus their attention to area Little Leagues, which prior owners did.
They were holding a beer pong tournament on the same night where Mothers Against Drunk Drivers were being honored. You can’t make that stuff up.
They wanted to film a reality television show involving the Bears players, trying to force them to sign release forms for the show as part of their baseball contracts.
Dronet announced ticket sales for a proposed Justin Bieber concert in October, in a 6,200-seat building, when Bieber was already headed to the 20,000 seat Prudential Center two months later. Dronet then blamed the Bieber snafu as a “lack of communication.” No, it was more that the Bieber concert was never real.
Did baseball fail in Newark? In the end, it failed because of the owners and the organization.
But it did work in Newark at one point. I worked for the Bears in 2010, when Frank Boulton owned the team and Charlie Dowd was the general manager. Spending was sliced to the bare minimum, but the team made money that year because the ownership and administration knew what they were doing.
Not so with the chiropractor and his ex-girlfriend, a former New Orleans stripper.
So it’s with deep sadness that I report that there will be no baseball in Newark this summer, that Riverfront Stadium will be vacant for the entire summer. Of course, with vacancy comes decay and with decay comes urban blight like graffiti and vagrancy.
And the once-proud $34 million ballpark will become an eyesore.
That’s the saddest part about what took place Saturday – or at least tried to take place. The bumbling Bears ownership took away a summer of enjoyment and entertainment and tried to auction it all off for a few sheckles. Shame on them.