Saturday, April 15, 2017

How to Go to a Somerset Patriots Game -- 2017 Edition

Somerset County Courthouse, Somerville, New Jersey

The Somerset Patriots, of the independent Atlantic League, begin their season next Friday, April 21, at 7:05 PM, at home at TD Bank Ballpark, against the Lancaster Barnstormers of "Pennsylvania Dutch Country."

Before You Go. Somerset County, New Jersey straddles the line between the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, but most of it is close to New York City, so the weather will be essentially the same. Which also means that it's in the Eastern Time Zone, so no changing of clocks will be necessary.

Tickets. The ballpark officially seats 6,100, plus lawn seating and standing room. They usually sell out, so it's best to order tickets online. In the 100 sections, closest to the field, seats behind home plate are $12, while on the baselines they're more expensive, $14. Seats in the 200 sections are $11.

Most home games are scheduled to start at 7:05, with Sunday games starting at 1:05. However, 5 Wednesday games will start at 11:05 AM: April 26 and August 16 vs. Long Island, May 17 vs. Sugar Land, June 7 vs. Bridgeport, and July 26 vs. Southern Maryland. The game vs. York on Tuesday, August 8, will also be an 11:05 AM start. The May 17, July 26 and August 16 morning games are each the opener of a separate-admission doubleheader. There is no explanation for the others: It's not as though they are homestand-ending "getaway days," as, in each case, they're playing the same team at home the night of the next day.

The Patriots will host the 2017 Atlantic League All-Star Game.

Getting There. It's 45 miles from Times Square to TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater. Too close to fly. There's no bus service. NJ Transit does offer train service. Leaving Penn Station in New York at 5:08 will get you to Newark's Penn Station at 5:29. Then you have to change trains to the Raritan Valley Line train, leaving Track 5 at 5:35. It will arrive at Bridgewater station at 6:12, and that will drop you off behind the center field fence. For a Sunday game, leave New York at 11:14 AM, change at Newark at 11:38, and you'll arrive at 12:24 PM. Round-trip fare is $29.50.

If you're driving, take the New Jersey Turnpike South to Exit 10, and take Interstate 287 North (even though it will look like West on a map) to Exit 13B. This will put you on N.J. Route 28 West, a.k.a. Union Avenue. Make a left on Promenade Blvd., and take that to the end, which will be Main Street and the ballpark. If you do it right, it should take no more than an hour -- not counting traffic backup caused by parking.

Once In the County. Somerset County, first settled in 1681 at Bound Brook, was named for the county of the same name in England's West Country. (Which is appropriate, since the one in New Jersey is west of New York.) The name comes from the Old English term meaning "the people living near Somerton," and Somerton meant "summer town," due to the lakes nearby.

Somerset County, New Jersey has lakes, but is much more defined by its rivers, including the Raritan and the Millstone. Four branches of the Raritan River come together at Bound Brook, which led to terrible flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Somerset Ballpark, as it was then known, flooded by Hurricane Floyd,
September 13, 1999 just 3 months after its opening.

George Washington led his Continental Army through the County on his retreat from New York to Pennsylvania in the Summer of 1776, and the Battle of Bound Brook was fought on April 13, 1777, just a mile and a half east of the ballpark. So "Somerset Patriots" was an appropriate name for the team.

There are about 330,000 people living in the County, including 45,000 in Bridgewater, the town in which the ballpark is located, and 12,000 in Somerville, the County seat. Add the 840,000 in Middlesex County to the east, the 125,000 in Hunterdon County to the west, and the 500,000 in Morris County to the north, and you've got a "market" of nearly 1.8 million people for the Patriots.

Unlike Middlesex County, though, Somerset, Hunterdon and Morris are mostly rural, and not poor farmers, either. This is "New Jersey Horse Country," where rich families like that of Malcolm Forbes and his Presidential candidate son Steve live. Christine Todd Whitman was a Somerset County Freeholder before being elected Governor in 1993, and that other Governor Christie, former Morris County Freeholder Chris Christie, was very popular there, back when he was popular anywhere.

