Bridgewater, NJ- 2020 was to be a special year. The Somerset Patriots were coming off their third-straight season as attendance leaders in the Atlantic League and looking to expand the partnership with Major League Baseball that brought national attention to the club.
From January through early spring, the roster was shaping up to combine fan favorites like Scott Kelly, Justin Pacchioli, Yovan Gonzalez, and David Kubiak with incoming MLB veterans that included Paulo Orlando, Pat Dean, and Vance Worley. The on-field goal was simple: return to the championship form expected of the franchise.
But by early March, the season was postponed. COVID-19 hit the New Jersey area hard and forced the shutdown of all non-essential businesses, gatherings of large numbers, and professional sporting events. It became very unlikely that baseball would be possible in 2020.
Like just about every other business, the Somerset Patriots staff worked remotely for the first few months of the pandemic.
“It was an endless amount of ZOOM meetings, e-mails, and any other way to connect with one another,” said longtime Somerset Patriots President/General Manager Patrick McVerry. “It’s especially tough on a staff that is used to seeing one another for 15 hours straight during the season. It was important to the Kalafer family and myself to keep our entire staff employed throughout the pandemic.”
Team management worked on ways to keep engagement with fans and support the community in need. TD Bank Ballpark became a PPE collection site for doctors and nurses on the frontlines helping coronavirus patients. Fundraisers were also run through merchandise sales, events, and donations to benefit the RWJBarnabas Health Emergency Response Fund. Throughout the year, the Somerset Patriots raised $16,000 to help support the health care professionals serving their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are grateful to the Somerset Patriots for their continued support of our hospital throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, from donations of food for our staff to hosting blood drives and holding events to benefit our Emergency Response Fund,” said Tony Cava, president and CEO of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset. “Their support helps ensure that our community has access to the comprehensive emergency care services they need.”
The staff put together an “Opening Day At Home” celebration through the team’s social media channels to bring fans together virtually when they could not be at the ballpark. It succeeded at reaching over 125,000 people with an entire day of posts, contests, videos, and activities.
Broadcaster Marc Schwartz hosted weekly “Patriots Check-Ins” on Facebook to allow fans the opportunity to meet and ask questions of players, coaches, and other team representatives.
It was not until June that the front office staff returned to the ballpark once New Jersey health and medical experts allowed small indoor gatherings to resume. Management looked to fill up the summer schedule with ways people could safely get together at the ballpark.
A COVID-19 readiness plan for operating TD Bank Ballpark was created that included everything from social distanced seating, hand sanitizer stations, masks required when moving around the ballpark, and many more protocols to help provide a safe environment for everyone at every event.
On June 19th, the Atlantic League officially announced that it was opening up the 2020 schedule for each member club to fill their schedule as needed to serve their communities.
“The Atlantic League and other leagues are in similar positions,” said Atlantic League President Rick White in a statement at the time. “There are multiple teams in each league at different stages of reopening; therefore, some who are able to begin play and some who are not. This solution would pair those clubs able to play and entertain fans at their ballparks, providing a high level of professional baseball and affordable family entertainment.”
A New Jersey Executive Order made it possible for certain outdoor events to take place with a maximum of 250 people. Not being able to open the ballpark yet, the Somerset Patriots made use of the parking lot to host drive-in movies to entertain families. The team screened the beloved baseball classics The Sandlot and Rookie of the Year to kickoff what would become 76 different events at the ballpark.
In July, TD Bank Ballpark joined several other local minor league and high school fields as a site of the New Jersey Last Dance World Series, a statewide baseball tournament for scholastic-aged players and recently graduated high school seniors. The events were the first that permitted up to 500 people to attend outdoor activities in the state.
Once state guidelines allowed, the movies were moved into the ballpark with the scoreboard serving as the screen and the playing field as seating. The Summer Movie Series played a dozen classics including Field of Dreams, The Sandlot, and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The smell of popcorn wafted through the ballpark as fans relived film favorites or introduced them to their children for the first time.
Two graduation ceremonies were conducted on the field for Bridgewater-Raritan High School to give their seniors a proper send off and allow families to share the joy of commencement together. Far Hills Country Day School also held a graduation at the ballpark for their eighth graders.
