By: Mike Ashmore
BRIDGEWATER - The ring sits nestled in a cigar box with the others, collecting dust in his apartment.
It isn’t that Jon Hunton’s most notable memento from his four weeks with the Somerset Patriots in 2008 doesn’t mean a lot to the former North Plainfield High School star.
It’s that it signifies a different time.
Somerset was supposed to win then, they were going to win. Five championships in nine seasons, including becoming the first Atlantic League franchise to win it back-to-back in 2009 will make you feel that way, of course.
But then the winning stopped. The dynasty was over.
Eventually, a new era began. Brett Jodie was charged with the seemingly impossible task of replacing the legendary Sparky Lyle prior to the start of the 2013 season. Hunton came back as the team’s closer, and eventually took on a front office role as director of player personnel, too.
With that, the winning returned, but the championships didn’t.
Until last year.
A culture change that took three years to complete culminates with the raising of an unprecedented sixth championship banner, and a ring ceremony to unveil some hard-earned hardware awaits the returning players who helped make it all happen prior to the team’s Opening Day game against the Long Island Ducks at 7:05 p.m. Thursday at TD Bank Ballpark.
Don’t be surprised to hear a collective exhale from those who earned it.
“It’s good we did get it done, but it’s definitely going to be special just to get that ring,” Hunton said. “When you finally get it in your hands, it’s going to be like, ‘Holy (cow), this is nice.' "
And it won’t be going in that cigar box any time soon.
A sign of big things
Thursday will be an elaborate, passionate event where Somerset will pull out all the stops for a special night after months of planning. But there’s a more simple, albeit still not so subtle, reminder of what everyone from the players to the front office are there for that can be found if you know where to look.
Six-and-a-half-feet tall by seven-and-a-half-feet wide and barely hidden from view of even the most enthusiastic fans craning their necks down the players tunnel, a small billboard sits attached to the wall -- the last thing those who’ve just put on a Somerset Patriots uniform see before making the final left turn to set foot into the narrow, concrete hallway that leads to the field at TD Bank Ballpark.
On it is a list of every player and coach on every Atlantic League title-winning team in franchise history.
A photo of that year’s playoff MVP.
A photo of the championship ring.
It is why they play. Why they still play. To win. Where "independent baseball" was once a career death sentence, Bridgewater became a place where the game became fun again, and winning came right along with it.
Where they won didn’t matter. It was that they won, how they won and who they won with that stuck with them, not that they’d been passed over by major-league organizations. Somerset’s success and the way they achieved it didn’t just revolutionize the league, it changed the perception of baseball outside of any affiliation.
But that sign? For almost six long years, it also served as a reminder of heartbreak and failure. It was the first thing players see before taking the field, but also the last they’d see before walking back to the clubhouse and hastily packing their equipment after another season in which they fell short.
2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 … those teams are long since forgotten.
"Every year that I’ve played here, when we walk to the field, you see it,” said fourth-year outfielder Aharon Eggleston. “Every year, we’d lose the year before and it’s like, ‘Damn, this year has to be our year to have it.’ So, it’s good to walk in and see your name on there.”
But for players new to the team – only nine are returning from the 2015 club – motivation is coming more organically.
“To be honest with you, that billboard is amazing, but we don’t need it,” added first-year outfielder Carlos Guzman. “I don’t need it, they don’t need it. Nobody’s here to just go through the motions, we’re here to win. We’re all here and we want to get back to where we were before, or sign or go somewhere else and earn a job. But at the end of the day, the first thing that has to be on our plate is to win. If you don’t play to win a championship, it serves no purpose.”
A small decal hides the design of the 2015 championship ring from public view; the players will see them for the first time when they’re presented behind home plate before game time. Now, a largely new group of players has been brought in to ensure nights like Thursday will once again become commonplace at "The Jewel Of The Atlantic League."
After an off year in 2012 that saw eventual team stalwarts Jonny Tucker and Adam Donachie make their team debuts under Lyle’s last hurrah as a skipper, the Patriots quickly once again rose to prominence and were the favorites in the following two postseasons, only to fall short in heartbreaking fashion each time.
A Championship Series exit in the fifth and deciding game to the Long Island Ducks in 2013 got followed up by being taken down by the Lancaster Barnstormers in the first round.
Each year, in their minds, the title was theirs to win.
