Camden's Riversharks: Not the Show, but plenty of show

Camden Rivershark Ryan Kulik hurls a pitch during a practice at Campbell's Field, where charity and community events have made the independent club a success story.
Camden Rivershark Ryan Kulik hurls a pitch during a practice at Campbell's Field, where charity and community events have made the independent club a success story. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 22, 2013

The Camden Riversharks started their 13th season of minor-league baseball in South Jersey on Thursday night with a crushing 6-3 loss on the road to their Atlantic League archrivals, the Lancaster Barnstormers.

Or, as the team fan base that has passed through the turnstiles of Campbell's Field more than three million times since 2001 would probably say, "Eh."

For the Riversharks - who play their 2013 home opener Tuesday night - winning isn't everything, or the only thing.

Yes, winning's a thing - but so are the weekend fireworks shows, the weddings at home plate, the carousel, the rock-climbing wall, the appearances by characters like Dora the Explorer and Buzz Lightyear, and all the charity and community events that have allowed the independent ball club to remain an economically viable venture in the heart of a poverty-stricken city.

"Baseball is the back door," Adam Lorber, the team's president and general manager, readily acknowledges. "People care about these program nights. When you have a 5-year-old, it's hard for a 5-year-old to stay in his seat for nine innings."

Typically, in promoting Tuesday's opening on their website, the Riversharks mentioned a Hurricane Sandy relief drive before they bothered to note the opposing team (the Bridgeport Bluefish).

Indeed, the Riversharks have arguably redefined what it means to be a successful franchise unaffiliated with a major-league team. On the field, the independent team - career minor-leaguers sprinkled with a couple of ex-major leaguers, all dreaming of one last chance at the Show - hasn't had a winning record since 2007.

In the stands, the Camden franchise is also below par; its average attendance in 2012 of 3,462 per game placed it sixth out of eight teams in the fast-growing Atlantic League. That means on many nights, the stands in its modern 6,500-seat riverfront ballpark, with its signature view of the Philadelphia skyline and Ben Franklin Bridge, are half-empty.

But you could say that team officials and boosters are optimists who prefer to see Campbell's Field as half-full. They see the Riversharks as a remarkably successful project of community-building in the heart of New Jersey's poorest city - offering middle-class families an affordable night out of the house while introducing a new generation of underprivileged children to the national pastime through class trips and a relentless schedule of school and neighborhood appearances by players and coaches.

"The city of Camden needs us," said Lorber, whose Riversharks even publish a slick brochure, "Beyond the Boxscore," that emphasizes the team's extensive charity fund-raising, food and blood drives, programs offering free tickets for veterans and students who get straight A's, and baseball clinics for local youth.

The team also likes to point out that even with middling attendance, the Riversharks still hit an economic-development home run for Camden, with an annual payroll of $1.5 million providing some 20 full-time and 250 part-time jobs.

"I actually think it's a good story down there," said Bob Golon, a Rutgers University archivist and author of No Minor Accomplishment: The Revival of New Jersey Professional Baseball. He said the goal of independent, unaffiliated teams and their young, rising prospects was to offer safe family fun. He thinks the Riversharks, with diversions like the children's carousel, do that better than anyone else in the Garden State.

"They put on a very nice show there," he said. "They focus on kids."

When the Riversharks arrived on the scene a dozen years ago, the biggest draw was Campbell's Field itself. Its real grass, seats close to the field, and spectacular vista beyond the outfield fence arguably offered a better fan experience than the Phillies, who at that time played among the sterile concrete and artificial turf of Veterans Stadium. Then the Phils moved to one of baseball's best venues, Citizens Bank Park, started winning, and became a civic obsession - consigning the Riversharks to something less than an afterthought for Philadelphia's die-hard sports fans.

"Our fans don't care about winning or losing," Lorber said. On the other hand, he noted, fans are a little more focused on baseball in towns where there aren't as many big-city distractions. "If Lancaster loses," he said, "it's all over Twitter."

But the games matter quite a lot to the players - many of whom are honing their skills with the hope of getting offered a contract by a major-league club. Every year, the Atlantic League includes a handful of well-known former big leaguers thinking about a comeback.

Third baseman Pedro Feliz, who got the game-winning hit for the Phillies in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, played for the Riversharks a couple of seasons ago, and last year, seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens electrified the Atlantic League by pitching for a new franchise in Sugarland, Texas. This year's Riversharks roster includes pitchers Brian Bass, who has played with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Minnesota Twins; and Erik Hamren, a former San Diego Padre.

Chris Widger, a Pennsville High standout who won a World Series ring with the 2005 White Sox and who is now the Riversharks' pitching coach, said one of his biggest challenges was finding a temporary home for ballplayers making $1,500 to $2,200 a month.

"If they're coming from far away, do you put them up in a cheap hotel, or to live with families?" he asked, noting one other unique way the players bond with South Jersey.

Peter Kirk, president of the eight-team Atlantic League, said he liked to think his independent league "can be a laboratory for baseball," not only as a career relaunching pad for players but also to experiment with rule changes that might shorten the length of games to make them more fan-friendly. He said the league was enjoying an attendance revival coming out of the 2008 economic meltdown and had ambitious plans to expand to 12 teams in the near future, but he acknowledged luring fans to Camden was a challenge.

Lorber said that the team saw room to improve attendance in the large Philadelphia market but that the team's competition was not the Phillies but the multiplex. "We hope instead of going to see Iron Man 3, they come here," he said, adding that by hosting so many events, from car shows and flea markets to bar mitzvahs, "we're almost a catering facility."

They're also a baseball team, but even league president Kirk was quick to acknowledge that it's a completely different ballgame from the majors.

"If you talk to people who brought the family out, they'll say, 'We had a great time last night,' and then if you ask them who won, the majority of fans will say, 'The kids were getting tired and we left in the seventh inning.' "


Contact Kathy Boccella

at 856-779-3812, kboccella@phillynews.com, or follow @kathyboccella on Twitter.

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