Family identity, jersey diners add feathers to Somerset Patriots’ unique character

Somerset Patriots' new Jersey Diners and owners Jonathan, left, and Joshua Kalafer flank their dad, Steve, in the team store at TD Bank Ballpark.

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New Jersey, renowned as the Diner Capital of the World with over 500 diners, a number surpassing any other state, boasts a rich culinary landscape. The Somerset Patriots, situated in central New Jersey and serving as the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate since 2021, find themselves amid this vibrant world of pre-fabricated, neon-lit diners.

Embracing a unique identity, the Somerset Patriots will adopt the Jersey Diners alter ego for three home games in the upcoming season, stemming from a brainstorming session exploring Garden State-themed food aliases. While Pizza initially emerged as a consideration, the focus shifted, and a decision was made to opt for a straightforward and celebratory identity.

Somerset Patriots embrace Jersey Diners

The Jersey Diners wordmark, presented in what the Somerset Patriots refers to as “pink poodle” neon, is set against a backdrop resembling the stainless silver design of classic boxcar-style diners in the state. The cap features a logo of a cheerful cup of coffee adorned in the attire of a diner employee, complete with a bow tie and paper hat.

Designed by Ryan Foose of Fooser Studios, the Jersey Diners logos are accompanied by several secondary marks. These include a coffee pot intricately embossed with a stylized “J” and “d” for Jersey Diners of the Somerset Patriots, a stack of pancakes crowned with a baseball-shaped slab of butter, and a “State and Eggs” mark showcasing a breakfast sirloin cut in the shape of New Jersey. The “Happy Waitress” logo, named after a beloved Jersey diner dish of a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and tomato, will feature as one of the “blue plate specials” during Diners games, alongside the renowned Disco Fries topped with gravy and cheese.

The unveiling event, attended by Somerset Patriots season ticket holders and the media, unfolded at the Park 22 Diner in Green Brook. Accompanied by the tunes of a local oldies radio station, the gathering featured an abundance of food and coffee. Attendees received vintage paper diner hats, a souvenir included in all Diners merchandise orders throughout the season.

Yankees prospects at Somerset Patriots
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The Somerset Patriots are set to make their debut as the Jersey Diners at TD Bank Ballpark, hosting the Hartford Yard Goats on June 8.

Somerset Patriots’ unique family vibe

In the 1980s, when the Kalafers, spanning three generations, embarked on car trips to Yankees games, a deliberate choice was made to take the longest route from Hunterdon County to the Bronx.

Milton Kalafer, a Yankees enthusiast since the 1930s, when legends like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig dominated the American League, maintained a tradition of driving to the Stadium via Manhattan. This route persisted in the late 1950s as he introduced his son Steve to the Yogi Berra/Mickey Mantle era. Even with the addition of his baseball-loving grandsons, Jonathan and Josh, eager to witness Don Mattingly in pinstripes, the chosen route remained unchanged.

Jonathan Kalafer, now co-chairman for Minor League Baseball’s Somerset Patriots alongside his younger brother, reminisced about cherished ’80s memories. He recollected sitting in the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car, with Pop Pop at the wheel and his father in the front passenger seat.

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Hosting a media event at Park 22 diner, the third-generation Kalafers reveled in the Yankees nostalgia associated with the Somerset Patriots.

During those rides, Jonathan shared that his father and Pop Pop engaged in lively conversations about both baseball and politics. Meanwhile, he and his brother occupied the spacious backseat, playfully engaging in horseplay. The memories of the drive through the Lincoln Tunnel remain vivid for the Somerset Patriots owners.

Jonathan fondly recounted observing tiles indicating “New Jersey/New York.” In those moments, he characterized New York as gritty, exciting, and colorful. Emerging from the tunnel, the city’s skyline signaled that they were en route to the game.

Jonathan expresses gratitude for his grandfather’s continued support and assistance when Steve established the Somerset Patriots in 1998 as an independent Atlantic League club. In the subsequent year, Milton Kalafer, a former Newark Bears batboy and World War II veteran, passed away on the Fourth of July in 1999 at the age of 83.

Recalling the breakthrough success of the Somerset Patriots on the field, at the gate, and within the community, Jonathan fondly remembers how proud his father was. For nearly two decades, the Patriots were managed by Sparky Lyle, a former Yankees Cy Young winner, and an emblem of the golden era teams of the ’70s.

A close bond with Yankees

Jonathan still finds himself moved when reflecting on one of the most significant days in his father’s life—the moment the Somerset Patriots became the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate in November 2020.

