BRIDGEWATER, NJ—Since it opened in 1999, TD Bank Ballpark was considered “the jewel of the Atlantic League,” playing host to the Somerset Patriots. The team, like the ballpark, was the most successful in the league, claiming six Atlantic League titles.
On Tuesday night, the Patriots were one of three former independent teams to make the jump to affiliated organizations. The Double-A squad for the Yankees joined former Atlantic League club Sugar Land, the Triple-A affiliate of the Astros and St. Paul, the Triple-A club for the Twins.
The success of the Patriots and the pristine ballpark were the key factors in the Yankees decision to leave Trenton, their Double-A team for the past 17 seasons.
“We took it upon ourselves when major league baseball informed us there was going to be a radical change for operating a new protocol in the minor league system,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “So we took the time during the break last summer to bounce around looking for different opportunities, including staying where we were in existing sites.
“When we got a chance to visit this facility (Somerset) it was a great, positive walk through the ballpark. The facilities, the proximity, the ownership, the community, it all added up to a really attractive opportunity. We’re really excited for this journey in the first step we’re taking together.”
The Patriots opened their inaugural season in the newly-created Northeast League with a 6-0 win over the Harrisburg Senators on the strength of righty Luis Gil, the Yankees’ No. 4 prospect. He allowed just two hits and issued one walk while striking out six batters over 3.2 innings.
Gil, working on an early-season pitch count, tossed 63 pitches, 38 of which were strikes, and generated a swing and miss on nine of them (24%). He received early run support when center fielder Estevan Florial led off the game with a home run and Thomas Milone cracked a three-run homer later in the inning.
Lefty Tim Cate, the Nationals eighth-ranked prospect, was roughed up for five earned runs in four innings, walking three and striking out three. He hurled two wild pitches.
The buzz among the 1,903 fans, scattered throughout the ballpark due to Covid-19 restrictions, also had a somber setting. Steve Kalafer, the man responsible for bringing baseball to Somerset as the owner of the Patriots, died of cancer on April 21, just two weeks shy of watching his team become part of the organization he grew up following. Kalafer was 71.
“Steve had the vision 24 years ago of bringing baseball to Somerset County,” Patriots president and general manager Patrick McVerry said. “The last two decades were incredible. We left there (Atlantic League) as the most successful team in the league. But there’s obviously something missing here tonight. He delivered the biggest sale of his life before we lost him.
“Everyone who ever came into contact with him (Steve) over the years knows just how special a person he was. He taught us all the value of doing things the right way, of taking the time to build long lasting relationships, and making a difference wherever you can.”
Kalafer’s two sons, Josh and Jonathan, addressed the crowd prior to first pitch. Their emotional message was followed by a moment of silence.
“Tonight was the realization of a dream by my father,” Jonathan Kalafer said. “Someone told me tonight if it wasn’t for your dad, this place (TD Bank Ballpark) would be a landfill.”
It was common to see Steve Kalafer stroll through the concourse, interacting with fans, always asking about their experience and how it can be improved.
“The thing that mattered to my dad the most wasn’t business, it was people,” Josh Kalafer said. “He made the connection with people personal. He always put his shoes in someone walking into this ballpark. He would tell us what would someone walking into the ballpark for the first time or the thousandth time see? We want that to be great.”
Former Yankees relief pitcher Sparky Lyle, winner of the American League Cy Young Award in 1977, was the first manager of the Patriots in 1998. He met Steve Kalafer while purchasing a truck from one of Kalafer’s car dealerships.
“He asked me if I had ever managed before?” Lyle said. “I said no. He said, ‘Would you like to?’ I said sure. Steve said, ‘But first we have to sign the contract on this truck.’ “
Lyle managed the team for 15 seasons until becoming manager emeritus in 2012. Like so many others, Lyle said he was devastated by the news of his friend’s death.
“We were very close since day one,” Lyle said. “I was very upset, of course, about him being sick and this was the last thing I expected when his son Josh called me. I just broke down.
Lyle said when he would visit the suites at the ballpark during games, person after person would come up to him and share a story of how Kalafer helped them.
“They said he got their life back together,” Lyle said. “He made me a better person. I’m going to miss him so much.”
The Patriots are planning a night to honor Kalafer later this season.