Field of Green, Field of Dreams
by Joe Nardini
In 2008 The Somerset Patriots Baseball Club celebrates the tenth anniversary of its field, Commerce Bank Park. To commemorate the occasion, the ball club will stage a ten-day series of events starting on June 5 and running through June 8. See the list following the end of this article.
Aside from the loyal fans who have followed the exploits of the team game-by-game, year-after-year, no one is happier about this anniversary season than the dedicated staff who work behind the scenes.
Commerce Bank Park
Starting with General Manager, Patrick McVerry, you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief, coupled with a general sense of satisfaction. That’s because, ten years ago, the idea of building a high caliber sports team in a previously untested market ranked right up there with great business ideas that go astray after only two or three years of operation.
Not so to Steve Kalafer, the sage businessman of Flemington Car and Truck Country, who believed in the concept long before anyone else did. Steve knew the enormous potential of putting the concept in motion, and, true to his entrepreneurial nature (not to mention his love of baseball!), he set out to achieve his goal. And, as everyone in the free western world with any business sense knows, when it comes to setting business goals that are visionary and cost effective, and hence attainable, Steve Kalafer wrote the how-to manual.
Attaining realistic goals, in business generally and certainly in baseball, means forming the right team of people. His eye for talent well-honed after years of building some of the most successful car dealerships in the country, Kalafer approached Mr. McVerry with an opportunity to grow from his original role in Marketing into the General Manager position. As with most of his business decisions, Kalafer’s appointment of McVerry proved to be a winner.
In the years since, a gratified McVerry now reflects on how much has changed with his ball club, and, more to the point, how much has remained the same. First and foremost, the core mission to provide “quality entertainment at an affordable price” has not changed at all. In addition to maintaining a family environment that accentuates cleanliness, the Patriots offer some of the most interactive activities at every home game that any fan could ever expect or want.
From the various group promotions that every game features to the pre-game, on-field recognition of local teams and players to the cannonades of T-shirts that are shot into the stands between innings to the post-game firework displays, fans can always anticipate having an enjoyable day or evening at Commerce Bank Park (CBP). As McVerry attests, the Patriots’ loyal fan base is reflected in the team’s having the team’s “best attendance in 2007.”
Having the league’s newest scoreboard presents fans with a glimpse of the future. Its high-definition quality provides fans with the same high-tech features as the scoreboard that the new Yankee Stadium will have.
Naturally, producing a cutting-edge product on the field, in the form of a highly talented, competitive team, has helped too. Among the GM’s fondest memories over the past ten years is the team’s first league championship in 2001, which saw Greg Blosser belt a home run to win the game and the Atlantic League title.
To be sure, it was not always that way. Team Manager, Sparky Lyle, erstwhile major league pitcher and currently the winningest skipper in the league, recalls a difficult first year in 1999. “We played 100 games that year and won 40 of them. We didn’t have many last at-bats! We played all of our home games on the road because our field still wasn’t ready. I was suspended twice during the season for three games each, the umpiring was terrible, and I was ejected 13 times,” explained Coach Lyle, with a not-so-warm sense of nostalgia.
Sparky Lyle: 675
regular season wins entering 2008 in the Atlantic League
Dating back to that inaugural championship, the Patriots won two other league titles in 2003 and 2005. Overall, the team has reached the post-season playoffs in eight of ten years that they’ve played their home games at CBP and won a total of six Division Championships.
Coach Lyle testifies to the high caliber of play that the Patriots have come to represent on the field. With the growing pains of the early years now far behind him, Sparky sees better players gravitating more and more to the Patriots. Where “Atlantic City and Bridgeport always had the best talent, all the teams in the league now have good ball players.”
He admits that his experience in the independent Atlantic League has exceeded his expectations. From the days when he and (Atlantic League Executive Director) Joe Klein toured the minor league development teams searching for ball players whom the major league teams released, the Patriots now can offer promising young ball players “a chance,” as Coach explains it.
Slowly but surely, “The major league scouts began coming” because they know that the Patriots deliver a quality product on a familiar stage. Lyle estimates that the level of play at CBP has risen to a credible hybrid of AA and AAA caliber. One need only look to Jeff Nettles’ call to the Kansas City Royals last summer (see NJB, Summer 2007) to understand how aspiring players may use their opportunity at CBP as indeed a bona fide chance to succeed.
For his own part, he recalls as his fondest memories to date the three championship years, along with some of the impressive ball players who have graced the green pastures at CBP. Among them, naturally, is Greg Blosser, who, besides that memorable championship-winning homer in ’01, “hit many big home runs for us in big games.”
