NJ minor league baseball teams wrap up first post-COVID seasons
Back in April, we checked in with New Jersey's three minor league baseball teams with Major League affiliations, one of which wound up having such an unusual season that its MLB partnership, by design, didn't even last the entire summer.
That did not stop the Trenton Thunder, specifically "bat dog" Rookie, from going viral within the past week, when Rookie prematurely took the field while making a cameo at a Buffalo Bisons game.
The Bisons played much of their 2021 home schedule in Trenton, owing to their parent club, the Toronto Blue Jays, routinely suiting up in Buffalo thanks to since-lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions.
It was also an unforgettable end to the year for the Somerset Patriots, who in their first season as a New York Yankees affiliate just missed out on the Double-A playoffs by losing their season finale two Sundays ago.
But the bigger news item for the Bridgewater ballclub was their playing field being completely submerged by floodwaters from the remnants of Hurricane Ida, Sept. 1 and 2.
Patriots president and general manager Patrick McVerry said that despite some loss of personal items and equipment, he was glad the team's staff was able to get the field into playable condition for one final weekend following the storm.
It all added up to a challenging, but ultimately successful, return to play for New Jersey's minor league squads after a full year off due to the pandemic.
Greg Giombarrese, director of communications for the Jersey Shore BlueClaws, said his team paid close attention to guidance from Ocean County, the state of New Jersey, Major League Baseball, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loosening certain protocols when appropriate as this season progressed.
"The fans were very receptive to it, our staff was very receptive, and I think everybody just really wanted to get back to the ballpark and enjoy BlueClaws baseball together," Giombarrese said.
The BlueClaws continued their longstanding partnership with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2021, but did it while broadening their reach somewhat, having changed their branding from Lakewood to Jersey Shore starting with this season.
Giombarrese said that did have a tangible impact, reporting that some of the team's top-selling merchandise this summer was apparel that had "Jersey Shore" written on it.
By about midsummer, he said the experience of going to a BlueClaws game felt much the same as it always had prior to 2020. That was reflected in attendance figures, which according to Giombarrese doubled per game from season's beginning to its end.
"I think two of our three biggest crowds of the season came on the final weekend of the year, Sept. 10 and 11, so that was certainly very exciting and bodes well for heading into 2022," he said.
McVerry is also eager to look ahead to next season, but said he is taking time to reflect on all the Patriots accomplished in 2021.
"It was a whirlwind. I can't believe it's over. It ended quite abruptly, but at the same time, it's a good time to reflect and be proud of our staff (and) our fans who supported us throughout," he said. "Honestly, at this point I just cannot wait until 2022. I think it's going to be an amazing season, and it can't get here soon enough."