08/26/2020 2:31 PM -
Bridgewater, NJ – At a press conference on July 7th, the Somerset Patriots officially announced their plans to start up a series to provide professional baseball to the community in a safe way that adhered to all of New Jersey’s guidelines for outdoor gatherings in the times of COVID-19.
The announcement was met with excitement from fans and the community looking to feel some normalcy in their lives during a very abnormal time.
“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,” team Chairman Emeritus Steve Kalafer said at the time.
Attendance at TD Bank Ballpark was going to look very different. At the time of the announcement, only 250 people were allowed at outdoor events in the state. Despite a number 5,000 people less the team’s average attendance per game since 1999, the ownership and management of the Somerset Patriots were ready to move forward to honor their commitments to the community they serve.
The SOMERSET Professional Baseball Series was born and featured just two teams- the Somerset Patriots and the New Jersey Blasters- consisting of local talent to help eliminate the need for travel between states and limit the possible exposure and spread of the virus.
The managers were two of the team’s stalwarts. Brett Jodie would once again guide his Somerset Patriots, while pitching coach/ director of baseball operations Jon Hunton was named manager of the Blasters. Hunton was also tasked with putting together both teams’ rosters through a series of tryouts and his many contacts throughout baseball.
The front office put together a COVID-19 readiness plan for operating TD Bank Ballpark 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 the games.
Safety regulations weren’t just for the staff and fans. Players were tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis and adhered to several safety guidelines including social distancing, temperature checks upon arrival, minimal contact with each other, to name a few of the rules for the two rosters.
“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,” Kalafer added. “This was a plan that has been vetted by health care professionals, met CDC guidelines, and New Jersey’s executive orders. We were going to provide baseball to our community.”
A week after the press conference, Governor Phil Murphy upped the outdoor gathering number to 500 people, allowing the team to sell double the tickets than originally expected. Spectators, staff, and players were all accounted for in the total number allowed.
The Somerset Patriots released games on sale on a weekly basis as a precaution to not guarantee that all 13 games on the schedule would be played due to changes in state guidelines or any COVID-19 concerns at the ballpark.
Once each set of games went on sale, all 450 tickets were purchased within hours. Fans rallied around the idea of the newly created series and the demand for the tickets was proof of the community’s love for the team and the need for an escape.
All 13 games of the series were sellouts 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.
“We couldn’t be happier with the way the series ran and the response from our fans and community,” said Somerset Patriots President/General Manager Patrick McVerry. “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.”
As one of the only places in the country playing baseball in front of fans, the players provided highly competitive games throughout the series with several standout performances.
Left-handed pitcher Brandon Leibrandt, a former Philadelphia Phillies prospect, dominated in his three games pitched for the Blasters. After going 1-0 with a league-best 0.75 ERA and 15 strikeouts across three starts in the series, Leibrandt’s contract was purchased by the Miami Marlins to join the team’s 60-man roster.
“It’s been two years since I pitched in a real game. With no baseball going on, I figured it was a good chance to at least get some innings in,” said Leibrandt about signing to play in the series. “I’m thankful that the Patriots put the series on. It felt great to be in front of fans and face live hitters again.”
On Tuesday, August 18th, the lefty’s contract had been selected for the Marlins’ alternate training site to join the MLB club. He made his major league debut on Sunday, August 23rd against the Washington Nationals in which he allowed just one hit across four scoreless innings and struck out Nationals star Juan Soto.
Blasters infielder Martin Figueroa was crowned as the MVP of the series after batting .324 average with seven runs, 11 hits, four doubles, and six RBI in 11 games played. He received the Willie Randolph MVP Award presented by Flemington Department Store from the New York Yankees legend himself before the final game.
Somerset Patriots closer James Pugliese won the Sparky Lyle Pitching Award presented by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. Pugliese led the series with six saves and finished with a 1-0 record, a 1.13 ERA, and 13 strikeouts in 8.0 innings pitched over seven games. Lyle presented the award to Pugliese in the last game’s pre-game ceremony.
The Patriots also received spectacular pitching from MLB veteran Mark Leiter Jr. (1-1, 1.55 ERA, 29.0 IP, 31 SO), Rutgers alum Max Herrmann (1-0, 1.13 ERA, 16.0 IP, 16 SO), fan favorite Nate Roe (4-0, 3.00 ERA, 9.0 IP, 7 SO), and Billy Layne Jr. (2-0, 0.90 ERA, 10.0 IP, 11 SO).
Blasters reliever and former Cranford star Ryan Williamson (2-0, 2.53 ERA, 10.2 IP, 18 SO) was a standout for the visitors.
The series was neck-and-neck at the start before the Somerset Patriots rattled off seven straight wins to close out the series 9-4 and earn the Joe Torre Championship Trophy presented by RWJBarnabas Health, the Official Health Care Provider of the Somerset Patriots.
Tony Cava, the President and CEO of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset, presented Somerset Patriots manager Brett Jodie with the award after a video message was played on the scoreboard from Torre.
In the message, the Baseball Hall of Famer and MLB legend congratulated the players for both teams, as well as the Kalafer family and Somerset Patriots staff for bringing professional baseball “back and safely” to New Jersey.
“It was great to get back out on the field. There were definitely times throughout the past few months where I didn’t think that was going to happen at all,” said Jodie. “Everyone worked very hard to make the series a reality, from ownership, to our staff, and our players. I think it went extremely well on all fronts and it was nice to work with and get to know some of the local talent that had the opportunity to play here. It is an experience I’ll always remember and be proud of as a special one during very unique and trying circumstances.”