The Somerset Professional Baseball Series


Several weeks ago, I was at wits end. With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing for more than four months, tensions were high. World issues were at a fever pitch, people becoming ill and being forced to quarantine, and businesses being forced to furlough employees to save money to stay open. Mentally, I was completely burned out.

No doubt, I have been incredibly lucky. I’ve been able to work. I’ve been able to make my payments on all of my possessions. I have still been able to podcast, write, and record videos for Hardway HQ. And, thanks to the modern world of technology, I have been able to be in contact with friends and family and relatively see them through multiple forms of communication. I’m very thankful for things in life going my way.

And yet, I have struggled with my mental health. I’ve been angry at the world. I’ve been disappointed at the actions of people in our country. I’m extremely sad at how COVID-19 has affected millions of people around the world. There is no getting around it; the world is forever changed.

Normally, when stressors are high, you always find a way to have some sort of release or vice to help get through. Sadly, it has come incredibly tough to come by. Bars and restaurants have been extremely restricted on how they conduct business. Concerts have been cancelled. And by and far, sporting events have been postponed and, even if they were active, no fans were allowed to attend.

2020 has literally become one for the record books. Sometimes it feels like there is no hope in sight for this to end. It really weighs on your mind.

Thank goodness for the Somerset Patriots.

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On July 7, 2020, I was logging onto Facebook to go to the Hardway HQ page. Just as I hit the home screen, the Somerset Patriots page was at the end of a live press conference. I smiled and finished what I had to do. Just before logging off, a press release was placed on the Patriots’ timeline.

The announcement of the Somerset Professional Baseball Series.

The owner of the Patriots, Steve Kalafer, decided to open up TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater and institute a limited (then) 12 game series between the 6-time Atlantic League champion Somerset and the New Jersey Blasters. Every Friday and Saturday, beginning on July 17 and ending on August 22, there would be 7 inning ball games, with limited rosters of 16 athletes each, all from the great Garden State. Longtime Patriots manager Brett Jodie would be coming up from South Carolina to manage, while “Big” Jon Hunton, Somerset legend and the Atlantic League’s single season saves record holder with 49 in 2014, would manage the Blasters.

The best part: thanks to New Jersey’s rules about outdoor events, approximately 450 tickets would be on sale for each game. Not only would social distancing be in effect, but the 6100 seat TD Bank Ballpark would allow for a great view, no matter where you sat, of the ballgame. Tickets would be only $10.

I instantly started geeking out.

Thankfully, my day job was literally 5 minutes away by car, so it was an easy drive to get to. And, if I had decided to go to a Saturday game, TD Bank Ballpark was 20 minutes away from Hardway HQ Studios. With an easy drive, affordable ticket prices, and a love of baseball in my heart, I knew what I had to do. I hopped on my beautiful iPhone 7 at 10 AM on July 9, went to SomersetPatriots.com, quickly went to buy tickets, and scooped up three for Opening Night.

I was going to attend a professional baseball game in 2020, and it was going to happen in Central New Jersey.

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In 1998, the Somerset Patriots were one of the founding fathers of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. With that came an opportunity. On April 28, 1998, ground was broken in Bridgewater to start work on the Somerset Ballpark. Due to that, the Patriots were on the road for the entire 1998 season. 14 months and $18 million later, the Patriots officially had a home. Then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman helped open the stadium on June 7, 1999, and the Somerset Patriots were off and running.

Over the next 21 years, the Somerset Ballpark had been renamed twice. Commerce Bank bought the rights to the stadium in the summer of 2000 and had them until 2009, when TD Bank purchased Commerce and subsequently had the naming rights in their favor. It is a beautiful 6100 seat ballpark with affordable parking and accessibility by train. The moniker “the Jewel of the Atlantic League” does not hold justice to the sheer beauty of the stadium. It might be the most intimate setting for baseball in the United States. In fact, Ballpark Digest named TD Bank Ballpark the “Best Independent Minor League Ballpark” in the country.

