Sunday marks 20 years since the Atlantic City Surf made their debut at the Sandcastle.
On May 20, 1998, a capacity crowd of 5,900 saw the Surf suffer an 8-5 loss to manager Sparky Lyle and the Somerset Patriots.
It also has been 10 years since the last game was played.
The news this past week that Atlantic City is trying to bring professional baseball back to town drew a range of reactions.
Some former Surf fans are excited about the prospect. They remember the balmy summer breezes, the smell of popcorn wafting through the ballpark in the early years, the gorgeous view of the city skyline behind the right-field fence.
They have fond memories of donning their aqua baseball caps with the cool wave logo on the front and cheering while Juan “The Large Human” Thomas, Will Pennyfeather and manager Doc Edwards helped lead the team to the 1998 championship in the inaugural season of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.
Those fans would love to see baseball come back.
Others have less-romantic memories.
Skeptics remember rows of empty seats for games at the renamed Bernie Robbins Stadium — except for fireworks nights — during the Surf’s final two seasons (2007-08) as members of the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball (Can-Am League).
If you can remember anyone from that 2008 team other than manager Cecil Fielder, you win an ice cream sundae served in a tiny Surf batting helmet.
Given the history, it would appear as if the only way pro baseball could work would be if Atlantic City was able to land a minor-league affiliate, such as the Lakewood Blue Claws (Phillies, Single-A), Trenton Thunder (Yankees, Double-A) and Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals, Advanced-A).
“I wouldn’t mind seeing a Phillies affiliate here,” Atlantic City Council President Marty Small said.
For that to happen, however, a myriad of obstacles and barriers would have to be cleared.
According to BlueClaws spokesperson Greg Giombarrese, a new ownership group would have to get permission from the Phillies to have an affiliate of any team in Atlantic City.
It is at least partly tied to to Atlantic City’s proximity to Citizens Bank Park, approximately 60 miles, though Trenton and Wilmington are both about 32 miles away, half the distance.
“There’s a lot to the approval process,” said Jeff Lantz, spokesperson for MiLB.com, the official website of Minor League Baseball. “We haven’t received any inquiries of any kind relating to Atlantic City.”
City officials have enlisted the help of veteran baseball executive Frank Boulton to help find someone interested in bringing a professional franchise back to the ballpark on Route 40.
Boulton, 65, has experience in both affiliated and independent baseball. He was the original owner of the Surf and owns Long Island Ducks, in addition to being CEO of the Atlantic League. His resume also includes stints as owner of three affiliated teams, including the Blue Rocks.
“I’ve done both, and the best thing I’ve done by far in baseball is (founding) the Atlantic League,” Boulton said Friday. “When you own a team in the Atlantic League, you are in the baseball business. And I would argue that the quality of baseball is much better than somewhere like in the (Single A) New York-Penn League. A team in the Atlantic League can pick and choose which players they want. Affiliated franchises are filled with prospects and suspects.
“But I’m trying to do whatever I can to bring baseball back to Atlantic City. If someone approached me about putting an affiliated team there or a Can-Am team, I’d certainly be willing to talk to them.”
As of Sunday, Boulton has 86 more days in which to find a potential owner. But that’s not the end of the process. Extensive repairs would be needed at the stadium — the seats, corporate offices, clubhouses, scoreboards and even the field itself.
Talk about a hope diamond.
In the spirit of the current weather that’s left local high school baseball fields more suitable for their crew programs, I’m going to rain on the parade.
As a diehard baseball fan, I sincerely want to see a franchise succeed here. But I just don’t think it would work. The casinos didn’t back the team before, and aside from a few thousand fans, there is not enough community support for a professional franchise.
And that goes for any major sport.
Don’t believe me?
Ask the Atlantic City Seagulls and Boardwalk Bullies.
David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.