“We fell short the two years before, and we rightfully thought we should have won it, but obviously we didn’t,” Hunton said. “We still had great seasons, so finally getting it done, I wouldn’t say it was a relief or a monkey off your back, but it just felt like we finally accomplished what we’d been trying to do. Our core guys, we finally felt like we’d done what we’d been trying to do for years. It was a great feeling knowing I put together the team and also to get the last out, so for me it was great to get to do that. But once it was over and about a week goes by, it’s like, ‘Let’s get ready for next year.’ "
The 2015 club stuck to a motto of “Let's Eat,” adopted from Tucker’s gesture after reaching base where he’d pretend to feed himself. This year, however, it’s all about staying hungry … they just don’t want to try to stuff themselves.
“I feel like there’s no pressure,” said first-year center fielder Trayvon Robinson.
“I got drafted by the Dodgers, and they breed winning. I already have it in me. But we’re all here together, and everybody’s got stories. Some have good ones, some have messed up ones. If we go out there and jam together, I don’t see why we can’t keep up that tradition and (win) seven times.”
Team chemistry has been a focal point ever since Jodie and Hunton took over building the club every year, and it seems to be as strong as ever despite an overwhelming amount of turnover from 2015; 21 new players were in spring training.
Gone are Championship Series MVP Roy Merritt, postseason pitching stud Will Oliver, slugger Michael Burgess and a multitude of others. Guzman, Robinson, former major-league All-Star Bryan LaHair and big league arm Jeremy Horst lead a laundry list of players stepping in.
But the goal remains the same.
A common thread for both groups seems to be that they universally refer to the first day of spring training as an unlikely turning point as the first step towards achieving it. Rain delayed the on-field portion of the day, so the team instead spent three hours in the clubhouse getting to know each other.
“As far as there being 21 new guys, when we got here, we didn’t even know each other and we were all joking on each other,” Guzman said. “I haven’t laughed this much in I couldn’t tell you how long. It just feels like we’ve known each other forever. Championships, they start in the locker room.”
It’s a locker room, according to Eggleston, that once again has a winning feel to it.
“Baseball’s a small world anyway, and a lot of guys have played against each other or with each other somewhere on the road,” he said. “So it’s fun for everyone to get to play together. Someone might see one guy and be playing against him and be like, ‘Oh, that dude is a piece of (garbage) or whatever.’ But then you play with him, and it’s like, ‘This is a good dude.’ Getting to play with everybody and just gelling and having fun is nice, but we’re tired of facing each other, and we want to get after it and play some real games.”
The Patriots might not win the title this year. And that’s OK. Really.
Jodie insists that there is no “championship or bust” mentality in Bridgewater, and that the initial goal is to simply earn a postseason berth and see where things go from there given how much is out of their control that time of year.
In the bigger picture, however, Somerset has once again established themselves as the destination of choice in not only the Atlantic League, but all of independent baseball after overcoming some lean years.
“Everybody on our team last year in Camden was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to Somerset, we’re playing the Yankees of the Atlantic League,’” recalled Guzman, who led the now-defunct Riversharks in batting average against the Patriots in 2015.
“They’ve got a strong tradition of winning here, and they always have. They have a name, they’re the team. It’s just amazing to be a part of it.”
The message is simple. Want to have fun and win? This is where you can do it.
“I know everybody likes to win, but I think there is an expectation here, and they see that coming in before they even agree (to a contract),” said Jodie, who first joined the Patriots as a player in 2003 and has since filled a multitude of roles.
“They see the history and everything, and they see that we have fun. And they do their research. I came in blind, I told my agent to do my work for me and find the best place. I just had to take his word for it, and I got lucky in that he found a great place.
“But these guys already know through word of mouth or whatever research they’ve done, and they get comfortable because they don’t hear bad things. They know what the expectations are, and it should be a good place to play. They’re excited to be a part of this, but they know it isn’t as easy as it sounds. It isn’t just ‘I’ll go play over there,’ it’s hard to get here also.”
Good numbers aren’t enough. It’s clubhouse-first, winning second in Somerset. One doesn’t happen without the other, according to Hunton.
“Players we brought in; A-ball guys, big league guys, it doesn’t matter. They’re all good dudes, they all wanted to win and they all knew Somerset was a special place,” he said.
“When you’re somewhere special, it makes more come out of you. Everyone wants to move on and get to bigger and better things, whether it’s affiliated ball or overseas. But just the group knew how special it was to come to Somerset, and they knew it the minute they stepped in here.
“I feel personally like we’ve got a really good team, and I like our chances. I’m always confident about the teams I make, but we have some of the core guys we had last year. There’s nine of them that got a taste of it last year and know what we expect. …There’s that taste of winning and the success of being here, how we’re treated from the front office down. Those nine guys are really going to set the tone because the other guys haven’t really been here or haven’t been in indy ball before, they’re going to realize it’s a good place, we’ve got a good team and we’re going to do it together. We want to get out, but while we’re here, we’re going to do the best we can, have success and win.”