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Skylands Park / Sussex Skyhawks

Welcome to the middle of nowhere. Sussex County, New Jersey, is tucked away in the northern tip of the state near the New York state line. It s not Bruce Springsteen’s gritty urban Jersey, but rather rolling hills and pastures. The ballpark, the former home of the New Jersey Cardinals, sits at the crossroads of NJ Routes 206 and 565, in sight of a pair of restaurants and a barn or two. This part of New Jersey is called the Skylands, and it fits, as there is little to distract you from the wide-open vistas. There are several picturesque little towns on the way to the park, although none is close enough or large enough to really be the team’s home own. Hence, the “New Jersey,” and now “Sussex” names.


Opened: 1994
Capacity: 4,300
Dimensions: 330L, 392C, 330R
Architect: Lescher & Mahoney Architects
Current Team: Sussex Skyhawks (independent; Can-Am Association)
Phone: 973/300-1000
Ticket Prices: $12 Box, $10 Reserved, $8 G.A.
Prior Tenant: New Jersey Cardinals (short season; New York-Penn League), 1994-2005
Address: 94 Championship Place, Augusta, New Jersey 07822; “Ross’ Corner” at U.S. Highway 206 and County Route 565.

Directions: From I-80, take Route 15 North, follow signs as 15 runs into 206 North. Turn right onto Route 565 at the Chatterbox Restaurant. Ballpark will be on your left From I-84, take Route Route 6 South to Route 206 South, turn left at Chatterbox.
Text and photos by: Mark Cryan

Welcome to the middle of nowhere. Sussex County, New Jersey, is tucked away in the northern tip of the state near the New York state line. It s not Bruce Springsteen’s gritty urban Jersey, but rather rolling hills and pastures. The ballpark, the former home of the New Jersey Cardinals, sits at the crossroads of NJ Routes 206 and 565, in sight of a pair of restaurants and a barn or two. This part of New Jersey is called the Skylands, and it fits, as there is little to distract you from the wide-open vistas. There are several picturesque little towns on the way to the park, although none is close enough or large enough to really be the team’s home own. Hence, the “New Jersey,” and now “Sussex” names.

Perhaps inspired by the setting, the ballpark’s architectural theme is a barn look. It’s simple, attractive and appropriate. This park opened in 1994 as the new home of the relocated Glens Falls (NY) Redbirds, and I had the chance to attend a playoff game there between the Cardinals and the visiting Jamestown Jammers, a Detroit Tigers affiliate at that time. When Skylands Park first opened, the folks in the area were thrilled to have a team to call their own. In a place that has always been overshadowed by the New York City sports scene, this northern New Jersey’s own Major League-affiliated professional baseball team, and at the time, one of only two minor-league teams in the entire state.

Despite being located less than sixty miles from midtown Manhattan, the Cardinals were a smash hit, leading the league with announced attendance of 156,477 in 1994. Over 38 scheduled home games, that’s an average of well over 4,000 per night, roughly the capacity of the facility. They even made the playoffs for good measure, and won the league title to complete a fairy-tale first season.

It’s worth remembering the context of the New York-Penn League at that time. The previous year, the league’s top two draws were, ironically, the Glens Falls Redbirds at 78,725, and the Utica Blue Sox at 77,645. (As Ken Brett said in his famous Lite Beer ad, “Utica?!”) Most of the other teams in the league didn’t break 50,000 in ’93, but the ’94 season was a watershed year, as teams playing in three new markets led the league in attendance (NJ, Hudson Valley and Vermont). And Hudson Valley and New Jersey were the Dodgers and Giants of short-season A ball, making the leap together into the outskirts of the nation’s biggest city in a move that defied the conventional wisdom of the time. (Keep an eye out for a write up on Hudson Valley, coming soon.)

I distinctly remember that even at the end of that inaugural season, the park had an unfinished look, with plywood covering the front of some of the skyboxes and insulation peeking out of several spots in the press box area and the outlying buildings. This was a result of the stadium corporation going bankrupt during construction (more on that below). Fourteen years later, the park is in very good condition, and is a great example of what was considered state-of-the-art at the time still provides a very pleasant setting for a game.

The Ballpark Park…or Barn Park?
As you approach, the stadium rises up in front of you, with SKYLANDS PARK clearly spelled out on the understated façade. There is attractive landscaping, an inviting outer plaza, and light towers reaching for the sky.

