A Revival Built on National Pastime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As batters rocketed line drives into the outfield, the noontime crowd at Campbell's Field was enjoying a lazy day in the sun. Parents and kids gobbled hot dogs, seniors kibitzed in the bleachers and the lucky folks who took a day off from work nursed a beer or two.

Six rows behind first base, 4-year-old Zachary Coyle was wide-eyed at seeing his first game. But his parents seemed even more amazed at where they were.

"I can't believe we came to a baseball game in Camden," said the boy's mother, Efrosini, who drove from a nearby suburb. "I mean, nobody comes here. It's a place you avoid. But at these prices, we'll be back."

Camden, the nation's fifth-poorest city and a perennial symbol of urban blight, finally has something to shout about. City officials are betting that a new waterfront ballpark--along with the Camden Riversharks, a new minor league team--will jump-start an economic rebirth in the beleaguered town.

"This city deserves a break," former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman said at groundbreaking ceremonies for the $20-million stadium. "And I believe this ballpark will be another step in giving Camden a second chance."

Is Baseball Enough to Save a Town?

Built in the shadow of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Campbell's Field is a red brick jewel modeled after parks such as Baltimore's Camden Yards. The new team has been welcomed by local dignitaries as if they already were champions, and the 6,256-seat stadium has been drawing decent crowds in its first weeks.

But is baseball enough to solve Camden's woes? Critics suggest that the Riversharks, an independent team not affiliated with a major league club, may have trouble surviving. And some say that a new stadium alone cannot revive the town, no matter how many fans it draws from outlying areas.

Similar questions have been raised about new ballparks in Newark, New York's Coney Island area and other depressed communities. But they are particularly pressing in Camden: Less than two miles from Campbell's Field, boarded-up homes and stores dot rundown streets. Garbage fills vacant lots and the civic center area seems eerily quiet on a weekday. The city of 87,492 people, more than 78% black and Latino, has lost 30% of its population since the 1950s.

In December, former Mayor Milton Milan was convicted and jailed on federal corruption charges, the third mayor out of the last five to be found guilty of such charges. Camden has an $18-million annual deficit, and state legislators are finalizing plans to take control of the city's finances. Nearly 82% of residents receive some form of public assistance, and one-third of all children are born to teenage mothers.

"This city has tried everything, and nothing solves the problem," said Rev. James Fitten, a member of Camden's Concerned Black Clergy group. "But maybe this team can create some pride. Maybe the new park can improve things."

Judging by the upbeat crowd at a game last week, it can't hurt.

At Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, a family of four could easily spend more than $150 to see the Phillies play. At Campbell's Field, the same group could spend less than $40 for parking, tickets, food and souvenirs.

There's never a dull moment, because the Riversharks sponsor stunts and contests between innings to keep the crowd interested. A team emcee roams the stands with a microphone ("And now, here's Jennifer to announce the next batter!") and rock music fills the little stadium.

"We think we can provide an entertainment package second to none," said Steven R. Shilling, a New Jersey developer and principal owner of the Riversharks. "I see this team as an economic investment as much as a boost to the community, and I'm confident our plans here will succeed."

Giving Tourists a Reason to Stay

Shilling won over city officials by pointing out the need for more growth on Camden's waterfront, which hosted the opening gala of last year's Republican National Convention. Although the New Jersey State Aquarium and entertainment complex is there, tourists typically spend an hour or two in the area and then leave. A ball team, Shilling argued, could build fan loyalty and spur growth.

He struck a deal that allows the team to pay Camden 50 cents for every ticket sold in lieu of property taxes, an arrangement that could generate $180,000 annually for the city if attendance projections materialize. The owner assembled outside funding for construction and sold naming rights to the park to Campbell's Soup, which has had headquarters in Camden for 131 years.

The Riversharks signed a long-term lease to use the stadium, owned by Rutgers University. Shilling insists he can make the business profitable within a short time.

Others are skeptical, given the rapid proliferation--and uneven financial performance--of independent baseball leagues, especially in the Northeast.

"None of the independent leagues have really flourished," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and expert on baseball finances. "It hasn't reached the disaster stage, but there's a sense that we have too much, that the market can't handle all these new teams."

The Riversharks are the newest club in the Atlantic League, which also has teams in Newark, Atlantic City and Somerset, N.J.; Long Island, N.Y.; Nashua, N.H.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and a road team from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Players were recruited in an expansion draft last year, and while some have had major-league experience, many others still dream of their first trip to the big leagues. So far, the club is playing exciting baseball but is struggling to get their record to the .500 mark.

"I think the city will enjoy this team," said Richard Cinaglia, Camden's chief financial officer. "But the financial impact [on the city] at this point is not significant. There are some seasonable people employed at the park who are city residents, but at fairly low hourly rates."

Once a manufacturing and ship-building center, Camden fell on hard times after World War II. Jobs disappeared as factories closed and thousands left for new bedroom communities such as Cherry Hill. While economic booms have periodically lifted the Delaware Valley, they passed Camden by. As the city deteriorated, it became a magnet for drug dealers and organized crime.

Community leaders have despaired that the young people who remain have little or no hope. "Their future," Rev. Fitten says, "is troubled."

As he watched the Riversharks rally in the late innings against the Nashua Pride, a local teenage boy ("Just call me Rodney") confessed shyly that he had cut school to see the afternoon game. The new stadium is quite an attraction, he said, and one day he hopes to play baseball here.

"It's a good show," Rodney said, moving down from the bleachers to a field box behind first base. "And we got nowhere to go but up."

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