Small Town Ball in Sussex County, New Jersey

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The Sussex County Miners, shown here celebrating their 2018 Can-Am Championship victory.Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

By Coop Daley

New Jersey Route 15 is your classic country road. No street lights, no guard rails, almost nothing that would prevent a swerve from sending your car into the cornfields lining the side of it. Follow it for long enough, however, and you’ll come to a glorious sight: stadium lighting, somewhere in the distance, lining a baseball stadium that seems almost out of place in this rural setting.

Is this heaven? No, it’s… Sussex County.

The rural Northwest tip of New Jersey, home of the Miners professional baseball team. The Miners, part of the 16-team Frontier League, are one of the last of a once popular breed: an independently organized and run baseball team, operating on their own budget and own terms, serving a professional experience for a new crowd. 

Of course, the Miners have their challenges. How does an independent team compete with the likes of Major League Baseball and, moreover, its minor league affiliates? How do they offer a professional experience without the resources and tools available to MLB teams? Perhaps most importantly, what purpose does having a team in Sussex County serve when three other teams – the Mets, Yankees, and Phillies – are just a few hours away?

As a whole, many may not consider New Jersey to be the true essence of baseball like other states (see: Missouri, California, Ohio, etc.) With most of its residents choosing one of the three nearby MLB teams to root for, Jersey itself is nothing more than a “flyover” state for MLB, save for a few minor league affiliates of the nearby clubs. 

For the record, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; plenty of states don’t host anything more than a few sprinklings of interest in America’s pastime. New Jersey, however, is not like other states. It serves as a crossroads between some of America’s greatest cities, hosts one of the densest populations in the United States, and is home to a wide variety of folks from different walks of life: those on the Shore, suburban families needing a commute to the city, those who have lived here all their lives and wish to stay because Jersey is home.

When the New Jersey Cardinals – a Class A Affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals – came to Sussex County in 1994, they were met with such a warm welcome that they shattered league attendance records, despite having an incomplete ballpark and a shortened season. With the local support at their backs, the Cardinals went on a tear and won the league championship their first season in Jersey, a feat still remembered by the stadium address: 94 Championship Place.

While the team was unable to replicate their success in later seasons, the Cardinals had made quite the impact on the community, enough to frequently admit 4700 folks into their 4200-seat ballpark every night. When the Cardinals moved across the state border to Pennsylvania in 2006, the demand was so great for more baseball that another team – the Sussex Skyhawks – moved into the stadium the next season, playing in the Can-Am League and winning the league championship in 2008 before folding due to bankruptcy in 2010.

As a result, when the Miners were introduced in 2015 by the stadium’s new ownership, they were simply living up to what previous potential had been offered. The team met a warm welcome upon its arrival and almost immediately made an impact, winning the Can-Am League themselves in 2018. 

Like many other independent ball clubs, the Miners – both on and off the field – are defined by their general manager. At 27 years old, Justin Ferrarella has already earned plenty of praise from local news outlets for his efforts. A cancer survivor out of high school, Ferrarella has seemingly endless energy at the ballpark, running from the box office to concessions to down on the field, ready to take on any challenge.

The bread-and-butter of the operation, however, is the staff employed by the team. Most are lovingly referred to as “interns,” who regularly meet before the games and are all assigned jobs; someone runs the 50/50 raffle, another will man the gift shop, and another will help with the games played between the innings. All of them, like the general manager, are younger than 30, bringing a real youthful vibe to the games. When the Miners score their first run, a popular meme of Twitch streamer Penguinz0 plays on screen, as he yells “wooooooo! Yeah baby, that’s what I’ve been waiting for!”

There are other internet memes sprinkled throughout the game festivities, but I’ll spare you the details of those.

While the jobs rotate from day to day, one thing is for certain: no one ever ends up doing just one job. On a day where I started by moving drinks into the concession stand, I helped at the front gate, served as a de facto bouncer at a kid’s birthday party, and spent the game as the bat boy for the visiting team, still wearing my employee polo and name badge. That same day, the team’s head of events logistics ensured the birthday party was going smoothly, won a race against the Miners’ own version of the Atlanta Braves’ Freeze, and drove a sponsored truck around the warning track and by the dugouts, honking the horn along the way. 

Of course, there’s always the lingering question of “why?” Why would anyone come to these games if the Mets and Yankees are a mere 45 minutes away? Why would you fork over the money to sit in a 4500-seat stadium and watch kids hack away at their last possible chance of professional ball? Where’s the moment that makes it all worth it?

