If you’ve read more than a couple of my blog entries, you’ll know I get pretty excited about traveling to new ballparks. And while I was pumped for my entire July road trip, I especially had my July 12 visit to Yoga Berra Stadium, home of the New Jersey Jackals, circled in my mind.
But the reason wasn’t what you might guess. I didn’t know much about the ballpark itself and I couldn’t name a single player on the Jackals. I was more interested in who was coming to town.
I’ve regularly mentioned Jeremy Nowak in this blog dating back to 2011 and, if you’re not familiar with his story, I absolutely recommend checking out part one and part two before you continue reading this post. It’s definitely the coolest story I’ve encountered since starting The Ballpark Guide.
All caught up? OK, good. Unfortunately, after a stellar 2012 campaign for the Frederick Keys, Nowak was released by the Orioles during Spring Training. This happened despite him being a 2012 Carolina League all-star and leading the Keys in games played, hits, runs and doubles, all while batting .281. This spring, Jeremy signed with an independent team in the Can-Am League, the Trois-Rivières Aigles, or Three Rivers Eagles, if your French isn’t up to par. I’d planned to go see him play in Three Rivers at some point this season, but when I was planning my July road trip, I checked the Eagles schedule on a hunch and saw they’d be in Little Falls, N.J, when I was close to Philadelphia. I talked to Jeremy and made plans to see him on July 12.
After driving from Allentown, PA, earlier in the day, I made it to Yogi Berra Stadium more than a couple hours before game time. The park is located on the campus of Montclair State University. After parking on a very gray day weather-wise, I took a look at the front gate of the park and, as you can see, there wasn’t much activity:
I wasn’t able to get a press pass for this visit, but something even cooler happened. Jeremy said he’d leave a ticket for me at the ticket office! I can’t deny I was very excited to tell the ticket office employee, “A player on the visiting team left a ticket for me.” You might have trouble reading it, but the bottom of the ticket reads “Team Comp Visiting.” Pretty cool, huh?
With my ticket in hand, but the gates not yet open, I decided to spend the next hour or so wandering the area. Because rain was in the forecast and the field was wet, batting practice was cancelled, but I still wanted to take a walk around the perimeter of the stadium to look for a ball. I started, though, by checking out the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center:
And a statue of Berra:
The parts I saw of the Montclair State campus were picturesque, and the ballpark itself is surrounded by woods on a couple sides. With ample time to kill, I decided to wander down this path:
Despite thinking how this is how a lot of scary movies begin, I kept treading through the underbrush until I could spy the field through a break in the trees. There were a few guys playing catch on the field, but as the Eagles and Jackals both wear red, white and black uniforms, I couldn’t even tell which team the players were from:
I retraced my steps and ventured over to the other side of the park, where I saw a team (I’m still not positive which one, given the uniform color issue) using the batting cage:
Then, it was down a dirt and gravel road to the area behind the outfield fence:
I could see a few more guys on the field by this point, but sure didn’t recognize Jeremy, much less decipher which team I was looking at. After watching the players play catch as I stood in the open door in the fence, I set my sights on finding a ball. With the wooded area behind the fence, I knew there had to be dozens of balls hiding in the brush, much like the Hudson Valley Renegades’ Dutchess Stadium. It took less than a minute to see this ball:
And less than five seconds to decide to leave it where it sat. It was down a pretty steep embankment that was slippery with mud and littered with all sorts of sharp branches. I’d find a different ball that wouldn’t require slipping to my muddy and humiliating death, I decided.
Unfortunately, the area wasn’t as ball-ridden as I’d hoped. I walked and walked and walked and didn’t come up with anything, although I did take this picture of a neat university building:
I went back to the opening in the fence and checked out the scene again. From here, I had a good view of the entire park, as well as the university buildings nearby:
As I began the long walk back toward the front gate, I took another look at the ball, which seemed to be mocking me. And then I reminded myself of one of my favorite lines — “Do it for the story.” I began slipping and sliding down the slope until I reached the ball. Going down was the easy part, and after grabbing a branch and trying to Tarzan my way back up to the roadway, I emerged from the brush (with no one around, thankfully) with a Can-Am League ball for my collection:
I jammed the ball into my backpack and with that mission accomplished, headed back to the main gate and was the second fan to enter:
The park wasn’t exactly brimming with activity. I’m guessing the Jackals don’t draw too well, but if they do, the fan base was at home because of the weather. I walked around the virtually deserted park for a while and took a handful of photos, including this one that shows the seating on the first base side and the team shop. My favorite part, though? Check out the suite on the upper level. If you enjoy peace and quiet as you watch baseball, I think this suite has your name on it:
I quickly figured out the Aigles/Eagles dugout and bullpen were on the first base side, so I walked over to the fence between the two to wait for Jeremy. The players enter the field from a gate directly behind home plate, so I’d be able to spot him early and say hello when he was done warming up. Only a handful of players were out at this point, so I checked out the grass seating area in the right field corner and found this:
This ball was in pretty good rubbed-up condition, so I’m guessing it was a foul ball from an earlier game that no one chased down. In any case, I was glad to see it displayed the league name much better than the muddy ball I’d found just a short while earlier.
