People build sandcastles on the beach knowing they won’t survive — wind and water, footsteps and plows reduce the walls and arches to sand grains. Eventually, the sandcastle is disregarded and forgotten. That seems to be the story of the former Sandcastle Stadium, later Bernie Robbins Stadium, a professional baseball field located at a gateway of Atlantic City along Albany Avenue.
The stadium was built in 1998 for independent league baseball’s Atlantic City Surf. The team changed ownership and leagues before folding in early 2009.
Since then, the structure has fallen into disrepair. Today, the stadium’s only occupants are trespassing vagrants, possible drug dealers and a gaggle of geese. The windows of the luxury boxes are shattered. The path where base runners tried to turn singles into doubles is overrun with weeds.
This sandcastle has become a monument to a gone moment.
Bird feces, inches thick, coat the third-base stairway leading into the stadium. Four or five steps’ worth, too.
You consider whether the climb is worth it.
Yeah, why not? So you walk on your toes, sort of ballerina-style, trying to maneuver through the muck and amble up the steps to the stadium’s concrete concourse. Yes, this looks familiar. This is the view fans used to see when entering the stadium, with the Atlantic City skyline in the background.
But the playing field is faded and dull. Ducks graze in what used to be right field. The infield, covered in crabgrass, in need of a groundskeeper, resembles one of the city’s dozens of barren lots.
A half foot of water pools in the dugouts, where cleats used to rest. Empty cans of Goya coconut juice are in the dugout corners, near the bat racks.
Branches poke through the outfield walls — the sections of the wall that haven’t disappeared or that have been covered with graffiti sprayings of male genitals. Graffiti also covers the stadium’s bricks, the doors, the walls — any vertical surface, really. Some entranceways are boarded-up.
In the stands where fans used to sit, caution tape winds across exposed, crumbling brick. Upstairs, 12-year-old concrete is filled with fault lines.
And those are the stadium’s nicer parts.
“It’s embarrassing,” Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam said of the field’s condition. “For us to put the kind of money that we did into this, it’s discouraging. That’s what makes me very determined to actually do what is necessary to get it back up to snuff.”
City officials have made similar comments before. The Press of Atlantic City published a story examining the field’s disrepair in August 2009 — about six months after the Surf ceased operations. Public Works Director Paul Jerkins spoke then about refurbishing the stadium.
“The major focus is making sure the stadium can be used, to bring it back up to shape,” he told The Press. More than a year later, the stadium’s condition has worsened.
“When we were looking at this last year, we were anticipating that we would have the funds to bring it up to a usable level,” Jerkins said recently. “It didn’t happen. The funds weren’t available.”
Jerkins said he initially assigned Public Works employees to clear trash and debris from the site, but soon had to call them off.
Trash dumps are better organized than some of the stadium’s inner rooms, ransacked by thieves and vandals. Rotting garbage festers, forgotten by rodents and maggots, remembered by nostrils.
You can see through the club box walls, holes marking the places where copper wiring used to run. People named Shawty and Jeff autographed the cabinets and furniture in white acrylic. The autographs are dated 2009, the year the stadium last breathed.
Someone, maybe Shawty or Jeff, has smashed a glass door with a fire hydrant; the glass now resembles a spider web. When light catches the window the right way, you can see the city’s reflection in a million little glass spider web compartments.
Outside the stadium, a mural depicting baseball legend Carl Hubbell is covered in sprawling, pompous lime-green graffiti. A baseball glove mural is also defaced.
The murals are around the corner and up the stairs from what is now some man’s open-air public bedroom. Fans used to buy tickets in this alcove; now, the current resident tucks his blanket tight to keep out the cold.
The outlook for this stadium wasn’t always so bleak.
The state and city originally collaborated to bring baseball to the resort. In 1998, construction on the park finished with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority paying $11.5 million and city taxpayers borrowing another $3 million.
Under the terms of its original lease with the CRDA, the Surf agreed to pay a minimum of $75,000 each year and 10 percent of gross ticket revenue that exceeded $750,000.
At first, the new team thrived. The Surf won the Atlantic League championship in 1998 and appeared in its playoffs seven additional times.
Famous baseball faces also passed through the resort, including Ruben Sierra, Jose Canseco, Mitch Williams and fan favorite Juan Thomas.
But despite the team’s success, fan interest waned. By 2006, average attendance had dipped to less than 2,000 a game. Rumors of a shutdown spread. In March 2009, the team abandoned operations a month before opening day.
By that point, the franchise’s internal problems emerged — including years of late lease payments, problems with the building’s structural integrity, and a broken plumbing system that forced employees to use the rest rooms at the McDonald’s restaurant across the street.
The biggest challenges for the cash-strapped city government involve the stadium’s hidden damage.
