The Somerset Patriots and the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, despite being independent from Major League Baseball, are becoming an important conduit to the majors. This, however, was never the plan.

“Eleven years ago the object of this league was to build beautiful ballparks,” says the Patriots’ president and general manager Patrick McVerry. “It was to get entertainment to the people. The quality of play wasn’t the focus.” It was to provide a place to take the family without having to take out a loan.

The most expensive seat in the Patriots’ Bridgewater home, TD Bank Park, is $12.50, as it has been for four or five years. This is typical of the ticket prices in the eight-team league, and a $12.50 view of a game at TD Bank Park could cost you $75 at an MLB park, maybe more.

As Patriots owner Steve Kalafer likes to point out, this minor league franchise, seated a few miles east of downtown Somerville and managed by former big-league pitching legend Sparky Lyle (see story on page 34), is here for the fans. It has worked out that the level of play has escalated and given fans a chance to see some top-notch ball, but the team’s position in the community is still the trump card.

“This is professional baseball with a floor show,” Kalafer says as he watches a pre-game first-pitch ceremony, dance expo, and rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” This bounty of local talent is recruited by the year-round efforts of the people in the offices below the stands and concession deck, says the team’s vice president of public relations, Marc Russinoff.

When the players are gone, whether on the road or off for the winter, Russinoff says, the core group of 25 or 30 office staff ceaselessly reaches out to community groups, schools, nonprofits, and organizations of all kinds to develop theme nights, build sponsorships and partnerships, and cull talent for the all-important floor show.

“Major League Baseball is all about the hero, and about the wins and losses,” Kalafer says. “Here it’s about the fans and the community.”

TD Bank Park, founded as Commerce Ballpark in 1999, is indeed the biggest single attraction in Bridgewater — a 6,100-seat park designed by Trenton-based Clark Caton Hintz architecture firm that averages 5,300 fans per game and 360,000 fans a season. Clark Caton Hintz, incidentally, also designed Mercer County Waterfront Park for the Trenton Thunder (the New York Yankees’ Double-A affiliate) and Campbell’s Field for the Atlantic League’s Camden Riversharks. As a spot to convene, no other outlet in Somerset County draws such a crowd on such a routine basis.

The Patriots were conceived by Somerset County freeholders and a group of businesspeople as a public-private partnership in the mid-1990s, says Somerset County administrator Dick Williams. “We did a study through Brailsford and Dunlavy [of Maryland], who do projections on sports teams, that showed that minor league baseball would be very successful in Somerset County,” he says. “Somerset is entirely surrounded by other counties, and we have 3 million people within a 25 or 30-minute drive.”

The question was who would pay for it. The usual choice — the taxpayers — were out, Williams says; they were unwilling to fund the project, no matter how well it might do. The county already had possession of the land, the former American Cyanamid Super Fund site on Route 28 that offered plenty of room for a ball field and parking. So the freeholders and Steve Kalafer came to an agreement that the county would build the $18 million stadium complex and Kalafer would pay down the bill through revenues made by the team. To date, the taxpayers of Somerset County have not directly contributed 1 cent to the project, Williams says.

The deal gives control of the money to the Patriots ownership, while the county guards the land. “It’s better that way,” Williams says. “The county doesn’t need to be in baseball.”

Kalafer, a lifelong Yankees fan, says he had always wanted to have a baseball team. In fact, he has had a few. An investor in the Atlantic League and member of investment group Bases Loaded Group (comprising executives from the Philadelphia area and New Jersey), Kalafer is the chairman of the Patriots and former part-owner of the rival Newark Bears and Camden Riversharks. The Bears, by 2001, were starting to corrode financially, and in 2003 former Yankee catcher and Newark native Rick Cerone sold 50 percent of his ownership to Kalafer. Kalafer helped finance the club with Marc Berson, chairman of the Millburn-based Fidelco Group investment firm. Kalafer sold his shares to Berson in 2005.

Kalafer also assumed part ownership of the Camden Riversharks in 2004 when team owner Steve Shillig died and Campbell’s Field faced foreclosure. Kalafer later sold his shares back to co-owners Peter Kirk and Frank Boulton, the president of the Atlantic League, headquartered at Campbell’s Field. Multiple ownerships and partnerships are a common practice in the Atlantic League. Boulton, Kirk, and Berson also have or have had a stake in several teams, including the Long Island Ducks and the Lancaster Barnstormers in Pennsylvania.

Kalafer has been trying to expand the Atlantic League with the addition of the Bergen Cliff Hawks, which, it was thought, could play in Bergen Ballpark at the Xanadu Meadowlands complex. A legal issue involving a suit by Kalafer against developer Mills Corporation (since dismissed) for reneging on a deal and a reticence by Bergen County freeholders to green-light the $20 million ballpark project has held things up.

Bergen is one of three sites for potential expansion of the league, the others being in Yonkers and Virginia. Even if the league expands, however, it will not become affiliated with Major League Baseball. “The Yankees, Mets, and Phillies own the territory,” Williams says of New Jersey. We couldn’t have a Minor League Baseball franchise.”

Affiliation certainly is not needed. Kalafer says the Patriots have earned a profit for the county every year the team has been in existence. “We’re an important regional business,” Kalafer says. “We employ a couple hundred people on game day; we allow local retailers to become big business.”

Kalafer is referring to the outfield fence, which is fully adorned with advertisements by “everybody from TD Bank to Hillsborough Builders.”

These ads have remained largely unchanged over the years, and every space for them, from the ones on the fence to the ones decorating the skyboxes and stands, is used. Almost all of it is used by Bridgewater-area businesses. “This is still a home team,” Kalafer says.

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