Somerset, NJ – The Somerset Patriots hosted a special event on Thursday, October 24th entitled Somerset Patriots: Next 20 to bring together community leaders, team partners and long-time fans to celebrate the team’s past, present, and future.
Over 150 guests were in attendance at the Palace at Somerset Park for a program that featured a distinguished panel celebrating where the team has been, what the team is doing, and where the team is going. Somerset Patriots Chairman Emeritus Steve Kalafer, along with Co-Chairmen Jonathan and Josh Kalafer, were joined on stage by baseball Hall of Famer and MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, Somerset’s President/General Manager Patrick McVerry, Manager Emeritus and baseball great Sparky Lyle, President of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball Rick White, Somerset County Freeholder Director Brian Levine, and Bridgewater Township Council Vice President Howard Norgalis.
The three-segment panel began with how the public-private partnership with Somerset County, Bridgewater Township, the Kalafer family, and the Somerset Patriots was formed to bring baseball and a beautiful taxpayer neutral ballpark to the community.
“You can see that [the ballpark] was going to be a place you wanted to go to. It wasn’t going to be some place you have to go to. You looked forward to it,” recalled Torre, one of the first people to see the ballpark during its early construction. “I think the key to the whole thing is whether it’s 20 years ago or yesterday, you were still going to get the same treatment. You still look forward to going to a place you enjoy being at and get entertained.”
TD Bank Ballpark officially opened its gates, originally as Somerset Ballpark, on June 7, 1999 for the first ever Somerset Patriots game. Since that time, the team has consistently ranked among the top drawing minor league franchises in the country.
Lyle spoke of coming home after playing all 100 games in 1998 on the road.
“When I first saw the ballpark, when I walked into it, it was far and above anything I was expecting,” said Lyle. “When [Joe Torre] and I were playing in the minor leagues, they didn’t have anything like it. It was and still is a beauty.”
Somerset County elected officials from all townships and boroughs were invited to be the guests of the team at the gathering. Freeholder Levine and Council Vice President Norgalis represented Somerset County and the Township or Bridgewater respectively.
“The model is what we have seen and how it works. For communities looking [at building ballparks] it’s all of the ancillary things too,” said Levine. “It’s jobs, full-time and part-time. Having a team called the Somerset Patriots keeping us on the map is always good.”
Norgalis added, “For those of you who know Bridgewater know we don’t have a downtown section. But on game night [TD Bank Ballpark] is the downtown for Bridgewater Township.”
The focus then shifted to the 2019 season and the excitement surrounding a team 20-plus years in and continuing to grow. While most franchises seem to struggle years into their existence, the Somerset Patriots led the Atlantic League in attendance for the third straight season.
“It’s about partnerships. That’s something that Steve and the Kalafer family are about and instilled in our staff since day one,” said McVerry of the team’s success. “It’s a family atmosphere. We live and breathe that every day and strive to always be that.”
The topics featured the partnership between the Atlantic League and Major League Baseball and the unprecedented amount of exposure the Somerset Patriots received throughout the season. In February of this year, the Atlantic League entered into a three-year agreement with MLB to test new rules and equipment that can ultimately impact the future of the game. The Somerset Patriots have played a leadership role in the groundbreaking agreement.
“The rules are a test at a high level in a great environment that will help Major League Baseball to determine its direction as it looks forward to new rules, new equipment, and different initiatives for the game,” said White, who emphasized that those tests began at TD Bank Ballpark before anywhere else in the league and baseball.
In addition to the MLB partnership bringing the team to new heights, the Somerset Patriots also received international stardom in the form of a viral video seen by tens of millions around the world.
“The 2019 season for the Somerset Patriots is really a case study in modern media and publicity,” said Jonathan Kalafer, who had a long career teaching media at New Jersey high schools and universities. “Going into the season, we knew it was going to be very exciting on the media front because of the partnership with Major League Baseball. We had no idea that was only going to be part of the story this year. The video of Marc Schwartz catching the foul ball captured by Mike Ashmore took off and became a prime example of viral video that got us national exposure which you saw more and more this year.”
The final section spoke about the importance to reinvest in the ballpark, the team, and the community to help sustain growth and long-term success for the next 20 years. The team showcased renderings of some of the ideas being discussed for improvements at the “Jewel of the Atlantic League.”
Images of the ballpark with a Ferris Wheel in front and redesigns of the picnic patio, Fun Zone, and Handle Bar were shown during the event as possible improvements to the facility over the next few years.
A common theme throughout the program was the importance of partnerships and everyone working together to achieve these goals.
“All the parties involved in making this a success have been honest and transparent with each other. That’s how a partnership has to work,” said Steve Kalafer. “I expect as we go forward with our partners that there will be legitimate questions and concerns. We have to be able to answer those, just like we did over 20 years ago. We know our lessons from the past. We take what has worked, and we hear what we each have to say, but move forward together.”
One of the constants for the Somerset Patriots has been the unbelievable support of the community. Since opening day, fans have turned out, over 7,000,000 strong, to show their love and support for the team and to enjoy a night out with those special to them. The team and Kalafer family do not take that two-decade support lightly.
“I think the most beautiful part of the ballpark is the people. It’s the people that come out every night or once a season,” said Josh Kalafer. “The people that come out to the games really make the Somerset Patriots who we are. That, and of course, the people we are fortunate enough to work with as our colleagues every day.”