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My Central Jersey: 'Somerset Patriots Navigate COVID To Bring Baseball Back To NJ'

Lauren Knego, Bridgewater Courier News

BRIDGEWATER-The Somerset Patriots needed to navigate a long list of obstacles to bring baseball back to TD Bank Ballpark this summer, but the organization has successfully managed to deliver live sporting events during a pandemic.

The Somerset Professional Baseball Series is comprised of 13 games played over a six-week period that started July 17 and will run until Aug. 23. The ballclub created a new team, the New Jersey Blasters, which plays against the Patriots each Friday and Saturday.

"We said, 'We are just not going to watch an empty ballpark,' so we created a team that would play the Patriots, which would not be traveling from state to state or from community to community," Patriots Chairman Emeritus Steve Kalafer said. "We thought we could create a mostly closed environment."

The Patriots had to enact safety precautions that adhered to CDC and state guidelines, all of which had to be approved by Gov. Phil Murphy's Office.

"Safety is the No. 1 focal point for us with getting it going, with maintaining the league, and so that was kind of the biggest hurdle, getting everything in order with presenting the governor with our proposition," Patriots Director of Baseball Operations and Blasters manager Jon Hunton said. These are our protocols, this is what we're going to do. Getting all these things together was one hurdle after the other but our main goal was to bring baseball back to Somerset. It took a lot to get there, but we're pleased with everything so far."

According to club President and General Manager Patrick McVerry, the two rosters are set at 17 players each and they're comprised of local players, "so they're not coming from out of state or the country. We could control the environment for those players much better."

In addition to the two gamedays, there is only one additional workout, that's optional, for the players during the week. Players and staff are tested weekly for COVID-19, are required to wear facemasks in the clubhouse, and the lockers are spaced out to adhere to social distancing rules. There are no communal showers, so after a game they basically have to pack up their own stuff and go home. We only launder the uniforms, no personal items. We're constantly sanitizing the clubhouse. We take the cleanliness very seriously," McVerry said.

In the dugout during games, if a player is not actively participating, they are required to wear a mask and socially distance in the dugout as best as they can. The dugout is sanitized, and the players aren't allowed to hug or high five.

"We had a walk-off the other day and they all ran towards home plate and they stopped, and they did low fives, where they kicked each other with their feet," McVerry said. "It was kind of funny to watch."

McVerry said the players and staff have all been following the rules and there haven't been any issues or positive COVID tests so far during the series, unlike Major League Baseball, which has postponed several games this weekk due to small virus outbreaks.

"It's a mindset we have to reinforce, the players have been very receptive to it, they all want to play," McVerry said. "They all want to be a part of it, and they understand it even more so now with what's going on with Major League Baseball, how important it is to be safe and healthy so we can get through this season. The last thing we want is a player who is careless and infects the other players. They all kind of know the importance of getting this done and getting it done right."

Under state guidelines, TD Bank Ballpark can have up to a maximumm of 500 people in the stadium at once. That includes players, coaches and staff, leaving about 440 tickets for spectators, McVerry said tickets for each game go on sale on Monday morning and so far, every game has sold out. Hunton said they originally tried for 25 percent capacity, which would have allowed 1,500 people, but that proposal was denied. 

Spectators are required to wear masks upon entry to the stadium and if they're moving around, but they're allowed to remove hem once they're in their seats. The stadium is continuously being sanitized and there are hand sanitizer stations in differet locations. Failure to adhere to the Patriots' policies will result in a prompt removal from the stadiums.

"We're doing it more as a relief, we're offering some relief to our community to enjoy the simple pleasure of baseball," Kalafer said. "It's just a way of saying thank you to our fan base and saying listen, we know that world is diffferent but there's still going to be baseball and the Patriots and TD Bank Ballpark are still going to be here for the summer."

Pitcher Nate Roe, a Rutgers graduate who played for the Patriots in 2018 and 2019, is back with the team for the series after working in the front office after last season.

"To be quite honest it's not as hard as I thought it was going to be, and you don't want to be that guy that ruins it for everyone," Roe said about the new rules. "We're wearing masks in the clubhouse and sanitizing as much as possible, we're taking the tests which hasn't been so bad. We're doing whatever it takes, and I think everyone has a really good plan as far as what they can do to keep everyone healthy and as safe as possible. All it takes is one thing and baseball is gone, we want to keep baseball around and keep giving back to the fans and the community."


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