- First visit: exact date unknown, probably during the 2011 season
- Most recent visit: July 25th, 2021
Following a job change that took me from southern Maine (where I saw the Portland Sea Dogs at Hadlock Field) to southern New Jersey in 2010, I found that I had landed in an area that was teeming with baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies were 30 minutes away, and two minor league teams were within 45 minutes or so (the Trenton Thunder, the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees, and the Lakewood Blue Claws, the low A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies). Since my brother lives closer to Trenton, I chose to make the Trenton Thunder my new favorite minor league team.
Trenton plays their games at Arm&Hammer Park. Opening behind schedule in 1994 (as cold and snow the previous winter hampered construction efforts), the stadium was part of a larger complex containing office buildings and a night club, known as the Mercer County Waterfront Park. Though the ballpark is technically within Trenton city limits, it is located on the southern edge, away from the influence of downtown. Its location (just off Route 29, on Thunder Road) makes ingress and egress much easier than if the stadium was located downtown.
Parking at Arm&Hammer Park is fairly straightforward. After entering the complex, the first parking area encountered is a surface lot to the right. Most times, these spaces are unavailable to baseball fans, as they are either occupied by state employees working at the complex, or by fans with mobility issues. Just down the street from the surface lot is a three-tiered parking deck, which most times offers an orderly exit after games. However, we have learned through bitter experience that most people don’t know how to exit a parking deck, and that fact can add a considerable amount of time when trying to leave the complex. Parking is a very reasonable $5.00, and the walk from the deck to the stadium is about one-quarter of a mile or so.
As the name of the complex implies, Arm&Hammer Park lies along the Delaware River, which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Before games, we occasionally walk along a path paralleling the river, a stark contrast to the urban area not too far away, providing a view most people outside of the area would not expect to see in New Jersey. There are three entrances into the ballpark (each of which has a not inconsequential set of concrete stairs to navigate): one adjacent to the river walk on the first base side, behind home plate and behind third base. Arm&Hammer Park has two seating decks that extend from just beyond third base behind home plate to just beyond third base, as well as suites near the top of the stadium, bringing to the capacity of 6,150 (which is typical of a AA ballpark). Bullpens are located along the left field line (visitor) and the right field line (Thunder), and the outfield is nearly ringed by wooden advertising signs located above and just behind the outfield wall.
While Arm&Hammer Park is a fairly typical minor league ballpark, it does possess what might be the largest video board in the minors. Located in right centerfield, the size and resolution of the video board is more reminiscent of a Triple A ballpark. Being an affiliate of New York Yankees probably factored into the decision to place such a large video board in the ballpark, and it is the most prominent feature of the stadium. Just to the right of the video board, the outfield wall is low enough to allow home runs to leave the park and head toward the river. Actually, it IS possible to hit a fair ball down the right field line that can land in the Delaware River. Though I am not sure it has been done, it might be possible to hit a home run far enough across the river to have the ball land in the Pennsylvania portion of the river.
Arm&Hammer Park offers the standard fare when it comes to concessions, though there are a couple of places worth noting. My favorite is Chickie’s & Pete’s, located on the main concourse on the first base side. Chickie’s & Pete’s serves crab house food, and I rarely pass up the opportunity to indulge in a cup of crab fires (large French fries covered with Old Bay seasoning). They also offer excellent cheese steaks, brats and hot dogs, which are cooked to order. On the third base side is Boomer’s BBQ, which, as the name implies, offers an array of barbeque meals. Personally, I do not frequent this place as often, but when I do, I usually get the chicken sandwich. Most times, though, I elect to get a baseball lunch or dinner (which generally includes hot dogs) before heading to our seats.