Believe me, it’s there… you just have to know where to look.

Take July 23, 2022, a Saturday night in Sussex County. The Miners have returned from the All-Star Break hungry for a big series win. The Evansville Otters are perhaps the toughest team they’ve faced all season, a cross-divisional rival who hosts real championship aspirations. Fans of the team know this well and have come to Skylands Stadium ready to cheer on their Miners to a key series win. 

Well, some of them have, at least. Most of the fans here tonight are actually here for another reason: it’s Star Wars night, and there’s much to do around the stadium. A costume contest is won by a small child engulfed in a droid costume. A real-life R2-D2 is stationed outside the box office, rolling around and beeping at fans as they purchase concessions. Lightsabers are given out to every small child, which light up at the push of a button. Best of all, the Miners are wearing special jerseys for the occasion – featuring Yoda grimly staring on their chests – which will be signed and sold in a silent auction during the game. 

The promotion works. The Miners host perhaps their largest audience of the year, nearly 3500 fans filling the stadium and cheering on the team as they take a 5-3 win over the Otters, perhaps the best win of the year. 

This is what the Miners are really here for: the sheer entertainment value of it all. It’s no secret that Sussex County is not exactly known for its wild venues and sightseeing tours; it’s the 17th-most populated county out of New Jersey’s 21 total, and until the arrival of several state routes in the nineties, there were just about 30,000 in the largely rural area. Under the “recreation” section of the area’s Wikipedia page, there lies just “agritourism,” “outdoor recreation,” and, of course, “sports franchises.”

That is to say when the team is in town, the stadium becomes the hot spot for the area, hence the reason the Miners – despite technically being from Augusta, New Jersey – take on the county as their official location. While Major League Baseball and its affiliates often pride themselves on their name-brand recognition and being the “big leagues,” the Miners are a product of local pride, providing a source of pride and connection that’s hard to find anywhere else than in sports. 

This is seen both on and below the surface. Working in the front office, most of the day is spent one of two ways. The first is creating in-game promotions that will engage the audience and allow those interested to participate outside of the spectator role: see the costume contest, the race around the bases, or, my personal favorite from the team’s Italian-American night, a cannoli toss. The second is more nuanced: placing phone calls to local organizations and groups that may be interested in particular nights, like Scout Troops on camp night – in which kids actually get to camp out on the field following the game – or nursing homes on a special “daytime” offer, in which the team will start a game at 11:05 AM, seemingly crazy by other professional standards.

This could seem insincere and typical business standards by some, and I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first interacted with the team. The more time I spent here, however, the more I recognized that it was a true family effort. I’ve worked in the box office with its three regular staff members: a mother, her sister, and her daughter, all three of whom share the same tenacity for ticket sales as they do gossip about each other. The concessions crew is more of the same, as a daughter at the cashier barks requests to her father behind the grill. Most of them have been here for years, even before the Miners were created. Bill, the stadium’s front gate attendant who knows every season-ticket holder by name, told me he’s been here since the Skyhawks were in town, and picked up the job as a summer-time hobby to balance out his job at a nearby high school. 

On Star Wars night, this community is on full display. The regular customers get a special will-call tent outside the normal box office, in which they’re greeted by the former assistant general manager, who now works in insurance but comes back for games where more staff is needed. Kids storm the concourse, now armed with plastic glowing swords, and are greeted by a backyard carnival featuring games and rides; the poor intern staffing the bounce house has a superhero moment when it begins to deflate suddenly, bravely entering the foray to grab all the unwitting kids from certain doom. For those a little more interested in the sport, Miners players stay behind after the game and offer high-fives, autographs, and photos on the bases, giving the kids the chance to say they met a real big-league ballplayer. 

Saturday nights are fireworks nights at Skylands Stadium, and after the Miners seal the deal with a raucous top of the ninth – during which the general manager tries to beat a fan in a dance-off and three different members of the Otters take exception to the umpire and are thrown out of the game, leading the now full stadium into a frenzy – the stadium lights are all turned completely off. The lightsabers now provide the only glow, creating an atmosphere not unlike one seen at a rock concert or a South Florida beach party. As the fireworks go off, fans, interns, and players are all seen staring at the sky, all taking in the beauty. 

That’s the beauty about small-town ball; everyone is involved in this one shining moment, one way or another. Baseball just provides the backdrop. 

And what a backdrop it is. 

Coop Daley is the secretary of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee and a longtime contributor to JapanBall.com. He is also a Cubs fan, much to his chagrin. He can be found on Twitter at @coopdaley..

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