Billy Hall (2B-Inf) “could steal bases like no one I ever saw. He could get a read on any pitcher and be on third base after two or three pitches.” Ryan Radmanovich (OF) sparkled for Sparky as a “good all-around player,” Robert Dodd “threw six innings of shutout ball on two days’ rest,” and Mark DiFelice muscled up with “165 pitches versus Nashua, New Hampshire to win the league championship in ’05.”
Then, of course, there’s Jeff Nettles, who, as Coach likes to say of all his Patriots protégés, “come to know more about themselves when they play here.”
Ex- Patriot outfielder and now Assistant General Manager, Rob Lukachyk, played professionally for 14 years and had a tour of duty in the major leagues with the Montreal Expos. Rob holds the distinction of having hit the first home run ever in Commerce Bank Park, then known as Somerset Ballpark. His playing career cut short by a shoulder injury sustained from colliding with an outfield wall in 1999, Rob has made a seamless transition into the front office.
Although he loves his new career, he misses the comradeship of the clubhouse. He remains close to the players, but he has learned to walk the delicate line drawn between management and player. In turn, he misses the emotional high that comes from cheering fans when they witness a great play on the field. “You don’t get that when you’re in (baseball) operations,” Rob says wistfully.
First Home Run
No matter, though, because as long as he can stay around baseball, the game he has “loved since age 2,” Rob will remain a happy man. And Patriots players will always have a kindred spirit in that quiet front office.
Among his new-found talents as a team administrator, Rob prides himself and his organization on operational effectiveness in a variety of areas. All you have to do is walk into the stadium and you can immediately see an example of what Rob means. It almost goes unnoticed, but the stark cleanliness of everything in sight distinguishes CBP from practically any other public gathering place you will ever visit.
The bathrooms are spotless, the food vendor stations stay clean and orderly, and customer parking is always quick and efficient. Still, Rob speaks about one particularly harrowing episode the day he and his staff had to evacuate the entire ballpark while a game was in progress. The incident occurred in the wake of 9/11, so all public places of entertainment were accustomed to heightened alerts.
To complicate matters, the only gates available for evacuation were on the first base side of the field and through the picnic area. To make a long story short, Patriots personnel accomplished an orderly evacuation of the entire stadium without incident.
Complementing that memory are more than a handful of baseball memories that Rob has. In addition to the five minor league championship teams on which he played, in the Midwest League, the California League, and with Harrisburg AA, he cherishes, naturally, the Patriots’ three championship seasons. He has seen the quality of play in the Atlantic League generally and on the Patriots particularly increase by quantum leaps over the past ten years.
In this celebratory, tenth anniversary season, Rob sums up the sentiments of all concerned when he reflects on the beauty of baseball, played on a field for the ages, where we can all see “baseball the way it used to be played.”
New Jersey Baseball Magazine joins with the Patriots’ many fans in congratulating Steve Kalafer, Patrick McVerry, Coach Lyle, Rob Lukachyk and company on ten years of baseball dreams made real. We look forward to many more years of baseball at its best, with many more memories to come.
Editor’s Note: The planned activities for celebrating ten years of top quality baseball at Commerce Bank Park are as follows –
Ballpark Lithograph (1st 2,000)
Date: Thursday June 5, 2008
Time: 7:05 PM
Presented by Barefoot Wine- Help the Somerset Patriots celebrate Commerce Bank Ballpark's 10th Anniversary. The first 2,000 Fans in attendance will receive a Ballpark Lithograph.
Ballpark Replica (1st 1,500 Adults)
Date: Friday June 6, 2008
Time: 7:05 PM
Presented by Commerce Bank- Help the Somerset Patriots celebrate Commerce Bank Ballpark's 10th Anniversary. The first 1,500 Adults in attendance will receive a Ballpark Replica.
FIREWORKS/ Ballpark 10th Season Anniversary Celebration
Date: Saturday June 7, 2008
Time: 7:05 PM
Presented by Middlesex County Education Association- Help the Somerset Patriots celebrate Commerce Bank Ballpark's 10th Anniversary on the date it opened ten years ago. The game will feature a Post Game Fireworks Show and a pre-game ceremony commemorating the ballpark's Tenth Anniversary.
Ballpark Photo Baseballs (1st 2,000)/ Give Kids The World Day
Date: Sunday June 8, 2008
Time: 1:35 PM
Presented by Staybridge Suites- Help the Somerset Patriots celebrate Commerce Bank Ballpark's 10th Anniversary. The first 2,000 Fans in attendance will receive a Ballpark Photo Baseball.