When attending a Thunder game, you definitely want to be in your seats for the bottom of the first inning. During that half of the frame, after each Thunder hitter discards of his bat, the Thunder bat dog retrieves it. Currently, the bat dog is Rookie, but he was preceded by Chase and Derby in the recent past. While Rookie sometimes has difficulty grabbing the bat in his mouth to bring back to the dugout, he is successful most of the time, to the delight of the crowd. After the end of the first inning, Rookie returns to the clubhouse, his task for the day completed. As a side note, when the Thunder played the Bowie Baysox for the Eastern League championship in 2019, Rookie made the trip to Maryland, retrieving bats in the first inning. Probably because he was in a new environment, rather than retrieve the bat after a Thunder player walked, Rookie instead followed the player to first base. Murmurs permeated the air when Rookie did his thing, and the Baysox faithful were enamored with the visitor.
One of the biggest perks of seeing Thunder games is the potential to see MLB players on rehabilitation stints. Being a Yankees affiliate, many past and present Yankees have made appearances at Arm&Hammer Park, and more than 9,000 fans were present when Derek Jeter did his rehab assignment during the Fourth of July weekend in 2011. In 2013, when Alex Rodriguez appeared with the Thunder, Trenton drew in excess of 8,000 fans for each of his two games there. More recently, perennial fan favorite Curtis Granderson made an appearance.
In addition to rehab appearances, my brother (who goes to many more Thunder games than me) and I have seen many current Yankees as they came up through the minor league system. Since the Mets AA affiliate Binghamton Rumble Ponies are in the same division of the Eastern League as the Thunder, they come to Arm&Hammer Park a couple of times a year. My brother and I do our best to wrap our plans around these times, and that allows us to see future Mets up close. In the past, we have seen Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard on the mound, as well as many position players (like Michael Conforto and Ahmed Rosario) on the field in Trenton. There is something satisfying about seeing future stars in the MLB in such an intimate setting, before they become household names. We were fortunate enough to see Michael Conforto play in Trenton before making the jump to the New York Mets the next day in July 2015.
Being such a big Mets fan, my best memories of Arm&Hammer Park are tied to visits by the Binghamton Mets/Rumble Ponies. Perhaps the most vivid memory occurred on Friday July 24, 2015. We had just finished a tour of New England minor league ballpark in time to attend all of the four games of the weekend series between the Mets and the Thunder. On that night, Robert Gsellman started for the Mets, who tossed seven and one-third innings of one run ball. The run Gsellman allowed tied the game at 1-1, and eventually the game went into extra innings. Trading scoreless innings, the Mets finally pushed across a run in the top of the 17th inning, defeating the Thunder 2-1.
A total of 13 pitchers were used that night (seven by the Mets and six by the Thunder), and the Thunder sent two position players to the mound (DH Taylor Dugas and 2B Danny Oh) for the 17th inning. Dugas allowed a run in the top of the frame before recording an out, and Oh mopped up, allowing no runs and no hits. The 17 inning game (the longest I have ever seen personally) took four and one-half hours to complete, and we left the ballpark just short of midnight. Fatigue from the road trip, combined with the long game that night, made me grateful we weren’t far from my brother’s home.
Arm&Hammer Park also hosted the only professional no-hitter I have seen in person, as the Binghamton took on Trenton in an Eastern League playoff game on September 9th, 2017. After the Thunder took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, Rumble Ponies catcher Tomas Nido reached on a ground ball to third baseman Dante Bichette Jr in the top of the second. Initially, the play was ruled an infield single. Trenton left hander Dustin Sheffield then shut the Rumble Ponies down in a short but dominant performance.
In the sixth inning, a nearby fan asked me about the hit by Nido, since I was keeping score of the game. When I told him about the hit, he directed my attention to the scoreboard. At some point, the official scorer changed the hit to an error, and suddenly we were witnessing a possible a no-hitter. Once the change was recognized by the crowd, there was an audible response at the prospect of seeing a no-hitter. Sheffield was lifted from the game after four innings (before the hit was changed to an error), and Taylor Widener threw five hitless innings to complete the no hitter. Because the scoring change occurred so late in the game, there was not the anticipation in the crowd that might have been expected to seeing a no-hitter, which was disappointing as a fan.
