Remembering Joan Newark, baseball's brightest spring training star
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
BETWEEN FRED MCGRIFF getting elected to the Hall of Fame and Justin Verlander signing a two-year deal with the Mets, there’s been no shortage of headlines coming out of Major League Baseball winter meetings in San Diego.
For me, and for quite a few others who worked around the Miami Marlins organization over the last 20 years, the biggest — and saddest — baseball news came out of Burlington, Mass., on Dec. 1:
Joan Newark died after a year-long battle with lung cancer. She was 86.
Who’s Joan Newark?
That’s a fair question, one that won’t be answered on Twitter, ESPN or the back of a baseball card.
But talk to anyone fortunate enough to have seen her in action at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter from 1998 to 2020, the answer is unanimous: Joan Newark was nothing less than a behind-the-scenes All Star at the Marlins’ spring training headquarters, a perpetually-smiling grandmother who performed her job as the team’s spring receptionist with Gold Glove flair.
Her playing field was a simple desk in the first-floor lobby, where she answered the phones, collected mail, directed visitors to the executive offices upstairs, handed out game schedules to fans, and kept a fresh pot of coffee brewing in the media room next door.
Mike Lowell. Josh Beckett. Giancarlo Stanton. Jose Fernandez. Jack McKeon. Jeffrey Loria. Derek Jeter. The wives and children of players. Beat writers from South Florida newspapers. FedEx deliverymen. Fans asking about workout times. Anyone entering the glass doors of the main Marlins office beyond the main stadium’s left field wall was greeted by her megawatt smile and proud Bah-stn accent, rooted in her days as a young girl rooting for Ted Williams at Fenway Park.
“You couldn’t go past her without having a pickup to your day. She was always happy, always smiling,’’ said the man responsible for hiring her, Rob Rabenecker, Roger Dean Stadium’s first general manager.
“She was the right person with the right temperament for that job. She was behind-the-scenes friends with everybody,’’ he said. “She was friends with the writers, she was friends with the clubhouse people, she was friends with the grunts. She did a great job.’’
Rabenecker hired Joan and her husband Frank at a job fair a few months before the ballpark opened for the first time in 1998. At the time, the Newarks were Boston-area snowbirds who had followed some New England friends to Jupiter a few years earlier. They’d looked at both the east and west coasts of the Sunshine State before purchasing a winter home in Jupiter’s Indian Creek development.
Frank, recently retired from a career as a high school art teacher and hockey coach in Woburn, Mass., took a job as an usher. He roamed the backfields at Roger Dean Stadium, helping fans find workout sites and making sure they didn’t interfere with players.
Joan, who’d worked at MIT for 10 years before starting a family, scored a gig working inside as the receptionist for the Montreal Expos, who at the time shared the two-team complex with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Frank Newark with grandson Liam at Roger Dean Stadium in 2009 (Courtesy Suzanne Newark)
In 2003, as part of an unusual ownership swap engineered by Major League Baseball to help the struggling Expos, the Marlins and Expos exchanged spring training sites. The Expos moved to Viera and the Marlins moved to Jupiter. Joan, and her experience at Roger Dean Stadium, helped make the transition seamless for the newly-arrived fish.
For an organization infamous for constant turnover of players and managers, Newark was a rare constant presence with the Marlins, a welcomed face of stability at their spring training headquarters.
“She really looked forward to going to that job and having that role because she was such a baseball fan,’’ said her son, Frank Newark Jr. “Florida wasn’t necessarily her thing, but once she got involved with baseball she loved it.’’
When they weren’t working at the ballpark, Frank and Joan would go golfing, visit the sea turtles at Loggerhead Marinelife Center or grab a bite to eat at Jetty’s or The Dive Bar.
But for six weeks in February and March, they were always among the first ones at the ballpark every day, often arriving before the sun and the Marlins’ biggest stars.
“My mother loved being at the ballpark,’’ said her daughter, Suzanne Newark. “I want to say it was the highlight of her year because she really looked forward to it.’’
Although she was a consummate professional, always mindful of the unspoken rules and etiquette of working for a Major League Baseball team, once in a while she’d bend the rules.
The glass doors in front of her desk gave her a view of the fans outside waiting for hours for players to sign autographs. Maybe the fans reminded her of her own sports-crazy kids and grandkids, because when they asked to use the lobby bathroom or come in to escape the rain she always welcomed them — if she knew the Marlins brass wasn’t around.
When the phones weren’t ringing and Joan had a few minutes to herself, she’d work the crossword puzzles in her hometown Boston Globe (when she could get her hands a hard copy in South Florida), read Frank Cerabino and Emily Minor in The Palm Beach Post, or chat with whoever happened to be in the lobby, be it Marlins coach Joe Espada’s wife and kids or the chauffeur for Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.
