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Justin Klugh

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The Game Across the River

As it nears its destruction, players, coaches, and a GM reflect on Campbell’s Field: a minor league park with a major league view.

“Right now, I have the best view in baseball,” says Adam Lorber from his office in Staten Island. Beyond the stands of Richmond County Bank Ballpark, home of the Staten Island Yankees, both One World Trade Center and Wall Street are visible on the New York skyline, and to the right, the Statue of Liberty. “But if you were to ask me three years ago,” the team’s VP of Business Development amends, “I'd say Campbell's Field is the most beautiful place in baseball.”

The aesthetics of Campbell’s Field, former home of the now defunct minor league Camden Riversharks, have rarely gone unappreciated. In 2004, not long after Lorber took over as the Riversharks’ president and general manager, it was called the “Ballpark of the Year” by Baseball America.

Lorber agreed. “Whatever the perception of Camden was from the outside looking in, I think we broke a lot of those stereotypes.”

But all of the history gathered and all of the praise heaped upon the riverfront stadium since its construction was completed in 2001 can’t protect it from its imminent destruction. This past Halloween, it was announced that Campbell’s Field will be demolished to make room for sports facilities serving nearby Rutgers University-Camden.

To many, a pile of rubble on the Delaware River shoreline won’t be a scene worth marveling at. But under that wreckage will be the memories of Campbell’s Field, a facility Lorber intended to be of service to the Camden and Philadelphia communities in whatever capacity was required. But there's more than Lorber’s intentions that went into the ballpark, of course: There are backroom politics, stewing rivalries, stalled negotiations, unanswered queries, and lagging ticket sales, all of which contributed to Campbell’s Field’s looming end—and all of which makes Campbell’s, as a topic, less nostalgic than it should be. Particularly for Lorber.

“I’ll be honest,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to you.”

In the minors, presidents and GMs don’t answer questions about player development or acquisitions of talent. Their job is to keep the turnstiles moving, and to do that, they have to stay creative, stay cheap, and keep setting off fireworks.

“Not cheap,” Lorber says. “Never use that word. It’s ‘less expensive.’ It's grassroots. If you gave me six thousand dollars, I wouldn't buy an ad in the Courier-Post or TV or radio. I'd buy another freaking mascot.”

No matter how you define it, keeping an unaffiliated, independent minor league baseball team afloat in a major league market is an unending challenge. What do you get your audience to connect to? Players are trying to play their way onto the next level; marketing around them is fleeting at best. In Camden, you’ll never be the number one game in town with the Phillies right across the Delaware River.

Instead, the mainstay becomes the venue in which the baseball takes place. In Camden, Lorber had a great one in Campbell’s Field. Nightly vignettes played out as PATCO trains rumbled into Jersey and joggers sweated across state lines on the foot path of the Ben Franklin Bridge along the stadium’s scenery.

“Ballparks age. Buildings age,” Lorber says. “But when a fan would sit in the seats, they'd see the bridge, they'd see the skyline, and they'd see the Delaware. With that as the backdrop, it creates an impression.”

Lorber started with the Riversharks in the sales department, commuting every day for eight months from Mahwah, NJ. After repeated phone calls from the Brooklyn Nets, he was lured away to the NBA. Six months later, the Riversharks called to say they wanted him on board as the GM. It was half the pay and three times the hours. He took it.

"And no one understood why," Lorber says. "What it really was about was being able to make a difference in a community that needed something."

On his first day, the Riversharks’ owner and founder, Steve Shilling, died without Lorber ever getting to meet him. But the passing of Shilling took local ownership away from the Riversharks, something that many have argued harmed the team moving forward. Eventually, the team was run by a committee including other Atlantic League owners, none of which were from the area, and that would at times make it more taxing for Lorber to use Campbell’s Field in the way that he felt was intended: for Camden.

“The ballpark should be the centerpiece of the community,” he explains. “It should help with economic revitalization. We helped with Camden city's Little League. We helped with practices for different schools and teams and colleges that needed a place to play. I think that was our responsibility. That's kind of why the ballpark was built.”

When Lorber thinks about Campbell's Field with bulldozers growling outside the gates, his regrets instinctively flare up. "I wish we made more of a difference," he laments. "I think we made a difference, but we could have made more of a difference.”

***

Only three species of river sharks actually exist on this planet, and they typically do so on continents far from New Jersey. No one would have expected a fourth to surface in Camden in 1999.

It’s not wise to dip a toe in the Delaware River. In 2012, a New Jersey-based environmental group released a report with EPA data indicating 6.7 million pounds of waste had been released into the river in 2010, helping to make it the fifth-most polluted waterway in the nation (New Jersey’s official response was to call the report “bogus”). In the 1940s and ‘50s, the stretch of the Delaware that separates Philadelphia from Camden was described as “oxygen-dead,” preventing the migration of fish. Though some species have rebounded in time, it was curious why, when Camden broke ground for Campbell’s Field almost 20 years ago, they named their team the Riversharks, after exactly the sort of aquatic wildlife that couldn’t thrive in its water.

