- First visit: exact date unknown; probably during the summer of 2013
- Most recent visit: Sunday June 9th, 2019
Until my brother moved close to Bridgewater NJ in the early 2010s, I must admit I did not know much about the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB). Established in 1998, the independent ALPBA saw many changes in the number and locations of teams in the league over the years, but the Somerset Patriots remained the flagship franchise from the inception of the league until 2019 (the 2020 ALPB season was scuttled by COVID-19). In fact, the Somerset Patriots (who played their home games at TD Bank Park) were the “New York Yankees” of the ALPBA, having won 13 division titles and six ALPB championships. To extend the New York connection to Somerset, the Patriots manager from 1998-2012 was Yankees great Sparky Lyle . Having Lyle manage the Patriots helped legitimize the team and the league, and though he no longer manages the team, he does still make occasional appearances at TD Bank Park as an ambassador for the ALPB.
Being an independent league, the ALPB does not have a steady stream of players shuttling through Somerset. Instead, rosters are typically filled with ex-MLB players, as well as some of the players we have seen in the minor leagues, and younger players that were not drafted into the MLB pipeline. From what we have seen, it is not unusual to have three to five players on each team that have MLB experience. Signing ex-MLBers can be a boon for the teams, as name recognition boosts attendance for home teams, as well as those coming to town. One of the more famous ex-MLBers to play for the Patriots was outfielder Endy Chavez. Mets fans fondly remember his tenure with the team, especially his spectacular catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Chavez was a fan favorite for the Patriots as well, known for his gregarious style and willingness to engage with fans before the game.
Another ex-Met who played for the Patriots was left hander Bill Pulsipher. At the end of his playing career, Pulsipher would only play at home, not traveling with the team on the road. He showed up, made his start, left the game, and went home. Other players for the Patriots included teachers, and even front office officials. Though the ALPB does not pay very well, it can attract former MLB players trying to extend their careers, as well as young and hungry players utilizing the ALPB as a means to further their MLB aspirations. Given the mix of talent and experience, the level of play is actually quite good, about on par with AA teams in affiliated baseball. Being able to see these players in an intimate setting can be a big draw for die-hard baseball fans in areas with little in the way of other options.
My brother introduced me to the Somerset Patriots sometime during 2013, and I believe that we went to see games at TD Bank Park together that summer (though my brother has seen many more games there than me). From my brother’s home, the park is less than 20 miles away, but due to the volume of traffic in the area (especially near the evening commute), travel time to the stadium could easily reach 45 minutes. Because of scheduling (and the fact that I was living and working in Maryland during much of the 2010s), we typically attended games together on weekends, which eased the trek to some degree. The very end of the trip had us snaking through Bridgewater, crossing over the Peters Brook before reaching the stadium.
General parking is located just before the stadium, adjacent to the Bridgewater train stop of the NJ Transit Raritan Valley line (the train passes the left field wall, and is noticeable when it does) Parking is $2.00 (as it has been since the stadium opened), and typically there is plenty of parking available, particularly on weekends. Some people try to avoid paying for parking by leaving their vehicles in a store parking lot across the road from the stadium. This is a BAD IDEA, as the owners of the store parking lot will tow your vehicle if you are NOT shopping there. From the parking lot to the main gate of TD Bank Park, the distance is a manageable one-quarter of a mile, with sidewalks available for much of the walk.
Entering through the main gate behind home plate (which includes old style turnstiles) brings you to the upper concourse of TD Bank Park. Concessions and the Patriots team store are located on the upper concourse, which stretches from mid right field behind home plate to mid left field. Concession stands, for the most part, offer standard baseball fare, at reasonable prices. Down the left field on the upper concourse is a picnic area (complete with tables), as well as National BBQ. Extending down the right field line are additional concession stands, as well as the Kids Zone, containing activities designed especially for younger fans. There is a large grass berm located further down the right field line, which is available for larger groups. Finally, luxury boxes are located at the top of the stadium, adjacent to the Party Zone. In total, TD Bank Park hold about 6,100 seated fans, with standing room only adding another 2,000 to that total.
Like most minor league ballparks, visitor and home team bullpens lie down the left field and right field lines, respectively, easily within sight of most of the seats. Large advertising signs reach from the left field foul pole to the right field pole, and like many minor league parks, are stacked two high. A relatively small but functional scoreboard/videoboard combo rises up behind the wall in right centerfield. The scoreboard contains quite a bit of information for those fans who like it, and the videoboard is unobtrusive, used mainly for short video clips appropriate to the game situation. For a modular ballpark, TD Bank Park contains quite a bit of charm, while maintaining an understated feel absent in many new stadiums in baseball. Perhaps this is why the ballpark has won numerous awards, including Ballpark Digest’s Best Independent Minor League Ballpark, as well as best ballpark in the ALPB.
Somerset has carefully cultivated a baseball experience focused on families and kids. In between innings, there are games and contests for kids on the field, and the Patriots’ mascot, Sparkee, entertains the crowd throughout the game. One of my favorite interactions is when the PA announcer shouts “Somerset”, and the kids respond with “Patriots”. Affordable tickets prices, good quality of play, and a suburban setting combine to make the Patriots an attractive family outing. As might be expected, attendance at TD Bank Park is among the highest in the ALPB, with near sellouts common during the warmer months. During the hottest part of the NJ summer, Somerset schedules night games as often as possible, even starting at 505 pm on Sunday, for the comfort of the fans.
Unfortunately, the 2020 ALPB season was scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Patriots did play some games during the summer, taking on the NJ Blasters in a series games played on the weekend. A limited number of fans were permitted to see each game, and my brother was fortunate enough to see a number of games in the series. While another team in the ALPB played some games during 2020, other teams remained idle, and we were concerned that the ALPB might not survive the pandemic to play in 2021.
During the offseason, the Somerset Patriots accepted an offer from the New York Yankees to become their AA affiliate. New York chose a bizarre path for changing their AA affiliate, as the previous club, the Trenton Thunder, discovered they had been replaced in a tweet by the big league club. Affiliation with the New York Yankees meant that the Patriots would leave the ALPB, which is a blow to a league as it loses its flagship franchise. Another ALPB team (the Sugarland Skeeters) left the ALPB to become the AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros. We feared that the loss of the top two teams in the league could topple the ALPB, but the league announced replacements, and are planning to play the 2021 season.
Regardless of their status, we expect the same great baseball environment at one of the finest minor league stadiums in the Northeast during the 2021 season. A number of changes are expected at TD Bank Park as the Patriots become part of the New York Yankee family. Most of the changes will be to the internal portion of the park, such as an upgrade to player facilities. On the field, bullpens will move off the field, and new energy efficient lightning will be installed in time for the season opener. Some enhancements are planned to the videoboard, including better instant replay results. Depending on how quickly fans are allowed back into the stadium, we plan to attend games at TD Bank Park during the 2021 season. If you find yourself close to TD Bank Park during the summer, check to see if the Patriots are in town. You will be glad you did.