Devouring The Riversharks: Some Notes On The End Of A Minor League Team

For 15 years, the Camden Riversharks played a weird and not especially wonderful brand of minor league baseball in one of America's most troubled cities. This is what the end of that looks like.
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Photos by Tom Keiser.

The first two things I saw when I showed up at Campbell’s Field to pick over the Camden Riversharks’ going-out-of-business sale were the missing Campbell Kids statue in front, and a foul ball hitting the stadium’s roof, then bouncing off a Dodge parked in front. Before I even entered, I had me a souvenir.

After a decade-and-a-half in independent minor league ball, the Camden Riversharks are hanging up their spikes. As usual, it wasn’t a mutual decision. There are only so many graceful ways to leave the game. The team officially folded on October 21, although news of its demise came as early as September 2, when the Hartford Courant hinted that the Riversharks were one of two teams named as possible replacements for the Rock Cats in New Britain, CT. The 6,425-seat stadium was usually half full when I saw them—or half-empty, if you see it that way—and was no closer to capacity during the team’s final home game on September 13.

Since 2002, my family and I have been to Campbell’s Field about once a season, rooting for whichever former major leaguers found their way to the Atlantic League. I saw Sean Burroughs play there last year for Bridgeport, and such faintly recognizable big league names as Delwyn Young, Pedro Feliz and Wilson Valdez were Riversharks; local heroes Brad Strauss and Brett Laxton got some run with the closest thing they had to a hometown team, too. Camden, for all its struggles and blights, was where you could see Jose Lima play one last time, or a young Stephen Drew before Scott Boras got his contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks in order. Von Hayes managed the Riversharks for a few seasons too, although I don’t know why anybody would be proud of seeing that.

I had already said my goodbyes to the Camden Riversharks, but a clearance sale of overstock items gave me a chance visit Campbell’s Field one last time, again. I went last Friday, in the middle of the team’s impromptu three-day going-out-of-business sale, and what I saw allowed me to pay tribute to the past, hope for the future, and live in the moment, no matter how bittersweet. Also I got some t-shirts.

Camden can feel ghostly, most of the time; it is not empty, but looks it. Most who live outside the city limits and have no business in town strongly avoid Camden, for reasons both practical and problematic. Neglect is already eroding the park, even less than six weeks after the final Riversharks home game. Spiderwebs are fat between seats, half the advertising on the concourse has already been taken down, and the “C” painted behind home paint is already fading. The carousel over by left field seems prime for a Kent Brockman puff piece; the giant Wawa hoagie in the outfield will just stand there uneaten, probably forever. Wawa was the nominal sponsor of the Riversharks in its final years, but the last Wawa within Camden city limits closed about a decade ago.

Two people were manning the clearance sale, one selling t-shirts, caps and merch from the souvenir store and one with slightly higher end items—game worn jerseys, caps from other teams, even artwork and charity placards—in the concourse. For less than twenty dollars I bought four t-shirts, three caps, a Wawa water bottle, a jump rope for my niece and some 15th anniversary baseball cards, featuring such Riversharks legends as 2008 Phillie Pedro Feliz and former Detroit Tiger Fu-Te Ni. All in all, it was a very nice haul—I can get good mileage out of a SHARKAMANIA t-shirt, and you don’t have to be Italian to enjoy two sharks dressed as Mario and Luigi celebrating some previous Italian Heritage Night. It is not much in exchange for all the hours of happily low-wattage entertainment the team gave me, but I still have those, too.

There are hopes of securing a single-A team for 2017, but nothing concrete is in place, other than a continued relationship with nearby Rutgers-Camden, which owned Campbell’s Field until the Camden County Improvement Agency bought the ballpark this year. The Scarlet Raptors (they rebranded in the 90’s) were scrimmaging against Rowan College at Gloucester County—that’s a branch campus currently in the middle of a rebranding of its own—while I scavenged the remnants of the Riversharks’ inventory. Only a handful of people were at the team store and concourse at any one time, but scouts, players, and even a fan or two were there to see one more game at Campbell’s Field.

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