It’s a good thing there aren’t any sharks in the Delaware, because thanks to the rampant toxicity, they would be experiencing the loss their home. Unfortunately enough, their land-dwelling, bat-swinging counterparts are undergoing a similar loss of habitat.

Somewhere, there exists a set of yellowed, archived plans indicating one of Philadelphia sports’ boldest ideas: a sports stadium, not surrounded by parking lots. When the Phillies finally cleared out the prison cells, boxed up the free weights and syringes, and moved out of Veterans Stadium, they needed a new home. Talk ensued over the location, with the idea of a downtown stadium in the heart of the city charming a subset of locals, despite the flaws in the plan. Bill Giles and David Montgomery had become infected with the idea after visiting Camden Yards when it opened in 1992 and reset the standard for baseball stadium construction. One of the locations considered for the new Phillies venue was 31st and Walnut, offering a front seat view of the skyline alongside the banks of the Schuylkill River.

But “congestion and parking” issues scared off developers, and today we watch our Phillies games in Citizens Bank Park, with a series of miniature skyscrapers in the distance that people claim is Center City. At least fans got their ample parking and congestion-free traffic as games let out.

Campbell’s Field provided Philadelphia’s riverfront baseball, with a view of the city the Phillies only ever got in blueprints. It may have housed an unaffiliated Atlantic League team, but the Riversharks’ stadium was an ecosystem for every form of baseball in the area. And like any ecosystem, it was home to more than just its apex predator: Hawks, Owls, and Scarlet Raptors migrated in and out of the environment throughout the facility’s 18-year existence, as teams from Temple, St. Joseph’s, and Rutgers-Camden came through, as well as a pair of Atlantic League All-Star Games in 2004 and 2012.

Wilson Valdez played here with the Riversharks after his Phillies career, as did Pedro Feliz. Little league tournaments, softball tournaments, and the qualifying rounds of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup all took place there. Bob Dylan performed in 2005 for 7,000 fans howling his lyrics back at him, and Roger Clemens came through in 2012 as a member of the visiting Sugar Land Skeeters, but it was the ball players without major league experience behind or in front of them to whom Campbell’s Field became most unforgettable.

Growing up on Delaware County infields let Fritz Hamburg take in Campbell’s Field with the sort of awe that’s easy to lose in adulthood.

“I can speak to having grown up in Doylestown, having played at Memorial Stadium in Quakertown or up at Limeport Stadium, and even having played in the American Legion All-Star Game at Roslyn Park... just the fact that they had lights—they had awful lights, but it didn't matter. You were playing a night game,” he recalls.

Hamburg, the head coach of St. Joseph’s baseball program, got Adam Lorber’s help to play at Campbell’s Field until the completion of St. Joe’s eventual home park at John W. Smithson Field in 2012, giving both him and his players a glimpse of the next level. “At Campbell's Field, you're playing in a stadium, and it absolutely has to give everyone a feeling of ‘okay, this is kind of big time.’ Playing there gave us a different feeling about who everybody thought they were.”

Not every college player is going to hear the commissioner call their name on Draft Day. Not every college coach becomes a part of the search as big league staffs refresh year to year. For those who never got to play under brighter lights than the ones at Campbell’s Field, it burned itself into the section of their brains reserved for baseball.

“I think there are certain intricacies of each ball park that you remember,” Hamburg says. “I'll always remember the lights on the bridge during a night game. To be in the first base dugout and see the city skyline across the river, it was a spectacular view. Where the field was situated was really, really cool.”

It’s easy to feel involved in a minor league stadium. Playing at Campbell’s Field, you were never just part of the team. You were part of Lorber’s staff; his entertainment; his ticket sales department; his grounds crew.

As one particularly apocalyptic storm front swirled into view behind the Ben Franklin, Hamburg and his team were enlisted to roll out the tarp. When they were pinned down by the weight of the downpour between the pitchers’ mound and the first base foul line, the Richmond team in the opposing dugout came out to help as the game was called.

And practice was never over just because the lights were shutting off. “They had a rugby national championship there,” Hamburg says, “and we spent one practice picking out the rocks from the sod in the infield to help them out.”

Leaving the place in good shape for the next crowd was a typical Campbell’s experience. Lorber was always ready to help a local or visiting team and be the community center he’s always viewed a baseball stadium to be, but when you got yours, you gave a little back.

As the 2014 season began, a coach reached out to him with a request, and Lorber was, as was typical, happy to acquiesce. But this team in particular was ready to play their hearts out at Campbell’s, because their hearts were just about all that they had left.