After passing through the gates and entering the seating bowl, there are six rows of “Box Seats” below the center walkway running the length of the grandstand, and about a dozen rows of “Reserved Seats” above. The upper reserved sections are fold down seats just like the box seats, except for bench-style “Reserved General Admission” at the far ends of the grandstand.

Luxury boxes, with sliding glass doors and two rows of outdoor seats below, line the top of the first base side of the grandstand, with an overhanging metal roof that carries on the barn theme. The facing of the luxury boxes is, of course, barn-red metal. While there is not a full-blown roof, there is a substantial overhang over the press box and center sections of the park. Combined with the small overhang down the first base line, this overhang gives the park a nice sheltered feeling.

In case of bad weather, there is also plenty of space below the seating bowl in a wide concourse running from end to end. Of course, this was the standard when this park was built. It’s certainly less functional than today’s standard, a sunken seating bowl with a covered concourse overlooking the field. You have to take a break from the action here if you want to hit the concessions stands, which are located underneath the seats on the concourse.

Eating, Drinking and Standing in Line
This doesn’t leave much room for folks to cue up for concessions, though, and the two nights we were there, the lines at concessions were long and completely blocked the concourse. In fact, while the long, slow lines were not a big surprise on the first night when a Friday night fireworks show brought out a good crowd, the backup was unexpected the next night, when a sparse crowd dotted the grandstand.

It seems that the fans in this area have not caught the fever for this brand of baseball yet. While the Sussex Skyhawks would seem to have little competition for the summer entertainment dollar, getting your marketing message out can also be very difficult in an area that is overwashed by the media from a major market. And, of course, the same folks that wouldn’t have missed a game during the Cardinals successful early days certainly could not maintain that level of enthusiasm indefinitely.

Of course, the business of minor league baseball has changed a lot in the last ten years, and nowhere more than the Northeast. A factor that certainly contributed to the Cardinals’ declining attendance was the rise of independent teams in many parts of suburban Jersey, including the Skyhawks’ sister team, the New Jersey Jackals, and the nearby Newark Bears, who played a handful of games at Skylands Park while their ballpark was being finished in 1999 (if you’re interested in seeing the lease the Bears signed for Skylands Park, check it out here ).

So, there finally came a time when the Cardinals owners, with all that momentum and a well-known big -league parent club, decided they could do better elsewhere. The team was sold and relocated to State College, Pennsylvania. Their new ownership includes former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. Now a Pirates affiliate, they play in a beautiful new facility they share with Penn State, an increasingly common arrangement in short-season baseball.

Here Come the Skyhawks
The Skyhawks have made some strides, though, and the solid Friday night crowd enjoyed beautiful weather and a post-game fireworks show that may have been the best I’ve ever seen. The Cardinals charged four or five bucks to park, but for the Skyhawks, there is no charge for parking in the large lots outside the front gate. There’s a kids play area with a bouncy house squeezed into a small grassy area beyond the third base end of the seats, although there’s no playground. Saturday night did feature a kids catch on the field after the game, a promotion that had big participation, and a Cub Scout campout in the outfield after the game.

The mascot, a very tall uniformed blue bird, was active and accessible to the kids. The game presentation features many of the standard on-field promotions, music and announcements.

The Skyhawks’ most notable promotion during our 2008 visit was a season-long post-game home run derby that was to culminate with a fan finalist battling former Yankees and Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, who at that time was manager of the league’s Atlantic City Surf. The Skyhawks also have a notable former big leaguer as their manager. Hal Lanier, who is a former National League Manager of the Year from his years with the Astros, is the Sussex skipper.

In 2008, selected games were broadcast live on 1490 AM, the local ESPN radio station, but in 2009, there are no radio or internet broadcasts available.

The souvenir shop is spacious and features a wide range of merchandise. The big hit seemed to be inflatable hawk’s claw that slipped over your hand. We saw many a youngster terrorizing their friends and siblings or annoying their parents with them. I’m thankful that our kids didn’t notice them.

A new open-air bar in the near corner of the large first base picnic tent is sort of a variation on the deck bars that many teams in the country are adding. There was a special on Landshark Beer the first night we were there, and a very friendly bartender at the main bar. Unfortunately, the bar stools are too low for the counter, and if you actually want to see the game, the bar’s grill and the Dippin’ Dots stand on the concourse block your view of home plate, but I still give them an A for effort; every ballpark should have some type of tiki bar.

