Around the League

Atlantic League's 25th Anniversary is here

Saturday, May 20, 2023 will mark a special day in the Atlantic League. A birthday of sorts.

May 20, 1998 was the day that the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball became a reality. The dream of Wall Street financier Frank Boulton, who had previously owned several minor league clubs, the Atlantic League’s gestation period was over after a three year wait and play between the foul lines was about to begin.

The first game was not a hastily thrown together affair. It was years in the making. Boulton had been working diligently since early 1995 to put together a new league. On April 3, 1995, he held a press conference at the Garden Pier Cultural Center in Atlantic City. Boulton told the gathered media that he had interest from more than a dozen cities in hosting an Atlantic League franchise.

The line-up for that inaugural season featured the Atlantic City Surf, the Bridgeport Bluefish, the Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds (who played their first season in Newburgh, N.Y.), the Nashua Pride, the Newark Bears and the Somerset Patriots. The roster of managers looked like a big league who’s who: Sparky Lyle in Somerset, Willie Upshaw in Bridgeport, Mike Easler in Nashua, Wayne Krenchicki in Newburgh and Tom O’Malley managing in Newark.

As Opening Day 1998 approached and the dawn of a new professional baseball league was on the horizon, stadium construction was underway in multiple cities. In Atlantic City, the Surf were putting the finishing touches on Sandcastle Stadium. It was difficult to distinguish between the construction workers racing around to complete the final punch list from the fans lining up to watch professional baseball.

The stadium’s certificate of occupancy was less than 24 hours old.

The Somerset Patriots would meet the Surf at the Sandcastle on May 20, 1998. Like the opening days of any new venture, not everything went according to plan. Surf general manager/team president and part owner Ken Shepard was panicked as game time approached. Just hours before the scheduled first pitch, the Sandcastle did not have its rows of seats numbered. A helicopter hovered over the dirt parking lot, spraying bug repellant to hold down the gnats.

Some fans had to wait as much as an hour to get into the stadium. Others grew impatient during a lengthy pre-game ceremony that delayed the start of the game from 7:05 until nearly 8 o’clock. The public address system was described as “balky” and there were long lines at the concession stands. The luxury boxes were not completed and portions of the stands were not yet suitable for fans. The crowd endured six first-pitches, the first of which was “delivered by a guy shot out of a cannon,” according to the reporting of Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Edward Moran. The cannon guy proved to be the “cannon man” from the Tropicana Casino. Larry Higgs of the Bridgewater Courier-News described the other first pitch tossers as a boy in a wheelchair, a disc jockey, a Little Leaguer, a Little League coach and a reporter. The mayor of Atlantic City, James Whelan, threw out the final first pitch. Max Manning, then 79 and a former Negro League pitcher, was among the many dignitaries on hand for the league debut.

Jose DeJesus was Atlantic City’s opening night starting pitcher and he threw the very first official Atlantic League pitch at 7:49 p.m. on May 20, 1998. Somerset center fielder Donald Broach took the first pitch for a strike. Somerset designated hitter Scott Jacob hit the first home run in Atlantic League history when he homered to right off DeJesus. It was also the first run scored in league history.

A sellout crowd of 5,470 was on hand to watch Somerset post an 8-5 win over Atlantic City.

Somerset started former Major Leaguer Bob Sebra on the mound. Even at 36, Sebra went three innings and allowed just three singles. But he loaded the bases before Wayne Hoy came on to pitch out of the jam.

Somerset’s hitters­ banged out 14 hits and knocked around DeJesus for five runs in four innings of work.

Many of the details of that first game in league history have been well-documented. Broach, the first-ever ALPB hitter, reached base on an error by Atlantic City center fielder Gerald Young. Somerset’s Rod Griggs collected the initial hit in the league, an infield single.

At the end of the night, a number of things were in plain sight.

Professional baseball was alive and well in the form of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.

While there were doubts as to whether a new unaffiliated professional baseball league was viable, Pasquale DiFulco of the Bridgewater Courier-News wrote that “even the most cynical doubters would have been impressed” on Opening Night in the Atlantic League.

And 25 years later, Atlantic League fans are still impressed.


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