But maybe the tide is turning: Donald Trump got 54 percent of the vote in Hunterdon, but, surprisingly, only 50 percent in Morris, and Hillary Clinton clobbered him in Somerset, 54 to 42 percent. Contrast that with 2012: Mitt Romney got 58 in Hunterdon, 55 in Morris, and lost to Barack Obama 52 to 46 in Somerset.

Still, if you go to a Somerset Patriots game, it won't be like going to a Brooklyn Cyclones game -- or a Newark Bears game, when that was still available.

The sales tax in New Jersey is 7 percent. ZIP Codes in North Jersey tend to begin with the digits 07, including 071 for Newark and environs, 072 for Elizabeth, 073 for Jersey City, and 075 for Paterson. Central and South Jersey got ZIP Codes starting with the digits 08, including 084 for Atlantic City, 086 and 086 for Trenton, and 089 for New Brunswick and environs.

New Jersey's original Area Code was 201. 609 was split off in 1958, 908 in 1991, 732 in 1997, and 856 in 1999. Now, they serve as follows: 201, with 551 overlaid in 2001, serves only Bergen and Hudson Counties (including the Meadowlands, and thus MetLife Stadium, and Harrison, and thus Red Bull Arena); 609 serves Mercer County (including the capital of Trenton and Princeton University) and the Southern Shore region (including Atlantic City); 732, with 848 overlaid, much of Central Jersey (including Rutgers University) and the Northern Shore region; 856, the Delaware River region that serves as suburbs of Philadelphia; 908, the Counties of Union, northern Somerset, Morris and Warren; and 973, with 862 overlaid, the Counties of Essex (including Newark, and thus the Prudential Center) and Passaic.

The main newspaper for Somerset County is The Courier News, formerly based in Plainfield, now in Somerville. (Very confusing: Plainfield is in Union County, North Plainfield is in Somerset County, and South Plainfield is in Middlesex County.) New Jersey Transit runs bus service to the County, with a 1-zone ride costing $1.60 and a 2-zone ride being $2.55.

NJT also runs its Raritan Valley Line trains from Penn Station in Newark to High Bridge in Hunterdon County, and its Somerset County stations are Bound Brook, Bridgewater, Finderne (also in Bridgewater), Somerville, Raritan and North Branch (in Branchburg).
Bridgewater Station

Somerville is home to the Tour of Somerville, which was founded in 1940, was suspended during World War II, and has been run every Memorial Day weekend since 1946, which the highlight race on Memorial Day itself. While it is an old, established town of 12,000, surrounding Bridgewater is a typical sprawling Central Jersey suburb of 45,000. It is crossed by Interstates 78 and 287, and U.S. Routes 22, 202 and 206. It includes Raritan Valley Community College, which served Somerset and Hunterdon Counties; and Bridgewater Commons, a high-end mall that opened in 1988.

Going In. Opening in 1999 as Somerset Ballpark, and named Commerce Bank Ballpark from 2000 to 2008, TD Bank Ballpark is at 860 East Main Street in Bridgewater. It is about a mile and a half west of downtown Bound Brook, and about 3 miles east of downtown Somerville. Parking is $2.00, which is cheap, but the lot tends to fill up quickly, so some fans park for free across the street at Target, and walk across Main Street to the ballpark.
The field is natural grass, and points southeast. As with the ballparks for Montclair, and the now-defunct teams in Newark, Camden and Atlantic City, you can see trains going by.
Front entrance, with a facade that tries to fool you into thinking
it's been there as long as the Somerset County Courthouse,
which opened in downtown Somerville in 1909.

It is a hitter's ballpark: The left field pole is just 317 feet from home plate, the right field pole even closer at 315 feet. Center field is 402 feet away. I've been there about 15 times, and I've seen at least 2 home runs there every game. It's not clear who's hit the longest home run in the ballpark's history, although Josh Pressley hit one in 2010 that was estimated at 450 feet, and in 2012, Jesse Hoorelbeke hit one that hit halfway up a light tower in left field. As far as I know, no one's ever hit the big scoreboard in right field.
The ballpark also hosts high school baseball. Both the Somerset County Tournament and the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament (even though the ballpark isn't in Middlesex County) hold their Finals there. And it's held concerts.

Food. The concessions stands are tended mainly by local high school and college students, with some senior citizens acting as supervisors. This is not a recommended way to sell food.