“It certainly was not the summer anybody expected, but we were proud to serve our community,” said McVerry. “It’s our continuing commitment to Somerset County and Central New Jersey. We will be here for you through the good times and the tough ones as well.”
The team began to host practices once the state said it was safe to do so. Determined to bring professional baseball in some form to the community, the Somerset Patriots announced the creation of the SOMERSET Professional Baseball Series. In a press conference on July 7th, plans were announced to allow local professional talent to play for two teams run by the organization.
“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 at the event. “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.”
The series began on July 17th and ran through August 22nd. All 13 games of the series were sellouts of the allowed 500 people, played before socially distanced crowds that provided energy and enthusiasm for both teams throughout the series. Any given night, generations of Somerset Patriots fans cheered alongside fans that embraced the fledgling New Jersey Blasters.
The series also allowed fans to see some of their favorite players don the red, white, and blue one more time under the guidance of Brett Jodie and Jon Hunton.
“We couldn’t be happier with the way the series ran and the response from our fans and community,” McVerry said. “Our goal was to provide baseball to our community and bring some joy back to our area. We feel our staff and the players were able to do that in a very safe and enjoyable way. We’ve heard nothing but positive reviews from those that were able to grab the hottest ticket in town or watch from home.”
Events continued even after the baseball season concluded. Young dancers from Gotta Dance, Triangle Dance, and the Dance Factory took the field to perform recitals and enjoy time with friends and family on perfect summer nights.
As the weather turned a little cooler, the team hosted a Labor Day comedy show featuring New York based comedians Sam Morell, Jared Freid, and Joe List, while award-winning performer Jim Barone rocked fans with a two-and-a-half hour live concert tribute to Elvis Presley in mid-September.
With synagogues unable to observe the High Holy Days together in a traditional manner, the Kalafer family donated the use of TD Bank Ballpark for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
In late October, Somerset Patriots Co-Chairmen Jonathan and Josh Kalafer unveiled a sculpture depicting their father, Steve, and manager emeritus Sparky Lyle in front of TD Bank Ballpark to pay tribute the two mens’ legacy to the team and Somerset County.
A couple of weeks later, news broke that the Somerset Patriots were named the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. The announcement came from months of communication between the two teams amid MLB’s restructuring of its minor league system.
“This is a dream come true for everyone in the Somerset Patriots family,” said Kalafer. “I’ve always looked at the Yankees as the gold standard in baseball and sports as a whole. It is how we’ve modeled the way we’ve conducted our business since day one. We are forever grateful to Hal Steinbrenner and the entire Steinbrenner family, as well as the management of the New York Yankees.”
After over two decades as an independent team, the Somerset Patriots were now joining the most recognized and successful sports brand in the world.
“We’ve done this with the wonderful people we work with. We’ve done this with the wonderful people that come out to the ballpark. And we’ve done it in a way with everyone in the community,” said Josh Kalafer. “Never did we imagine that we would have the opportunity to be a part of the New York Yankees organization. It is the beginning of yet another incredible chapter in this long and beautiful journey.”
New York Yankees legends Joe Torre, Sparky Lyle, and Willie Randolph attended the official announcement of the partnership at TD Bank Ballpark on an unseasonably warm and sunny November 10th. They were joined by the Kalafer family and Somerset County elected officials who ushered in a new chapter of Somerset Patriots baseball.
“I feel George Steinbrenner would have been very proud of this marriage between the Somerset Patriots and the New York Yankees based on the fact that he liked winners,” Torre said. “And this ballclub, this organization, and this ballpark has seen its share of winners.”
As the calendar approached Thanksgiving – and knowing that there are many in need and suffering from food insecurity -the Kalafer family, the Somerset Patriots, Flemington Car & Truck Country Family of Brands, Clinton Honda, and Jaguar Land Rover Princeton donated 1,000 individual turkeys and all the trimmings to local area food banks. These donations are expected to feed between 4,000-5,000 people over the holiday season.
2020 will be remembered for many things. Through heartbreak and uncertainty, there were still highlights large and small. Like many, the Somerset Patriots are looking forward to turning the page to the 2021 season and ushering in the next chapter in the franchise’s proud history.
“I can honestly say that I have never looked forward to the baseball season more than I am looking forward to this one,” said Jonathan Kalafer. “I’m looking forward to being excellent partners for the New York Yankees and providing the best possible experience for our fans, their players, and the community.”