Major League Baseball’s reorganization of the minor leagues not only redrew the map of affiliated ball, but it had ripple effects — some direct, some indirect — to the independent circuits as well.
It struck me just last week that, with the Somerset Patriots becoming the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate, the Atlantic League no longer has a presence in New Jersey. The Garden State was once the anchor of the Northeast-centric league.
When it launched in 1998, three of the six teams were based in New Jersey: The Patriots in Bridgewater, the Surf in Atlantic City and the Bears in Newark (though the Bears played the entire ’98 season on the road while their ballpark was under construction). The other three clubs were based in Nashua, N.H.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Newburgh, N.Y./Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. The same six teams made up the league in ’99, with the Bears’ ballpark opening in downtown Newark in July.
The Long Island Ducks and Aberdeen (Md.) Arsenal were added in 2000, with the Arsenal replaced in ’01 by the Camden Riversharks. Now half of the eight-team league played in New Jersey.
The Patriots were the last original franchise still in existence, part of why they’re the Yankees of the Atlantic League: six championships, two more than the Ducks have. Long Island is now the league’s gray-haired veteran, five years older than the Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers.
What once was a league that stretched from New Hampshire to Atlantic City became one that covered southwestern Connecticut all the way to Sugar Land, Texas, southwest of Houston. When it begins its 23rd season in May as an official partner league of MLB, it will reach from Long Island to North Carolina in the south and Kentucky in the west. Where New Jersey was once the king of the Atlantic League, North Carolina and Pennsylvania will share that title, with two teams each.
For years, when New Jersey was flush with eight minor league franchises (affiliated and independent), I’d gather all the schedules together each spring and try to find a week when I could hit all eight ballparks in eight days. There was always at least one stretch where they lined up, but I never took the time to make the circuit.
Still, I eventually attended at least one game at each New Jersey ballpark, hitting Somerset, Newark and Atlantic City for a weekly newspaper column in 1999. In 2007, I finally drove down to Camden for a weekday doubleheader between the Riversharks and Bears. The first game ended on a walk-off homer by Matt DeMarco, a South Jersey native who was drafted by the Marlins in ’98 and played seven seasons in their organization, getting as high as Double-A (with a Rule 5 detour to the Cardinals system for part of the 2005 season). I was in a great spot for the walk-off celebration.
Though the Atlantic League has left the state with 130 miles of Atlantic coastline, baseball remains strong here. The Patriots and
Lakewood Jersey Shore BlueClaws have 10-year licenses with the Yankees and Phillies, respectively; the Trenton Thunder are now part of MLB’s Draft League; and the New Jersey Jackals at Montclair State and the Sussex County Miners in the northern Highlands are members of another MLB partner, the Frontier League.
Unfortunately, Camden and Newark have lost not just their teams, but their ballparks; I can’t see either city getting another one again soon. And the Sandcastle still stands near Atlantic City — outlasting the Trump Plaza, which used to be visible beyond the outfield wall — but no professional team has called it home since the Surf folded 12 years ago. As recently as 2018, there was still talk of finding a new tenant, but that seems less likely, at least in the near future, after the pandemic. But as long as the ballpark stands, there’s a chance.