BRIDGEWATER, NJ - With less than 24 hours to go before Saturday's first pitch at 7:05 p.m., Somerset Patriots manager Brett Jodie had already changed his mind twice about who his third baseman was going to be for the opening game of the Somerset Professional Baseball Series at TD Bank Ballpark.
He asked oen player his favored position.
"Shortstop," he answered.
A few minutes later, Jodie thought otherwise.
"I don't like his hands," the veteran field boss said.
In between hitting high fungoes to a smattering of players in left field, the lanky, 6'4" former Major League pitcher had juggled his infield alignment more than a few times, and while spraying ground balls around the infield to players he was seeing for the first time, admitted he wasn't sure who would play first base.
Never mind he couldn't tell you the names of the players' who came on to the field after walking down the runway from the clubhouse after undergoing their physicals.
He'll know their names by game time; if he forgets, he can check the line-up card he'll fill out before the game.
The Somerset Patriots will play baseball in a bizarre, truncated 2020 season that will entail 12 games and 2 teams, a patchwork of 34 players, a few with Major League experience but mostly low minor league veterans and college players willing to make a few bucks and maybe impress the Jodie enough that they'll get an invite to try out for the 2021 Patriots team.
Newly-arrived from his home in South Carolina just a few days ago, the Patriots' manager was meeting most of his players for the first time at TD Bank Ballpark, with most of the players meeting their teammates for the first time.
Determined to overcome the obstacles that grew from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Somerset Patriots two weeks ago announced plans for a late-season weekend series of baseball that will feature the Patriots playing against the New Jersey Blasters, with both teams' rosters filled with athletes who live in New Jersey or close by.
Somerset Professional Baseball Series games will be played Fridays and Saturdays, beginning at 7:05 p.m. Crowds will be limited to 500 people. First game is scheduled for Friday, July 17th. The final game will be played Aug. 22nd.
Safety will be of paramount importance, with all fans required to wear masks and observe social distancing in the ballpark, which has a seating capacity of 6,100. Only 500 people will be permitted inside the ballpark, including the ballplayers, two umpires, concession workers, team personnel, media and fans.
Patriots' owners Steve Kalafer and sons Josh and Jonathan underlined their steadfast commitment to provide baseball for local fans, albeit on a limited basis; but, it's still baseball, perhaps the only professional baseball to be played east of the Mississippi River at this point in time according to Steve Kalafer.
“The most important aspect of our program is the safety, security, and the welfare of not only our fans, but the community, our players, and our staff,” Steve Kalafer said. “This is a plan that has been vetted by health care professionals, meets the CDC guidelines, and New Jersey’s executive orders. We are going to have baseball for our community.”
The short season will come at a cost.
"We're not doing this for the money," Steve Kalafer said. "We lose money on every pitch that is thrown."
The Patriots were to have played a 140-game schedule in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball this year, as they have done for over 20 years, but the league canceled the 2020 season in March and encouraged teams to go it alone and attract fans to their respective ballparks with other forms of entertainment, including fireworks displays and drive-in movies.
During a regular season, the Patriots' attendance averages over 350,000.
The Patriots wanted to play baseball, and crafted a plan to do just that, fulfilling the team's stated purpose of providing affordable, family-oriented baseball in a safe environment and in accordance with state and national COVID-19 directives.
“We have been committed since our season was postponed back in March to bring baseball back to Central New Jersey,” said Somerset Patriots President/General Manager Patrick McVerry. “We have worked hard to do that the best and safest way possible to give our community something to cheer for once again. We are excited to do our part to put smiles back on people’s faces.”
The Patriots have hosted a fireworks display and are showing drive-in movies, but for the Kalafers, and the Patriots front office staff, it has always been about baseball.
“This is the culmination of a tremendous amount of planning, hard work, diligence, and an endless number of Zoom conferences ” said Jonathan Kalafer. “But we have resolve to fulfill our mission, which is to play baseball and provide America’s pastime for families in this community.”
