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!
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 As 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 a boost...."
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 naivet� 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 it's unlikely."
Canseco's r�sum� 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."