Although it was built initially for baseball, other sports have inhabited TD Bank Ballpark over the years. The Women’s Professional Soccer league had a few games played there by Sky Blue FC in 2009 before moving ultimately to Red Bull Stadium until it folded in 2012. The New Jersey Pride played its 2002 and 2003 seasons in Somerset for Major League Lacrosse, in which they made their only two playoff appearances during their eight year existence during their Commerce Bank Ballpark run. Even professional cricket, as the New Jersey Fire made the stadium its home base for the only season of Pro Cricket in 2004.

However, TD Bank Ballpark is baseball first. The Somerset Patriots have become a successful organization over its 21 year run at 860 East Main St in Bridgewater, NJ. 6 Atlantic League championships (2001, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2015) and 13 Liberty Division titles (1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) have been won. Sparky Lyle, the first reliever ever to win the American League Cy Young Award in 1977, was the first manager of the ballclub, and created the foundation for the standard of excellence in Somerset with a 1024-995 record during his fourteen year run as skipper. His number 28 was retired in 2014 and hangs in TD Bank Ballpark as the only Patriot to receive that honor. Add to the work within the community that the Somerset Patriots do makes it no wonder that the team averages 5200 fans per game and has had over 6 million fans enter through the venue. It is an institution in Somerset County.

So it makes it incredibly interesting that the Patriots were not the ONLY team being looked at for residency of TD Bank Ballpark when everything came to fruition.

According to the game notes sent out prior to the beginning of the Somerset Professional Baseball Series, the Patriots were looking into a second team playing out the Somerset Ballpark for the beginning of the Atlantic League. That team would have been called the Bridgewater Blasters. The Blasters were to have been named after the home run call coined by Yankees and baseball announcing great Mel Allen, a “Ballantine Blast” (which for itself was named after Ballantine Beer, the first ever television sponsor for the Yanks).

However, that ultimately did not happen. The research into the vision showed that it would not have been a viable and profitable option to have two teams running out of the new ballpark. Thus, the Bridgewater Blasters became an afterthought, and the Patriots became the team we all knew and loved.

Yet, when the formation of the Somerset Professional Baseball Series came into play, the Blasters were instantly brought back in as a team to play against the Patriots. In many senses, the New Jersey Blasters were 20 years too early in the Kalafer family’s vision.

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July 17, 2020 was a very exciting day. The countdown to the game for me was exciting. The minutes seemed like hours and the hours seemed like days. Once 4 PM hit at my day job, I speed-walked to the time clock, punched out, got changed, and started the long, long 5 minute trek to TD Bank Ballpark. I parked my car in the parking lot, paid my $5, and walked to meet up with my friend Nick.

As I was strolling towards the front of TD Bank Ballpark, I saw two young teenagers peering into the side of the side of the stadium, watching batting practice. It made me smile, knowing that I wasn’t the only one excited for this. In many senses, baseball is a young person’s game. However, being 34 and as excited for baseball as the youngsters were, it universally shows the importance of how America’s pastime truly is in the fabric of Americana.

Nick and I walked to the Westbrook Bar 5 minutes away and met up with the man, the myth, the legend Tough Tim Hughes. Together, we bonded over a few brews and enjoyed the outdoor atmosphere of Westbrook. It felt like going to a bar outside of Madison Square Garden and having a couple of drinks before enjoying the heyday of the Knicks or the Rangers. An absolute chill atmosphere.

Just as we knew it, it was five to 6, and we headed back to TD Bank Ballpark. Once we got near the front entrance of the park, our face masks went on, and we walked up to the ticket patron. After social distancing, we got our tickets scanned and entered the stadium. It now felt real. The scent of hot dogs, freshly cut grass, and that normal baseball aroma permeated my senses. I was pumped.

With all seats available, the three of us made a decision: sit behind home plate. Out of all my years of going to baseball games, I’ve never once sat behind home plate. We found an available row, social distanced, sat down, manspread, and took our face masks off.