The Blasters will be managed by Jon Hunton, former Patriots relief pitcher who now serves as the team's pitching coach and director of Player Procurement. Rosters for each team will be limited to 18 players, according to McVerry, including six pitchers, nine position players, two catchers and a bench player.
By design, the Patriots recruited and signed New Jersey athletes to help control travel and limit the risk of individuals coming from other parts of the country, according to McVerry.
The Blasters name has a long history with the Patriots, according to Steve Kalafer.
When plans were first formulated for bringing professional baseball to Somerset County in the late 1990s, there were to have been two teams, the Patriots and the Blasters, but the need for a second team never materialized. Steve Kalafer credits former Yankee's broadcaster Mel Allen for inspiring the name, which is based on Allen's "Ballantine Blast" call behind the microphone for each time a Yankee hit a home run. Ballantine Beer was a major sponsor of the Yankees during Allen's career.
Allen broadcast Yankees games on radio and television between 1939 and 1964.
Steve Kalafer's long association and friendships with the Yankees are also reflected in the branding of the championship series.
Longtime friend Joe Torre, former Major League ballplayer and New York Yankees manager will help kick off the Joe Torre /Somerset Patriots Professional Baseball series and present the championship trophy to the winning team. Longtime Patriots manager and former Yankees' relief pitcher and winner of the Cy Young Award Sparky Lyle will present the Sparky Lyle Pitching Award at the conclusion of the short season, and former New York Yankees' World Series champion second baseman Willie Randolph, who also managed the New York Mets, will present the Willie Randolph Most Valuable Player Award.
Although the players will not wear masks, they will be subjected to the same safety protocols as all those who enter the ballpark. Individuals' temperatures will be taken, they will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing, with the Patriots configuring seating to ensure adequate distance between fans.
Concession stands will be open with a limited menu of food and beverage, with health and safety protocols in place, according to McVerry.
Here are the rosters for the Patriots and the Blasters:
Jodie will manage the Patriots for the Somerset Professional Baseball Series. Jodie has been the team’s skipper since 2013, when he took over for longtime manager Sparky Lyle. 2020 was supposed to mark the Jodie’s eighth year as manager and 17th overall season with the club. He carries a 556-405 (.579) record in his first seven seasons as manager, including a 2015 Atlantic League Championship. That same year, Jodie was named the league’s Manager of the Year.
There will be a number of familiar faces that join Jodie on this year’s Somerset Patriots roster. Six players on the team have previous service in Somerset, including right-handed pitchers David Kubiak, James Pugliese, Nate Roe and Taylor Wright along with infielder Scott Kelly and outfielder Justin Pacchioli.
Kubiak was arguably the top pitcher in the Atlantic League last year, posting a 7-1 record with a league-best 1.76 ERA and 82 strikeouts over 12 starts before his contract was purchased by Union Laguna (Mexico) in early July. Pugliese, a Hamilton, NJ native, was named a Mid-Season All-Star and carried a 3.62 ERA over 59.2 innings last year. Roe, a local favorite, has led the Patriots bullpen in each of the last two seasons before transitioning to a role in the team’s front office after the 2019 campaign ended. Wright was named the Frontier League’s Rookie of the Year last season and appeared in four games with the Somerset Patriots to end the year.
Those four returning pitchers will be joined by notable, local names including Major Leaguer Mark Leiter Jr. and Garden State standouts Billy Layne Jr. and Max Herrmann. Leiter Jr. earned three wins and struck out 84 batters over 27 appearances (11 starts) with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017 and split 20 appearances between the Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays in 2018.
Layne Jr., an 11th round draft pick by the Texas Rangers out of Seton Hall University in 2018, has two years of service in the Rangers organization. He posted three wins and 36 strikeouts over 32.2 combined innings between Rookie level Rangers and Low-A Spokane in 2019. Herrmann, a Rutgers product, posted a 2.70 ERA over four appearances (two starts) with Triple-A Salt Lake (Los Angeles Angels) last year and has three seasons of service in the Angels organization.
Kelly and Pacchioli – who rank third and fourth in franchise history in stolen bases, respectively – both return to lead the Patriots’ lineup. The two fan favorites offer a combined nine years of service in Somerset and 226 combined stolen bases.