***

When it was announced in 2014 that Temple University baseball would play its conference games in Campbell’s Field, Ryan Wheeler believed things were going to turn around for the program.

“I remember hearing about the field, but I had never been to it,” Wheeler recalls. “I finally made my way over there and just remember walking into the stadium and seeing the bridge in the background and looking out and saying, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ That section of Camden is not necessarily the greatest, although it’s being revived, but at the time it was a little rough. You walked in and here was this sort of oasis.”

Temple had been playing at Skip Wilson Field, near the school’s Ambler campus; 12 miles away and an hour and a half drive with traffic. Wheeler was trying to save his players from 90 minutes on a bus every other day, and Campbell’s Field—a 15 minute drive to a stadium that offered bigger locker rooms and walk-up music—seemed the ideal alternative.

Lorber and Wheeler shook hands and Temple’s baseball program had not only a new home for the upcoming season, but a new conference: They would be the fledgling entries that year into the American Athletic Conference. Both components had Wheeler hopeful that the program had solidified its future.

“To play in a first-class stadium, against the caliber of competition in the AAC will be great for our fans, as well as college baseball in the area,” Wheeler said in a press release. “This is a tremendous opportunity for Temple Baseball, not only for our current players, but our future players.”

But the future of Temple baseball—and that of Temple rowing, softball, indoor and outdoor track and field, crew, and gymnastics, as well—was being decided behind closed doors somewhere else. Word came down on December 6 that the school would be making a deep cut of its athletic programs, and Wheeler’s team would not be spared.

There is no clock in baseball, but as 2014 opened, the Owls were playing on borrowed time.

“We still had a whole season in front of us,” Wheeler says. “Here we are being thrown into [the AAC], our program’s been cut, we’ve got 25 guys on the roster, nobody expected us to compete for anything. If this was going to be our last season, then to be able to play in a venue like that—that did make it more special.”

“We were always the underdog,” says Rob Amaro, Temple’s first baseman that year and the nephew of former Phillies GM, Ruben Amaro. “You just have to adopt that mindset that you’re going to go out and... try to shock the world.”

But it’s tough to shock the world when the ball won’t leave the stadium, and your roster is thinning due to panicked player transfers.

“I don’t know if it was the distance, or the ball just didn’t carry, the layout of the stadium…” Amaro recalls. “I don’t know what it was about the venue itself but it felt like it was a challenge just to get the ball to the fence, even in batting practice. It was pretty difficult to hit it out to left field…that’s the biggest thing in my mind that sticks, being a huge venue, or at least feeling that way when the ball was hit in the air.”

Temple pitcher Matt Hockenberry can attest to the pitchers’ park aspect; he didn’t allow a single home run while he pitched there and recalling each extra base hit individually isn’t a challenge. “That center field wall is far, and that bridge makes it look even farther,” he says. “It was easier to pitch in Campbell’s, even though the atmosphere itself put a little bit of pressure on you. It let you get away from all the stat stuff and say, ‘Go ahead, hit it as far as you want, because the ball’s not going out of the park.’”

The Temple roster had naturally suffered from subtraction as players who were there on baseball scholarships made the painful decision that they were better off in a program that hadn’t entered a death spiral. There were no high expectations, no national rankings, and no plans for the future when the Owls got on the bus. There was just a game to be played, and, thanks to their coach and a few others, a premiere stadium to play it in.

“It’s a challenge for any college program to fill that stadium,” Amaro laments, “but once we had those good match-ups, we had as many friends and family as possible come out to watch the games. It was a lot better environment to view our games, and to have a good crowd behind us as well was pretty special, especially for the younger guys who had never been on that level before.”

Facing nationally ranked squads from Louisville and Houston in a pair of home series—Louisville, Amaro recalls, intimidated with two future first round picks: a starting pitcher and a closer throwing triple digits—Wheeler watched as his wounded Owls, now down a couple guys thanks to the inevitable sprains and fractures of a long season, fought tooth and nail for no reason other than that they hadn’t turned the lights off yet, and in each case stole a game from their heavily favored opponents.

“Those two games that we won against [Louisville and Houston] were so memorable, because it was down the stretch,” Wheeler says. “We’re banged up, down to 22 healthy players, and we’re facing top 15 programs in the country. The kids, their resiliency… I think playing in that stadium took them to another level.”

“I totally forgot about Houston,” admits Amaro. “I think we actually had a walk-off base hit in that game. For us to be able to compete and be within a few plays of winning the series was really incredible for us, obviously playing above our level.”

It all culminated in Hockenberry’s final start at Campbell’s, against Louisville, a team ranked No. 10 in the nation.

“I was actually supposed to be walking at graduation,” Hockenberry says, “but I decided to go pitch instead.”