By the time 7 PM rolled around, 450 people were in their seats. Our hats went off for the National Anthem. At 7:05 PM, David Kubiak stood on top of the mound. A few seconds later, he delivered his first pitch to Blasters hitter Mark Shenloogian. Shenloogian hit it back to Kubiak. A toss to first baseman Joey Rose, one pitch, one out.

Most importantly, live professional baseball had come to fruition in Central New Jersey in 2020.

One of the more interesting rules of the Somerset Professional Baseball Series was that games were going to last 7 innings. If they were going to go into extra innings, the innings would start with an automatic runner on second base. Coincidentally, MLB, thanks to the impact of COVID-19, has instituted that rule for the 2020 Summer Sprint. During the writing of this article, I had learned that MLB had actually come to terms on a deal with the Atlantic League testing out a multitude of unique visions, including both robot umpires and the aforementioned extra innings rule. Instinctively, as a baseball purist, I should despise that. However, the more open minded I’ve become over the past 18 months, the more I’ve become OK with the concept being tested.

Also, I kept my eye on the social distancing guidelines that the Patriots and Blasters promised to follow. 6 feet away in the dugout. No high-fives. Managers wearing facemasks. The more I watched, the more I witnessed the players and managers following all the guidelines. I will not lie when I say that I thought I would see a slip-up at some point involving the guidelines. However, it never happened. I give every single player major props for following the protocols in case for potential possibilities of COVID-19. Instinctively, it has to be incredibly tough to not give a high-five to a talent for scoring a run or making a great play. Both ball clubs deserve a wealth of credit.

By the bottom of the third inning, the Blasters had a 5-2 lead on the Patriots. Tim, Nick, and I were surprised by the small ball philosophy being used by both teams. Constant stolen bases attempts, hitting for contact at the plate, and solid, yet not overwhelming pitching. It felt like a throwback in many senses, due to the heavy Sabermetrics and the massive emphasis on launch angle in today’s Major Leagues. It really had a positive influence on us.

Ultimately, the game ended with a Blasters victory 7-2. “Big” Jon Hunton won his first ever game as a manager, and the Blasters won their first ever game in existence. Zach Racusin went 3-3 with a double and an RBI. Ryan Williamson pitched an inning of relief to get his first win. Billy Layne, Jr threw 2 innings of 1 hit, 4 strikeout ball in relief for the Patriots in the loss.

Most of all, it was a win for the Somerset Professional Baseball Series. The fans were safe and well behaved, the players and coaches followed the rules and guidelines within the stadium, and the Patriots organization made it work with a live crowd watching professional baseball during a pandemic. Tim, Nick, and I were thoroughly impressed with the professionalism of everyone in the ballpark, especially the Somerset staff. It was proof that when everyone works together, from patrons to organization alike, things happen and go smoothly.

It was an escape, and a damn good one. Baseball was back.

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I wound up going to five of the thirteen games of the Somerset Professional Baseball Series. I went once with my good friend Ed Scanlon, and three separate times by myself. At these games, I was able to really take in the Somerset Patriot experience.

Mark Leiter, Jr was outstanding on his Saturday starts. The nephew of New York Met great Al Leiter and son of journeyman pitcher Mark Sr., Leiter sat out the entire 2019 season after Tommy John Surgery. Prior to that, Leiter Jr. pitched solid ball in his rookie campaign with the Philadelphia Phillies, going 3-6 with a 4.96 ERA in 27 appearances with 84 strikeouts in 2017. Watching him on the mound in Somerset, Leiter, Jr. brought the intensity and grit that men who have that Major League experience. In 6 starts, Leiter, Jr. went 1-1 with a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings. His 31 strikeouts led the entire Somerset Professional Baseball Series.

On the second to last start for Leiter, Jr., his dad and uncle were in attendance, taking in the atmosphere of live baseball. I didn’t even notice they were there until the Patriots’ Facebook page posted a picture of them behind home plate during the game. Both New Jersey residents, Al and Mark Sr. brought credibility to Somerset by being there.

