Bridgewater, NJ – Once Somerset Patriots starting pitcher David Kubiak took the mound as he’d done over 220 times during his nine-year professional career, it was time to go to work and give his team the best shot to win. But when the 6’7” hurler threw the first pitch of the game to New Jersey Blasters center fielder Mark Shenloogian at 7:05 pm on Friday, July 17th, it meant much more. It was the first professional pitch thrown in New Jersey since fall of last year.
“At this point, it was just awesome to be out there again,” said Kubiak. “There’s a lot of rust to knock off for everybody, but it’s like riding a bike. We all had to deal with a lot over the past few months to get to the point of playing again. It felt really good to be out there doing what we love for those that really needed it.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, baseball and all other sports have been on hold since March 11th when the NBA made the announcement that the season was being suspended indefinitely. Every other league followed suit, including the Atlantic League, which decided on March 16th to postpone the start of its season that was to begin on April 30th.
When the Atlantic League granted its member clubs the ability to find alternate ways to bring baseball to their communities, the Somerset Patriots created a league of their own to make professional baseball a reality in Central New Jersey.
“We have been committed since our season was postponed to bring baseball back to Central New Jersey,” said Somerset Patriots President/General Manager Patrick McVerry. “We have worked hard to do that the best and safest way possible to give our community something to cheer for once again. We are excited to do our part to put smiles back on peoples’ faces.”
Plans were unveiled at a press conference held in the home clubhouse at TD Bank Ballpark on July 7th. The Somerset Patriots introduced the SOMERSET Professional Baseball Series, featuring two teams composed of local players only that would play games in Bridgewater on Friday and Saturdays from July 17th through August 22nd.
The Somerset Patriots would play the newly created New Jersey Blasters, a team that payed homage to a franchise that was in the original plans to bring baseball to Somerset County back in the mid-1990’s. At that time they were to be the Bridgewater Blasters and also play games at what would later become TD Bank Ballpark. When it was decided to focus on running one team successfully, the Bridgewater Blasters never took off and remained on the launchpad for over two decades, finally getting the call as the New Jersey Blasters.
It didn’t take long for the Blasters to make history. In their first game, the team topped the Somerset Patriots 7-2 behind impressive performances by Montclair’s Zach Racusin, who was 3-for-3 with three runs scored, Flemington’s Louie Martini, who plated a pair of runs, and Allentown’s Tommy McCarthy, who’s third-inning RBI double put the team ahead for good.
The excitement of baseball returning was even more evident on an extra inning walk-off win by the Somerset Patriots on Saturday night. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Carlos Garcia hit a grounder just past the outstretched glove of Blasters third baseman Derek Romberg to score Sean Guida and Scott Kelly for the thrilling victory.
Both teams’ rosters, put together by Somerset’s Director of Baseball Operations and Blasters manager Jon Hunton, feature New Jersey standouts Mark Leiter Jr. (Toms River North, MLB- Toronto), Billy Layne Jr. (Old Bridge), Vin Mazzaro (Rutherford, MLB- Oakland, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Miami, and San Francisco), Joey Rose (Toms River North), Matt O’Neill (Seton Hall Prep), Adam Tricarico (Piscataway) and Ryan Williamson (Cranford).
The SOMERSET Professional Baseball Series was created with the goal of safely bringing baseball to the community the Somerset Patriots serve. Team management spent months putting together a readiness plan to reopen TD Bank Ballpark in a way that follows CDC guidelines, state and local government orders, and health department recommendations. Everything from social distanced seating, hand sanitizer stations, mandatory masks in all high traffic areas, cashless payments, a heavy focus on online ticketing, and much more were put into place to keep fans safety as the focus.
“The most important aspect of our program is the safety, security, and the welfare of not only our fans, but the community, our players, and our staff,” said Somerset Patriots Chairman Emeritus Steve Kalafer. “This is a plan that has been vetted by health care professionals, meets the CDC guidelines, and New Jersey’s executive orders. We are going to have baseball for our community.”
As per New Jersey executive orders for outdoor public gatherings, the Somerset Patriots are able to host 500 people at the ballpark for baseball games and other community events. For a team that has consistently ranked among the top drawing minor league teams throughout the country with an average of 5,200 fans per game and over 360,000 fans per season, the sight of 500 people at a 6,100-seat ballpark would normally be devastating. Sections that were usually filled with hundreds, were instead occupied by dozens. But on July 17th, those over 400-plus ticket holders represented a sellout.
Though Opening Night of the SOMERSET Professional Baseball Series may not have been a huge success financially for the team, the Somerset Patriots could not have been happier to open gates and bring fans to TD Bank Ballpark.
“We lose money on every pitch that is thrown during this series,” Kalafer added. “This is our full community commitment to make certain everybody knows the Somerset Patriots are alive and well and willing to meet their commitment for affordable family entertainment to the fans.”