They have big stands behind both baselines. They have a Mister Softee stand behind 3rd base, and stands for Little Caesars Pizza and a Breyer's Ice Cream behind 1st base. Handle Bar, a small bar with TV sets showing the Yankees, Mets and Phillies, is behind Section 214.
Carts on the concourse include: Original Philly Cheesesteaks (also Pierogi, Section 212), Popcorn (212), Cotton Candy (206), Guinness Pub Cart (204), Dippin Dots (206, 202 and 209), Snack Cart (209), Beers of the World (211), Leinenkugel Lodge (213), Premio Sausage (also Pierogi, 213), Funnel Cake (215), and Grub Hut Mexi-Que (215).

Team History Displays. The Patriots are the most successful team in Atlantic League history. They have Playoffs in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 -- 13 of their 19 seasons. (They were founded in 1998, but played their entire season on the road, waiting for their ballpark to open in 1999.) They reached the League Finals in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2013 and 2015. And they've won 6 Pennants: 2001, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2015. (The next-closest is the Long Island Ducks, with 3 Pennants.) Flags for those Pennants fly from poles atop the outfield fence.

Aside from the universally-retired Number 42 of Jackie Robinson, the Patriots have retired 1 number: 28, worn by Sparky Lyle, the former Yankee reliever and prankster who served as their manager from 1998 to 2012. He was succeeded by his longtime pitching coach, Brett Jodie.
Sparky, team owner Steve Kalafer, and Jodie

In addition, concourse displays show the team's titles and players who've played in the major leagues -- most of them, as is the nature of the Atlantic League, before getting to Somerset, rarely after.

Stuff. There are no team videos, and no books have been written about the Patriots. There is a large team store, just to the 1st base side of the home plate entrance.

During the Game. Even when the new Newark Bears were in the league, to give the Patriots something of an in-State rivalry, safety was never an issue. "Family atmosphere is the watchword."

The Patriots hold auditions for National Anthem singers, and they take the Anthem very seriously: If you forget to remove your cap, you will be reminded.

Their main mascot is Sparkee the Schnauzer, named for Lyle and based on his famous mustache. In 2007, they added a secondary mascot, a giant teddy bear named Slider. In 2010, they added a tertiary mascot, TD, named for the stadium's sponsoring bank, but he didn't last long.

They also have a human mascot, tying into the Patriot/American Revolution theme: General Admission, a guy in a copy of a Continental Army uniform, complete with tricorner hat and replica musket. When the Patriots need a rally, he is shown on the video board, yelling, "Somerset!" and the fans respond, "Patriots!"
Sparkee, Rutgers University head football coach Chris Ash,
Slider, Sparky Lyle, and General Admission

After the Game. Both you and your car will be safe. However, if you're hungry after the game, you may be out of luck, at least immediately. The closest places to east are about a mile to the west in Bridgewater, or a mile to the east in Bound Brook. Bridgewater Commons, Somerset County's mall, is about 5 miles to the northwest, and likely to be closed by the time the game lets out, so that's not much of an option. You're probably better off just driving home until you see a sign for a place you like. And, if you took the train, wait until you get to Penn Station.

Sidelights. TD Bank Ballpark is 45 miles from Times Square, 41 from MetLife Stadium, 28 from the Prudential Center, 7 from Rutgers Stadium, 20 from Powers Field in Princeton, and 68 from the Philadelphia sports complex.

As you might imagine, among Somerset County fans, the Yankees easily have the edge over the Mets and the Phillies, while the Giants have it over the Jets and the Eagles. The Knicks are the most popular NBA team, however, according to social media interaction, the Los Angeles Lakers are more popular there than the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets. And hockey fans there are More likely to be Rangers fans than Devils fans. But with all their tie-ins with Rutgers, no other college football team -- not even Penn State or Notre Dame -- has much of a chance.

Although there are loads of museums in New York and Philadelphia, and a few in closer places such as Newark, Morristown, New Brunswick, Princeton and Trenton, Somerset County isn't much for museums, but it has a few "historic sites."

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Like the other minor-league teams in the New York Tri-State Area, the Somerset Patriots advertise family-friendly fun at a parent-friendly price. You probably won't see any future major leaguers, but you might see a former major leaguer or two.

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