Officials in Mayor Lorenzo Langford’s administration confirmed for the first time last week that when the ballpark was vacated by Surf management in 2008, no one weatherized the building. Weatherization is required for most structures with water systems that are slated to go dormant — most importantly, draining all of the water from the pipes so they don’t freeze over the winter and become useless.
Jerkins insisted that the team’s outgoing management was responsible for preparing the park for its hibernation, not the city.
“The way I view it, when the sports team decided they were no longer going to occupy the stadium, they should have done all that,” he said.
However, once the Surf’s lease contract was terminated, the city retained ownership — and still no weather preparations were performed.
‘Would have been perfect’
Michael Irvin, an Egg Harbor Township-based artist, painted the murals along the stadium’s main stairway. They depict baseball legends of yesterday — Hubbell (defaced), Babe Ruth, Bob Feller, Atlantic City’s John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.
Irvin had the stadium in mind a few weeks ago. He is involved with Egg Harbor Township’s Youth Softball League. Last year, the township hosted a 23-team regional tournament.
That tournament went well, so Babe Ruth League officials considered Atlantic County as a possible host venue for next year’s national 16-and-under world series, Irvin said. Thousands of coaches and players and families and fans, visiting the region for five or six days, staying in the local hotels, gambling in the casinos, eating at restaurants. ... But the tournament needs a ceremony venue, a facility that can hold five thousand people.
“The stadium would have been perfect for this,” Irvin said.
So Irvin drove to the former Sandcastle to check it out. Sure, the ballpark is closed, but he was thinking the stadium needed some grass seed, maybe chalk on the baselines. Little things.
“To see actual trees growing and the infield filled with weeds, things falling off the building, I could not believe it,” Irvin said. “When you don’t maintain something, it will fall apart.”
With the long list of repairs needed to make the park not only accessible, but useable, Jerkins projects the renovation costs at $750,000. In a city saddled with layoffs, employee furlough days and other major cuts this year, that kind of money is not easy to come by.
“Money is always a problem,” said Gilliam, who believed there might be funding previously allocated for maintenance of nearby Bader Field, the city’s former municipal airport, that could be redirected to funding the park’s repair.
But Jerkins said the cleanup job is not as daunting as it might seem.
“I know some people look at it and say, ‘Oh, the place is in horrible condition.’ I don’t look at it that way,” said Jerkins, noting that there are aspects of the park that have not been damaged, such as the electrical system and the elevators.
“Yeah, the place is still a little dirty. Not a little dirty. The place is pretty dirty. But it’s not a major or a very big job.”
Plans for improvement
The dirtied stadium continues to shape the city’s Chelsea Heights neighborhood.
In Chelsea Heights, residents park their boats at the curb. Holiday lawn decorations greet children. People walk their dogs and visit the corner store to buy bread and lottery tickets.
Baseball brought community pride and fireworks shows and clogged parking on sun-baked summer days.
When baseball left, it took local business with it. A 24-hour bar located across the street, Home Run Tavern, later Bayside Tavern, recently closed.
Bill Bentz, whose family has lived in Chelsea Heights for five generations, remembers what this community used to represent. He remembers commuter planes landing at Bader Field. He still smells Ireland Coffee wafting from the chimneys, a quarter-century after the roasting plant moved out.
Bentz said it saddens him to see the stadium becoming a haven for drifters and drug dealers.
“We had a lot of fun at that stadium. It was something really nice added to the neighborhood, and now it’s been taken away,” Bentz said. “Now, we’re looking at a dilapidated building. If the city’s not going to do anything with it, they should tear it down.”
However big the task, the city is taking initial steps toward improving the park.
City officials recently began seeking a contractor to assess some of the damage done to the fire and plumbing systems. The Langford administration recently received proposals from several private companies for about $20,000 worth of work, which will include an extensive look at the damages to the two systems and some repairs.
Despite workload and funding challenges, Gilliam set an ambitious timeline to improve the field and re-open it for new uses.
“No later than the middle of the summer,” he said.
The councilman said he hopes the field’s eventual improvement will stimulate interest from not only regional baseball leagues to hold some games in the park, but also create a new concert venue option in the city during the warm-weather months.
“We’re paying taxes on that building,” Gilliam said. “We’ve got to make the most out of it.”
Gilliam also said the ballpark’s upkeep is important to the overall goals of Gov. Chris Christie, whose plans to revitalize Atlantic City involve a more family-friendly entertainment industry. The councilman said the baseball field and its neighbor, Flyers Skate Zone, could be used as the base for developing an area filled with all-ages recreational offerings.
For now, the stadium provides the city a glimpse of what used to be and what isn’t anymore.
A moment that passed.
While the moment is gone, the monument is still here — a disregarded sandcastle damaged by wind and water and footsteps, a decaying tribute to pinstriped young men on sun-baked summer days.
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