Among those who worked closest to Joan were the Marlins beat writers — the entrance to the media work room was just 15 feet from her chair.
“As far as I was concerned, spring training officially began for me when I walked through the front door in February and saw her for the first time,’’ recalled Clark Spencer, the recently retired Marlins beat writer for the Miami Herald.
The initial greeting Joan gave the writers upon their arrival each spring usually came in the form of a hug.
“She was almost like our den mother,” he said.
When I covered the Marlins from 1999 to 2013, the clubhouse usually opened at 8 a.m. every day during spring training. The beat writers tried to arrive at least 45 minutes before that, to set up our laptops, make sure the WiFi was working and read what our competitors had written.
Joan was always there when we arrived. And she always made sure the media room was stocked with hot coffee and donuts or bagels — food that she brought.
“Joan didn't have to do any of this. Yet, she did, from the bottom of her heart,’’ recalled Joe Frisaro, the former Marlins beat writer for MLB.COM.
“Joan also was a terrific sounding board for those close to her to vent our frustrations, or share our high points. She was as much a Media Mom as a Roger Dean Stadium employee.’’
Spring training is often a grind, with hours spent in the clubhouse reporting on multiple daily stories about the fluid developments shaping the upcoming season. In Jupiter, the Marlins writers always made time to catch up with Joan.
She complimented us every morning about our latest stories. She bragged to us about her kids and grandkids. She met my wife at least once. She displayed extraordinary patience when I asked to photograph her in the lobby.
In 2006, she shared her excitement about a trip later that year to Ireland where she and Frank worked as marshals at the Ryder Cup golf tournament.
She also laughed at pranks pulled by beat writers on each other. When the writers stood by her desk one day in 2012, chuckling about the cones Loria posted to protect his coveted parking spot, I remember seeing Joan sitting quietly with her head down, struggling to hold in her laughter.
An irony of Joan’s job was that she rarely, if ever, got to see a game. “She was always sitting at that desk,’’ Spencer recalled.
But there were times the game came to her, thanks to job perks that Joan never sought on her own.
Like the time a visitor from Boston entered the reception area from a rear door and yelled out: “Where’s Joan?”
She turned around and there was Johnny Damon, the center fielder who less than five months earlier helped lead the Red Sox to their first championship since 1918, his arms outstretched for a hug.
"Hey, Joan," Damon said as he approached a stunned Newark that day in 2005. "How are you doing, sweetie?"
Joan later recalled, "When I heard him say my name, and he was coming over to me, I couldn't believe my eyes. I just felt as though . . . 'I'm going to faint.' "
Or the day Big Papi, future Hall of Famer David Ortiz, came by her desk — in full uniform — to say hello before taking the field.
The visits from Red Sox players were a testament to the respect Newark earned from Marlins officials, in particular traveling secretaries Bill Beck and Manny Colon, who arranged the visits as a gesture of their appreciation to her.
That appreciation was displayed to Joan during the regular season, too.
“When the Marlins came to Boston to play the Red Sox, the Marlins got her tickets,’’ Frank Jr. recalled.
“My daughter Caroline went to the game. We were there early and the Red Sox asked her to be a ball girl for the game. A huge memory in her childhood from going to a baseball park, and it all comes full circle because my mom had such a great relationship with all the people in the Marlins.’’
Joan stopped working at Roger Dean Stadium once the pandemic hit, said Suzanne Newark. When the games resumed, she made occasional appearances at the ballpark during spring training — as a spectator, not an employee.
On Aug. 8, Frank Sr. — Joan’s husband of nearly 63 years — died after a five-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia. Eight months earlier, in December 2021, Joan was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
When she passed away nearly a year later, it didn’t take long for word to spread among her Marlins friends, including her media room den children.
Reflecting on the many great times we shared with Joan, we reached the same conclusion about her legacy: If there ever is a Hall of Fame for baseball receptionists, Joan Newark would be a first-ballot shoo in.
“Joan and Frank are two spring training stories, a husband and wife, who gave as much of themselves in the spring as anyone involved in the game,’’ Frisaro said.
“For those blessed to travel and cover Major League Baseball, people like Joan are part of our baseball family. So much of being involved in baseball is handling the daily grind. Joan was right there, up early, and staying late. She was such a wonderful person, who enriched all who knew her.’’
A service and mass are scheduled for Friday, Dec. 9 in Wilmington. Immediately following, Joan and Frank will be interred together at Calvary Cemetery in Winchester, Mass.
“Joan loved her husband, children, grandchildren, family, friends, the Boston Red Sox, and the Democratic Party,’’ read her obituary.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Advocates, Inc., 1881 Worcester Road, Framingham, MA 01701 or advocates.org/support-advocates.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.