Several members of the visiting team filed out on the field but there was still no sign of Jeremy. As I glanced around, however, I did see a familiar face heading toward me … Jeremy’s dad! I’ve never met Jeremy’s folks, but I’m friends with his dad, Kevin, on Facebook. I had no idea Jeremy’s parents were planning to drive to New Jersey for this game, and it was an absolutely awesome surprise. We were both pretty excited and amused to finally meet each other, and before Jeremy hit the field, Kevin took me up to meet his wife and Jeremy’s mom, Maria. We made plans to sit together for the game and before another minute passed, Jeremy appeared along the fence and Kevin and I went down to greet him. We chatted with Jeremy for a few minutes, and then he had to run and get ready for the game.
I was excited to sit with Maria and Kevin for the game. You know when you meet people and within a moment of talking, it feels like you’ve known each other forever? That was the case here. The three of us sat jammed in our seats and never shut up for the whole game. It was an absolutely wonderful time.
In the first inning, I hopped up to get down toward field level to take photos of Jeremy. I was excited to capture him hitting but, before I got the chance, I snapped this four-photo series of him catching a fly ball:
When Jeremy was due up in the second inning, I went around to the third base side to take a handful of photos of him, including this one:
Early in the game, Kevin got a text message from Alicia, Jeremy’s girlfriend. If you’ve read the background on Jeremy, you’ll know Alicia is the reason I ever came to know Jeremy. I’m paraphrasing here, but her text basically said, “I don’t know if Jeremy told you, but Malcolm will be at this game. Maybe you’ll meet him.” Kevin leaned over to me, snapped this photo with his cellphone …
… and texted it back to her as his response. We all had a good laugh.
The next time Jeremy was on deck, I took this photo of him:
And then took this one of him in the subsequent at-bat:
Jeremy advanced a runner on that at-bat and got some fist bumps from his teammates upon returning to the dugout:
By now, the rain decided to make an appearance. Of all games on this road trip, I was hoping this one wouldn’t get rained out. Fortunately, the rain came and went and, when necessary, I shared the two Nowak family umbrellas:
And so went the game. Lots of chatting, a little rain here and there and when Jeremy came to the plate, I’d dash off to get some photos.
Before Jeremy’s third at-bat, I noticed his name was engraved on his Old Hickory bat, which I thought was really cool:
A moment later, he drove the ball on this swing …
… and ended up on second on what should’ve been a double:
Instead, the scorekeeper called it an error and the Jeremy Nowak fan club in attendance (me, Maria and Kevin) voiced our disapproval to no avail. As I stood on the third base-side cross aisle and snapped photos of Jeremy’s lead off second base, like this one …
… the skies opened up and it absolutely poured. It was one of those rains that made you think, “Gee, I don’t think it could possibly rain harder.” Jeremy ended up scoring a run in the inning:
And although the rain was starting to fall a little lighter, the Jackals pitcher kept complaining to the umpires until they called a delay after six innings. Soon enough the skies opened up again and, as you can tell in this photo, it was soon rather rainy and dark:
Maria, Kevin and I were as dry as could be under the umbrellas, so that’s where we stayed. (Actually, I was soaking from standing out in the rain to take photos, but at least it was dry under the umbrellas.) Before long, it became pretty clear the game wasn’t going to resume, so we found a dry spot on the concourse and watched in amusement as a bunch of the Eagles came out in their underwear and did a tarp slide once the game was called:
(They were subsequently scolded by a member of the grounds crew.)
I think the three of us were the last three fans in the park and soon enough, the lights were turned off. We made our way up to the pavilion in front of the main gate in the dark and saw Three Rivers’ bus:
Recognize anyone on it? Here’s a closer look:
That’s Jeremy on the right! Pretty cool, huh?
Eventually, Jeremy emerged and it was great to talk to him again, despite standing in the pouring rain. I wanted to get a photo with the Nowaks, but it was pitch black. I hatched an idea — the parking garage where I’d left my vehicle was decently lit, so we all piled in their SUV and drove to the garage. With a little help from my camera’s self-timer, I got this photo:
Soon enough, we had to say our goodbyes, despite Maria inviting me several times to travel back to their hotel and hang out with the family for a bit. (As I said — super, super friendly people!) Although it was certainly tempting, I didn’t want to infringe on their family time and, besides, I was soaking wet and also looking forward to checking out my own hotel. The hotel I picked for the trip to Little Falls was the Saddle Brook Marriott, which was about 10 minutes from Yogi Berra Stadium. The hotel looked awesome online, and once I got there, I was really impressed.
Here’s what my room looked like the following morning:
As you can see, there was a king-sized bed, sitting area, desk, big TV and everything was clean and modern. That evening, I did nothing but change into some dry clothes and watch ESPN. On Saturday morning, though, I took some more pictures of the hotel, including this one that shows the room from another angle:
Next, I went outside and took this photo of the exterior of the building:
I definitely recommend this hotel for people traveling to the area. Not only are the hotel rooms spacious and clean, there’s a huge indoor pool, well-stocked fitness area and a restaurant and lounge adjacent to the lobby. If you want to go out for dinner, there are Italian, American and seafood restaurants within a couple miles. And speaking of close proximity, this view out my window shows how accessible to the hotel is:
That’s the Garden State Parkway and I-80 you see. I was glad at how easy the hotel was to find, given that it was raining like crazy when I arrived shortly after leaving Yogi Berra Stadium.
As for Jeremy, I’m rooting like crazy for him to get back to affiliated ball. And I’m already looking forward to seeing him in action again and crossing paths with his folks, too — whenever and wherever that may be.