It wasn’t long after water had filled TD Bank Ballpark all the way to the top of the outfield walls that Somerset Patriots general manager/president Patrick McVerry and head groundskeeper Dan Purner had a short conversation on the concourse that would set the tone for the incredible effort that got the team back on the field in Bridgewater just eight days later.
“I said, ‘Dan, you OK?’ He said, ‘Yeah,” McVerry recalled.
“Next day, we came here and it was full of mud and everything was displaced and I said, ‘Can you fix it, Dan?’ And he said, ‘I think so.’”
Sure, Somerset defeated the very same Hartford Yard Goats organization that had so graciously hosted them earlier this week by a score of 6-5 in 12 innings on Friday night, but the baseball itself wasn’t the story that night. That it was being played at all was, the culmination of round-the-clock hard work after Hurricane Ida devastated nearly everything in its path in Somerset County.
“We’re thinking a lot about the Somerset Patriots, but we really are thinking more about the communities around us,” Patriots co-chairman Josh Kalafer said on Friday. “I’m sure you’ve all seen it first-hand as well as on TV and the internet, just the devastation in some of the communities around us is absolutely horrific. We hope that being able to come out and get back to some semblance of normal here and having a little bit of light fun at the ballpark could bring some joy to some people who’ve been through so much. Driving through the area, you see that people’s entire homes are either on the front lawn, the sidewalk or their driveway. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Already over a week removed from intense flooding that claimed at least 29 lives and destroyed countless homes, and the evidence of it all remained nearly everywhere you looked around the ballpark. Though the water that had filled the ballpark all the way up to the seventh row of the lower seating bowl had mercifully receded, nearly 12 feet of standing water remained just behind the outfield wall at the still unpassable NJ Transit train station, while piles of ruined possessions from homes on the roads leading to the stadium still lined the streets.
“The community, you drive around these streets and it breaks your heart,” McVerry said. “I think we all realize that, too. We feel really bad about the facility here, but these families that lost pretty much everything, it breaks your heart. When you think about baseball, you think about the Patriots and you think about the ability to come out and enjoy a baseball game, but enjoying getting away from your home that you’re dealing with all those problems with. So, it is important. And it also gives hope, it shows that it can be done. People use that word that we’re resilient, which I agree with, but it’s taking these tough times and overcoming them.”
The Patriots, as they so often do, are hopeful to set the tone for a community looking to do just that. Friday seemed to be the beginning of that process, with a ballgame serving as a welcome distraction for those who had their lives turned upside down through no fault of their own.
“Speaking for myself personally, when I’m going through a challenging time, entertainment – baseball in particular – is my favorite escape,” said Somerset co-chairman Jonathan Kalafer. “I know people are busy, we’ve been incredibly busy ourselves, but if they have the time and they can get out here and just cheer for their home team and get their mind off everything else for a little while, I hope it does them some good.”
Somerset County representatives on hand for the re-opening of the ballpark echoed similar sentiments.
“I think it would be a respite for them, a time to kind of unwind, decompress and actually come out and have a good time in spite of what they’ve gone through,” said Commissioner Director Shanel Robinson. “Having the Patriots here in our own backyard, they’re the fabric of who we are in Somerset County. It may be difficult, but I think people will be able to come out and enjoy themselves.”
“People have such great memories of going to a ballgame right down the street in their hometown, and this is really part of the fabric of Somerset County and the community here,” added Commissioner Deputy Director Sara Sooy. “So, to see the whole stadium here and the field looking great after some of those pictures online, it is a beacon of hope for people. We are strong and resilient, and we’re going to make it through this.”
Outside of the ballpark, the surrounding communities will need to work together to restore, rebuild and regain some semblance of normalcy. Inside of it, however, it was clear who was largely responsible for making all of that a reality at TD Bank Ballpark.
Purner, in his 17th season on the grounds crew in Somerset, has been in a largely unwanted and uncomfortable spotlight; posing for photos for a New York Times photographer who showed up on Friday was clearly not a favorite part of the day for Purner, a friendly, but often quiet presence at the ballpark who usually lets his work do the talking.
It’s never spoken louder than it did on Friday.
Through an incredible “all hands on deck” effort led by Purner, his crew, the front office staff, interns, catering team and even construction workers who were already on-site to continue to renovate the facilities as then transition to working as a Yankees affiliate continues, the consensus was that, at least from what fans could see, TD Bank Ballpark was back and better than ever.
“It looks like nothing happened,” said Patriots manager Julio Mosquera. “It’s exciting to be back, and we couldn’t be more thankful for the work that the whole staff did in here to get us back here. There’s nothing better than playing at home.”
The process to get to that point was not easy. Purner said that the cleanup process began on Friday, starting with the removal of debris – most of the brand new padded signs on the walls of the playing surface had washed away – and not soon after shifted to tending to the playing surface itself, which had a layer of mud and dirt from both the rush of water into the ballpark, as well as the warning track, which ultimately needed to be replaced.
As the call was made shortly thereafter to send at least the first three games of the series against the Yard Goats to Hartford – the Kalafer family lauded the Colorado Rockies organization, the Yard Goats, Major League Baseball and the Yankees for their help with that part of the process, as well as others – it started to become apparent that, after nearly around the clock work on the ballpark, they’d somehow be able to get it ready for a Friday return.
In an emotionally charged year that’s seen unprecedented highs and lows for the organization, there was never a doubt in Purner’s mind that TD Bank Ballpark hadn’t seen its last game of 2021 just yet.
“You don’t like to see the bad footage that came out – that one video got a million or something views, and I hate for people to see it in that kind of condition – so I wanted to get it back to finishing the season on a good note,” Purner said. “With COVID last year and losing (owner) Steve (Kalafer) this year, I think it meant a little bit more to try to get back. You don’t want any fan to come out and see any remnants of it, but with everything the team has been through, it meant a little bit more this season.”
An incredible amount of work remains, of course. While those padded wall pieces have ultimately been restored, the damage they suffered will leave them warped and ultimately needing to be replaced after the season. The new batting cage was badly affected, and some offices and locker rooms – although Mosquera said the clubhouse itself was unscathed – were in a bad state of affairs; McVerry said everything from new lockers, televisions, computers and even refrigerators will all be needed. And that’s to say nothing of the losses the players suffered, with many having lost their vehicles entirely, as well as any possessions in them after the parking lot flooded and completely submerged their cars while they watched from afar on a road trip in Bowie.
The team has utilized vans to help transport players to and from the team hotel, while players who still have their cars have also pitched in. Even Mosquera has lent players his personal truck to get around while they get their situations sorted.
But, to have even gotten to this point at all is largely thanks to Purner, who led the charge in making the impossible a reality in just eight days time.
“He just never lost his cool the entire time,” McVerry said. “That, for me, in running the place, is such a relief for somebody like me that has to deal with so many things that he’s got it. That’s basically what he was telling me. And, he did. The guy worked night and day. We left the lights on for him, and he was the first guy here in the morning. He’s priceless.”