On sheer coincidence, I did bump into Al at the Somerville Wawa after the game. The uber Mets fan that I am, I kept my composure and nodded at him, which he responded in kind. Of course, and this is a true story, the Wawa staff messed up his order, which goes to show that even millionaires get their Shorties messed up at Wawa. However, the rumors of Al Leiter being a genuine good guy rang true, as he wasn’t even bothered by it and knew that mistakes happen. A fun little experience.

Midway through the Somerset series, an awesome occurrence happened. One of the Blasters found himself going back to the big leagues. Brandon Leibrandt, drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2014, was on the fast track to the Majors in 2018 before undergoing Tommy John Surgery and missing a year and a half. Signing with the Patriots organization for the 2020 campaign, I was able to see Leibrandt in person on July 25th. He had solid control, great offspeed stuff, and a solid demeanor on the hill. Although he had a no decision and 3 walks, he also had 5 strikeouts and gave up only 2 hits.

On August 10th, the Marlins picked up his contract. EIGHT DAYS LATER, Miami brought Leibrandt up to the Majors. With #86 on his back, he pitched an inning of relief on August 23 against the World Champion Washington Nationals. In a wild statistic, Leibrandt’s first strikeout in the Majors was against phenom Juan Soto. In a 2-2 count, Leibrandt threw an 82 MPH offspeed pitch and painted the outside corner for strike 3. As of this writing, Leibrandt still has a 0.00 ERA and has 2 strikeouts to his name.

Personally, I truly feel that if not for the Somerset Professional Baseball Series, Brandon Leibrandt does not get to MLB in the 2020 season. It truly is a great look for the Patriots organization that they pulled this off and had a great success transpire in the midst of a unique series and time within sports and this country. I hope Leibrandt continues onward to have a very successful MLB career and that he stays healthy.

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I was able to see the Patriots clinch the Somerset Professional Baseball Series on Thursday, August 20 (Somerset actually added an extra game during the final weekend, due to its success) in a 4-3 win. Leadoff man Scott Kelly got on with a triple in the bottom of the sixth and Justin Pacchioli hit an infield single, driving in Kelly and ultimately being the #1 factor in Somerset’s win. Two days later, the Patriots were awarded the Joe Torre Championship Trophy prior to the final game of the series.

The Patriots won 9 games, including 7 straight, while the Blasters won 4. Somerset closer James Pugliese was awarded the Sparky Lyle Pitching Award for his stellar performance, going 1-0 with 6 saves and 13 strikeouts over 7 games, while the Blasters’ Martin Figueroa won the Willie Randolph MVP Award, batting .324 with 11 hits, 4 doubles, 7 runs, and 6 RBIs. Figueroa was absolutely steady in every game he performed in that I witnessed live. Both Lyle and Randolph were in attendance for the final game, bringing another piece of credibility to Bridgewater.

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Overall, I feel that the Somerset Professional Baseball Series was a complete success. Through the trials and tribulations, the Patriots organization were able to successfully show the sporting world how to safely allow spectators into TD Bank Ballpark and watch a ballgame. They were able to display the way health could be maintained from athletes in the field and dugout. From all the research I’ve done, not one player or fan going to a game contracted COVID-19. That has to be commended. And yet...the mainstream media ignored it.

I could not nor will I ever understand how the Somerset Professional Baseball Series got no real exposure from the sporting world. With MLB allowing no fans in the ballpark, New Jersey held it down with fans in attendance, and nobody covered it. I remember the morning after the first game, I went to the store and went to pick up a Star Ledger and a Home News Tribune, fully expecting coverage on it, and NOTHING. If the local and state newspaper barely gave it any attention, I figured simply that the mainstream wouldn’t either, and that’s a damn shame.

I hope that by writing this blog, the Somerset Patriots, in particular the Kalafer family, get the recognition they deserve. It’s the least I can do. For an overall dismal and frustrating 2020, the Somerset Professional Baseball Series gave me hope that brighter days are ahead. It gave me something to look forward to. It took me away from the issues surrounding our state, country, and world for a few hours. It gave me an escape. And in turn, it made me a fan of the Somerset Patriots for life.

Thank you, Patriots. Thank YOU.

Jon Harder

Jon@HardwayHQ.com

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