The sign outside Atlantic City's Sandcastle Stadium, home of the
Atlantic City Surf, screams PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL in big black
letters, a desperate proclamation if ever there was one. This
ain't just baseball, folks. This is professional! So what if the
seats are mostly empty and the players are 30-year-old minor
league castoffs earning $2,000 per month? Professional baseball
is professional baseball, dammit!
This is an article from the Aug. 14, 2000 issue
At least that's what Mike Berry keeps telling himself. Berry is a
30-year-old third baseman who, until two weeks ago, was with the
visiting Newark Bears, neither here nor there in a career that
since 1993, has taken him to 12 cities and, in 1997,
tantalizingly close to the major leagues. That was the season he
batted .299 for the Rochester Red Wings, the Orioles' Triple A
franchise, the season he thought his future was bright. "You
don't get too many chances in this game," says Berry. "They come,
then they go."
If anyone knows of skyscrapers and Death Valley, it's Berry. His
older brother, Sean, a 10-year major league veteran now playing
for the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox, flourished for the Houston
Astros in 1996, putting together career highs with 17 home runs
and 95 RBIs. "That," says Mike, "was a great run."
Then, in March, Mike thought he was a lock to stick with the
Dodgers' Triple A Albuquerque Dukes out of spring training. "I'm
like a lot of the other relatives on the team," says Berry, who
batted .290 in 66 games for Newark before signing on July 27 to
play for the Dodgers' Double A San Antonio Missions. "We're guys
in need of a chance."
Four other poor relations play for the Bears, an uninspiring
collection of talent equally blessed and cursed by inspiring
last names. There's rightfielder Bobby Bonds Jr. and DH Ozzie
Canseco, stars by virtue of their Hall of Fame caliber siblings.
There's outfielder Russ Chambliss, son of former New York
Yankees star and current Yankees batting coach Chris Chambliss.
There's pitcher Wilson Heredia, cousin of Oakland A's starter
Gil Heredia and Chicago Cubs reliever Felix Heredia. (Another,
catcher Angelo Encarnacion--cousin of Detroit Tigers outfielder
Juan Encarnacion--was signed on July 25 by Pawtucket.) All have
come to spend a summer in Newark, playing for an obscure
independent Atlantic League team, which while only 10 miles from
the buzz of New York City might as well be a million miles away.
"Most of us are here because we're still chasing the dream,"
says Bonds. "You don't play in this league just because you love
baseball. You're here to reach the major leagues."
Men don't come to Newark and perform before 3,000 fans because
they're wanted elsewhere. Bobby Bonds's brother Barry, through
Sunday, had 479 home runs during his 14-plus major league
seasons. Bobby had 55 in eight-plus hardscrabble minor league
years. Heredia, a member of the Texas Rangers in 1995 and '97, is
bouncing back from a bum elbow. Chambliss was a 54th-round pick
by the Yankees in '97. The most intriguing is Canseco, a
monstrous power hitter who through Sunday led the Atlantic League
with 36 home runs and 96 RBIs in 81 games. "Clearly he has major
league power," says Bears manager Tom O'Malley. "If a team needed
There's silence. No team seems likely to call on Newark's top gun
for a power boost because, quite frankly, Canseco's an
injury-prone 36-year-old without a position. Unlike the others,
who grasp at hope with the desperate naivete of goldfish in a
shark tank, Canseco recognizes reality. "I'd love to be this
great comeback story," says Canseco, who played a total of 24 big
league games with Oakland and St. Louis in the early 1990s. "But
Canseco's resume boasts everything that team owner Rick Cerone, a
Newark native who was a major league catcher for 18 years, tends
to find in his recruits: Up-and-down experience, once-upon-a-time
potential and lotsa letdown. Ozzie, Jose's fraternal twin, was
drafted as a hard-throwing righthanded pitcher by the Yankees in
1983, tore his rotator cuff three years later and lost 10 mph off
his 90-mph-plus fastball. "I don't regret too often," says Ozzie,
"but when Jose and I were in high school, we were right together
in power and speed. Then the coach made me pitch. If that hadn't
happened, who knows? Maybe I'd be there with him.
"Being a brother--it's a curse and a blessing," says Ozzie, who
spent last season in the Mexican League. "On the one hand Jose
has been very generous financially, and I'm proud of what he's
accomplished." Ozzie is sitting on an Atlantic City bench,
freshly removed from the visitors' clubhouse. "But remember a few
years ago, when Jose had the speeding incident? People got mad at
me, asking why I drove so fast. When Jose plays poorly, they
blame me for playing poorly. I say, 'No, I'm his brother, Ozzie.'
But nobody believes me. They just get mad."
Chambliss, quiet and reflective like his father, evokes similar
emotions, though blended with a dab of pity. Why, people
routinely ask, aren't you as good as your father? "Sometimes they
don't even ask," says Russ, 25, who saves money by living with
his parents in West New York, N.J. "They'll just say, 'You're not
as good as your dad.' Thanks. I appreciate that."
Chambliss, an aspiring film writer working on his second
screenplay, acknowledges that life has written a script for him:
He's No Chris Chambliss. He knows the Yankees might not have
drafted him out of Washington University in St. Louis had he been
the son of Chris Chamblisser, construction worker. But why, he
wonders, couldn't New York have afforded him more of an
opportunity? In two seasons with the Class A Oneonta Yankees and
one with the Class A Tampa Yankees, Chambliss got 84 at bats. "I
talked to Russ's father, and he said Russ has some tools," says
Cerone. "He does. He doesn't have the power of Chris Chambliss,
but he runs well and he's a good outfielder."
Unfortunately for Cerone, heredity doesn't always translate into
wins for the Bears, who were 49-42 as of Sunday and losers of
eight straight during a July swoon. Chambliss was batting .258
with two home runs and nine RBIs. Heredia had three wins and a
6.18 ERA. Then there was Bonds, whose .278 average and five home
runs were far below Cerone's expectations. "Bobby has the
talent," says Cerone, "but I wish I saw more fire from him, more
desire. You have to have fire to play here, otherwise what's
There's no answer. This is Newark. If you can't make it here, you
probably can't make it anywhere.
story, but it's unlikely."