The rest of the Patriots’ position players are composed primarily of New Jersey natives. Jordan Jackson - who spent a brief amount of time with the Long Island Ducks in 2019 - and Matt O’Neill – a 20th round draft pick by the New York Mets in the 2019 MLB draft – will split time as the team’s two primary backstops.
Joey Rose, a 5th round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Toms River North High School in 2016, will be featured in an impressive infield alongside former Lancaster Barnstormer Carlos Garcia and West Windsor native Sid Kumar.
Pacchioli will be flanked in the outfield by Summit native Sean Guida and Piscataway local Adam Tricarico. Brick resident Dan Valerio will serve as a utilityman for the team.
New Jersey Blasters
The Blasters will be managed by current Somerset Patriots Pitching Coach/Director of Baseball Operations Jon Hunton. 2020 was set to be “Big Jon’s” ninth year with the team and third as pitching coach. The record-setting closer also began work as the team’s director of player personnel in 2014 before his promotion to director of baseball operations prior to the 2018 season. This will be his first crack as a professional manager.
The Blasters’ roster features one player with service at the Major League level, two New Jersey natives with experience at the Triple-A level, two more with service time in Double-A and overall 14 players that call the Garden State home.
Infielder Martin Figueroa was tabbed as the first overall pick for the Blasters roster. “Figgy” was named as a New York Penn League All-Star in 2019 after he slashed .282 with four home runs and 27 RBI over 35 games with the short-season State College Spikes (St. Louis Cardinals). The previous year, the 24 year-old hit .328 with five home runs, 50 RBI, 20 stolen bases and a .444 on-base percentage over 96 games with the Sussex County Miners (Can-Am League) and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year.
Former Patriot outfielder Zac Racusin leads the Blaster outfield. The Mendham native made his professional baseball debut with the Patriots in 2017 after finishing his college career at Georgetown. Racusin recorded four RBI and stole three bases over 17 games with the team before splitting his 2018 campaign between the Lake Erie Crushers (Frontier League) and Chicago Dogs (American Association). Racusin returned to Lake Erie in 2019 and hit .274 with 33 RBI and six steals over 93 games.
Luis Roman, with experience in Triple-A with the San Diego Padres organization, will work as the team’s primary catcher. He split last year between Single-A Fort Wayne and a pair of teams in the Frontier League, where he combined to hit .285 with two home runs over 48 games.
Infielder Sam Dexter spent two seasons in the Chicago White Sox organization and has enjoyed success in both the Can-Am League and the American Association in the last two seasons. Dexter hit .287 over 101 games with Trois-Rivieres in 2018 and played in 98 games with the Milwaukee Milkmen last year.
New Jersey natives Zach Lipshitz, Louie Martini, Tommy McCarthy and Derek Romberg round out the rest of the team’s infield. Three products Liam McArthur and Mark Shenloogian will join Racusin in the outfield.
Vin Mazzaro leads the Blasters pitching staff. The former Somerset Patriots righty owns a 24-23 record with a 4.79 ERA and one save over eight years of service in the big leagues. The East Rutherford native tossed six shutout innings with the Somerset Patriots over three appearances in 2017 and most recently posted 11 wins over 39 games with the Long Island Ducks in 2019.
Southpaws Sean Keselica and Brandon Leibrandt join Mazzaro on the strong Blasters staff. Keselica split his 2019 season in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, while Leibrandt spent both 2017 and 2018 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the Phillies organization. Leibrandt, a 6th round draft pick in 2014, posted a 4-1 record with a 1.42 ERA over 20 games (six starts) with the IronPigs in 2018.
The rest of the Blasters pitching staff includes players with experience in Major League organizations. Vin Aiello (last team – Double-A Jacksonville) and Alex Vargas (Double-A Tennessee) each most recently were two steps from the Majors while Michael LoPresti and Ryan Williamson both played at the Single-A level.
For more information about the Somerset Professional Baseball Series visit www.somersetpatriots.com,