Though Arm&Hammer Park is a typical AA facility, it has grown on me over the years. Being able to see future Yankees (and occasionally future Mets when Binghamton visit) in such an intimate setting is enjoyable, and my experience in parks just like this has raised my appreciation of the minor league game over the MLB product. However, a disturbing change brought about by the New York Yankees organization has stripped the park of its association with the team. Instead, the Trenton Thunder will play the 2021 season as a founding member of the MLB Draft League. Even with the change, if you find yourself near Trenton NJ on a summer day, check to see if the Thunder are playing. You will be glad you did.
Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, it was determined that the Toronto Blue Jays could not play their home games to start the 2021 MLB season. As they did in 2020, the Blue Jays would play their 2021 home games at Sahlen Field in Buffalo NY. Home to their AAA affiliate (the Buffalo Bisons), suddenly Sahlen Field would NOT be available for the Bisons 2021 campaign.
Numerous press reports indicated that there was something of a scramble to find a home for the Bisons. Eventually, MiLB decided on Arm&Hammer Park in Trenton. Having lost their primary tenants to Somerset, the stadium was available for use. To my surprise, the Bisons would play in Trenton as the Thunder (the previous name of the franchise). Since the decision to place the Buffalo team in Trenton occurred quickly (and without much fanfare), it was not clear how many baseball fans knew about the relocation of the Bisons to Arm&Hammer Field.
My first visit to the see the new Trenton Thunder occurred on Saturday, May 8th 2021, as they hosted the Worcester Red Sox (the AAA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox) on a rainy and cool night. In accordance with New Jersey’s COVID-19 protocol, fans were seated in “pods” (groups of fans surrounded by empty seats), which ensured proper social distancing. To their credit, the fans followed the guidelines set forth by the Thunder and MiLB, and because of the guidelines, attendance was limited to about 25 percent capacity for the game. For the most part, there was not much different about the park, despite the new occupants taking residence with little notice.
It was strange to see the Trenton Thunder in action again at Arm&Hammer Field, this time as a AAA affiliate. Occasional rain during the first part of the contest put a damper on the evening, but since this was my first live baseball game in nearly 20 months, the weather was hardly a concern. Because of the pandemic, there were small but noticeable differences at the ballpark. First and foremost was the absence of Rookie, the Thunder bat dog. Rookie normally retrieves bats for the Thunder half of the first (to the great delight of the home fans), but he did not dispatch his primary duty this evening. Also, there were no bat boys/girls. This meant players had to retrieve bats near home plate, secure foul balls on the field, as well as keep the home plate umpire’s ball supply up to date. There were no on field games for fans between innings, a family favorite at minor league baseball parks.
Though the teams were now AAA, the level of play overall seemed a step down from the AA baseball we had seen at Arm&Hammer Park in the past. Despite scoring eight runs on 14 hits, the Worcester Red Sox struck out 18 times during the Saturday night game. Clearly the obsession with launch angle and hitting home runs has trickled its way down in the minor leagues. In addition, play in the field was not as crisp as it should be at this level, which was even more apparent during the Sunday afternoon game. Granted, the weather was inclement, and could have been a proximate cause for the sloppier than usual fielding, but I was surprised by what appeared to be a lack of concentration on defense. Even with the perceived deficiencies in the play, I was VERY happy to have live baseball back!
For now, it appears as though the team will play its home games in Trenton as the Thunder for the balance of the 2021 season. However, this is contingent on whether the government in Ontario continues to ban the Blue Jays from their home. Should that decision change, it is possible that the Thunder become the Bisons again in Buffalo later in the season. The Ontario provincial government lifted the travel ban for the Blue Jays effective July 30th, 2021, and the Thunder played their final game as the Triple A affiliate of the Blue Jays on Sunday, July 25th. This change allowed the REAL Trenton Thunder (a member of the MLB Draft League) to finish their inaugural season at Arm&Hammer Field in early August.