Fan information could be improved; both nights we saw the Skyhawks play, I tried to get a roster. In my opinion, one of the most interesting things about independent ball is the players’ stories. There are former big leaguers sprinkled throughout the league, and for some guys, the Can-Am League is a second (or last) chance and for some undrafted young players, it’s their only chance. And a roster, including things like how a player was acquired, his home town, original draft status, age, and of course, his jersey number, is a ballpark standard. The first night, my program, which was only a dollar, had a xeroxed sheet inserted showing the stats for each team, but only against one another. There were no jersey numbers, no height and weight, no hometowns. I assumed that this was an oversight resulting from the larger than usual crowd. The next night, with a small crowd, the program once again featured only stats for Sussex vs. Brockton.

The Business Side
When the Cardinals packed up and vacated Skylands Park, the Can-Am Association was understandably eager to secure a lease. This was a good existing facility within their geographic footprint. There had been great success here for a number of years, and a typically optimistic baseball operator would figure they could rekindle the excitement and have a winner on their hands.

That must have been what Floyd Hall was thinking. With a successful Can-Am team in nearby Montclair, New Jersey, it seemed like a natural fit. Unlike many affiliated leagues, the Can-Am League doesn’t have a rule against ownership of multiple teams in the same league, so Floyd Hall Enterprises secured a franchise and a lease, and the Skyhawks were in business.

And a business it is, for the team and ballparks, as this is one of only a handful of privately owned minor-league parks in the country. The Cardinals’ local ownership originally had established a corporation separate from the team to privately finance the stadium’s construction. During construction, the stadium corporation went bankrupt as a result of cost overruns, proving the difficulties faced by private ownership as compared to the ability of a municipality to handle to significant burden of financing and maintaining a minor league caliber baseball facility.

The park is now controlled by a Florida-based real-estate investor, who in addition to hosting the Skyhawks, operates an indoor batting cage business at the site, and has a day care center and an occupational workshop for the disabled as tenants in some of the buildings on the entry plaza. Ironically, the day care has a nice sturdy playground behind their center that is visible from the luxury box area’s back concourse, but is locked up on game nights.

The Future
During their third year at Skylands Park, it appeared that the Skyhawks still face an uphill battle, although the season did culminate in a championship, and this year’s officials attendance figures show a jump versus last season’s average. Ticket prices are on the high side, but not out of line for the Northeast, while concessions prices are a mixed bag; a hot dog was just $2, but a soda is $3.50. Sponsorship sales seem solid by the look of the nice, full-color program and an outfield wall loaded with signage. Nonetheless, this is a good quality facility with financially solid in-state ownership, it fits well geographically in the league, and the area is affluent and growing.

And, for the ballpark enthusiast, it fits nicely into a Northeastern swing and would provide a relaxing change of pace after a game in the Big Apple. Plus, it’s the only park in the country built to look like a dairy farm. How can you pass that up?

Insider Tips
Bring cash. There’s no ATM, no Skyhawks Bucks, and only one concessions line takes credit cards. And, if you hate to wait in lines, you’ll want to get your food at the bar under the tent down the first side. You’ll have to do without fries or chicken fingers, but there’s a grill there where they cook hot dogs and hamburgers, which were delicious, and there was absolutely no waiting.

If it’s a sunny day, avoid seats at the end of the grandstand’s first side, and if the weather is questionable, get seats at the top of the center or first base side reserved sections for maximum roof coverage.

Dining and Accommodations
Due to Skylands Park’s location in the countryside, there are relatively limited choices in both eating and lodging. Fortunately, there is a new hotel nearby, the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites in Newton. This a brand-new property with all the standard amenities. Room rates are between $125 and $175. Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 8 North Park Dr., Newton, NJ 07860; 973/940-8888;

In dining, as in lodging, your choices are very limited, but there is one pleasant, unusual choice just across the street from the ballpark. The Chatterbox Drive-In is a circular 50’s themed burger-and-shake restaurant where you can pull in and have your food delivered to you at curbside, or go inside and grab a table. There are 50’s movie posters and records on the walls and there’s always a different classic car on display as the “Centerpiece” on a raised platform in the middle of the restaurant.

The menu features affordable burgers, salads and sandwiches, as well as delicious pierogies, a potato and cheese delicacy that you dip in sour cream. Not good for the cholesterol count, but delicious. The kids meals come in a cardboard tray shaped like a classic car, and the little ones will also love the fascinating clutter and the model train running overhead. Chatterbox Drive-In, 1 State Highway 15, Augusta, NJ 973/300-2300;

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