He threw seven strong innings and Temple won the game in their last at-bat, punching their ticket for the AAC tournament and giving them an elbow to stick in the ribs of the administrators who’d torn their team out of the books. “Temple… said there was no chance we were going to make that tournament, and that was one of the reasons they were cutting the program,” says Hockenberry.

There were a few big league reps dispatched to the game that day. Hockenberry theorizes that they weren’t there to see him throw seven frames or Rob Amaro crack a first-pitch 104 m.p.h. heater for a walk-off win; they were there to see 10th-ranked Louisville in a minor league stadium. But Hockenberry gave them a show anyway, and one of those in attendance liked what he saw.

“After the game, Skip Wilson, a Temple University baseball hall of famer, introduced me to Ed Wade,” Hockenberry says. “Wade gave my name to the Phillies scouting department after watching me pitch and got me a pre-draft workout with the Phillies, who then drafted me in the 9th round two weeks later.”

When you set up a venue as central as Campbell’s Field, you’re cultivating a wealth of memories and connections to develop in the way that baseball seems to invite, wherever and by whomever it’s played. For the high profiles, it was a stop on the way to somewhere else, but for others, it was the most prominent setting in which they’d ever play.

Wheeler can recall it all too easily. “There’s probably not a week that goes by where I’m not talking about it, or one of the kids reaches out to me.”

“It’ll be tough to think back and say, ‘Hey, this place doesn’t exist anymore,’” Amaro reflects. “It’s the same thing that happened to Temple baseball; you can shut down the stadium, shut down the program, it is what it is. But I’ll always think back on that last season of my career, as well as Temple’s career, at Campbell’s.”

***

Before the announced destruction of their environment, the Riversharks themselves had died out, folding in 2015 (The debt their stadium accrued is without a home as well). Temple Owls baseball is also extinct, and Ryan Wheeler was absorbed into St. Joseph’s program alongside Fritz Hamburg, who remains the head coach. Matt Hockenberry now serves as a pitching instructor to Phillies minor leaguers and Rob Amaro works for a Bay Area recruiting software company.

On his last day on the job, Adam Lorber's staff surprised him. He got to throw out the first pitch of the Riversharks game with over 60 former staff members in attendance. His parents were there. Some sponsors helped throw him a party.

Wheeler and Hamburg speak highly of Lorber’s involvement with finding their teams a home, knowing things would have been very different for a lot of young players if not for his belief that a stadium should serve its community until the day they knock it down.

“They opened their doors to us and it never felt like it was a restrictive relationship,” Hamburg says. “It was more like, ‘Let's see what we can do to make it work.’”

It was the minor league park with the major league view. Not just a superior portrayal of the Philadelphia skyline than Citizens Bank Park, but a glimpse into a city housing the ultimate goal for the hungriest players.

“Some of the guys that are in the big leagues right now with the Phillies I played with in the minors—Ben Lively, Drew Anderson, Rhys Hoskins,” Hockenberry says. After his release, Hockenberry, the local boy, went out to grab drinks with some of his former co-workers at Morgan’s Pier on Columbus Avenue. The bar’s chief draw, along with $4 Yuenglings, is its view across the river, where Campbell’s Field glows under the night sky. The image caught Hockenberry’s eye, and it all came back to him—going seven strong innings on graduation day, the Owls dog piling after taking down a ranked squad, the new direction his life took after passing through its walls.

“I told those guys to just turn around and look under the bridge,” Hockenberry says. “They were like, ‘Oh, what’s that stadium over there?’ I said, ‘That was my home field when I was at Temple and that was one of the reasons I got drafted.’ Now it’s not going to be there anymore. I was lucky to be one of the people to have that stadium impact me, compared to some people, who will never even know it existed.”

There will be a definitive beginning and conclusion to the Campbell’s Field chapter of Camden’s—and Philadelphia’s—baseball legacy. And on the planned sports facilities that sprout on its grave site and serve Rutgers-Camden, others can begin, following a $15 million demolition project with an as yet undetermined timeline, unanimously agreed upon this past Thursday.

It’s all a part of the endless churn of the urban landscape; steel and concrete rising and falling and the generations of beating hearts whose journeys go through them. Cement is laid that becomes the foundation for far more than a structure. Plenty of summer crowds, family and friends, and Bob Dylan fanatics came out to Campbell’s during its existence, but plenty more will never catch that view of the Ben Franklin from the bleachers or watch the sun go down over the splendor and filth of the Delaware. And for them, Adam Lorber has a final send-off.

"I would tell them that they really missed out,” he says. “The thing about baseball that's unlike other sports is that everyone has a baseball memory. I think that's key in minor league baseball."

He pauses a moment to switch hats. "And then,” he says, “I'd tell them to come up to Staten Island!”

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