Steve’s close relationship with former Yankees manager Joe Torre, cultivated during meetings at his New Jersey car dealerships, extended to the point where their families traveled to Europe together. With Yankees GM Brian Cashman on speed dial, Steve was astonished when the Yankees proposed that the Somerset Patriots replace the Trenton Thunder as their Class AA farm team.

In a discussion with NJ Advance Media in February 2021, Steve Kalafer fondly recalled his first game in ’58, attending with his father to watch the Yankees face the Boston Red Sox. The grandeur of entering Yankee Stadium and the vastness of the lush green grass left a lasting impression. Reflecting on those moments, he expressed that the memories still evoke shivers today. Steve conveyed his disbelief at the notion that the Somerset Patriots could be affiliated with the New York Yankees, finding it almost unimaginable.

Steve Kalafer had intended to visit his father’s grave on the morning of May 4, 2021, accompanied by his two sons and five grandsons, coinciding with the Somerset Patriots’ inaugural game as a Yankees affiliate. He pledged to leave a Yankee cap and a ball at the grave. However, tragedy struck two weeks before Opening Day when Steve, a prominent community figure, devoted Yankees fan, and family man, succumbed to cancer at the age of 71.

On the historic day of the Somerset Patriots’ debut as a Yankees farm team, Steve’s two sons and five grandchildren tearfully visited the cemetery, bringing two caps and two balls to honor his memory. All these poignant memories resurfaced during the 2022 baseball season when Jonathan Kalafer attended the Somerset Patriots’ home games in Bridgewater at TD Bank Ballpark.

Churning out the Anthony Volpe legend

While the Somerset Patriots once had former MLB players when they were an independent team, their affiliation with the Yankees in 2021 brought big-league Bombers on rehab assignments. Though notable players like Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, and Luke Voit graced the ballpark that year, the excitement paled in comparison to the buzz generated by Anthony Volpe during his extensive five-month stay at Double-A in 2022. Despite his eventual promotion to Triple-A on September 2, Volpe’s presence turned the Somerset Patriots into the most sought-after attraction in the Raritan Valley region.

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Volpe’s journey to local stardom commenced during his grade school years, marked by his participation in USA Baseball across the globe. His talent flourished during high school at Delbarton, culminating in 2019 when the Yankees drafted him in the first round while he was still a senior.

Returning home three years later to play for the Patriots, Volpe’s presence turned the ballpark into a magnet for the entire Bridgewater zip code. Despite his escalating fame, Anthony remained grounded, making it a ritual to sign autographs for kids after every game. According to McVerry, Anthony’s genuine connection with the young fans has turned them into devoted followers. Aware that people attended games specifically to witness his performance, Anthony aimed to ensure they left the ballpark with smiles on their faces. McVerry highlighted the positive impact of such gestures from key players and leaders, stating that they set an example for other players to emulate.

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In that spring and summer, Anthony Volpe, then holding the position of the Yankees’ top prospect, took on the role of the Somerset Patriots’ regular shortstop. Despite residing just eight miles away in Watchung, Volpe embraced the opportunity.

Jonathan noted the consistent presence of Anthony’s entire family in the stands for every game. He recounted a particular incident when Anthony’s grandfather approached his wife on the first-base concourse, handing her one of Anthony’s baseball cards—a customary gesture. Jonathan shared that his wife still possesses that baseball card, having recently come across it.

Highlighting the profound connection between two individuals who place great emphasis on family values, Jonathan reflected on the incident involving Anthony’s grandfather and the baseball card. He emphasized that it served as a powerful reminder of the significance of family to them, characterizing it as a natural and meaningful connection.

A factory of top talents

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The day before Volpe’s promotion to Scranton, the Somerset Patriots welcomed an even more significant celebrity – Jasson Dominguez, possibly the Yankees’ most renowned prospect in decades. A five-tool, switch-hitting center fielder hailing from the Dominican Republic, Dominguez signed a $5.1 million contract at the age of 16 and joined Somerset while still a teenager.

Marc Russinoff, the Vice President of Media Relations, noted the consistent media attention surrounding Jasson. Despite the demand for him, Jasson did not necessarily seek to be the primary focus of the media. While he occasionally participated in interviews, he appeared to prefer concentrating on his work and development. Russinoff praised Jasson for handling media sessions effectively and highlighted his dedication to perfecting his English for interviews, a feat he took pride in accomplishing.

Dominguez lived up to the lofty expectations, delivering standout performances as the Somerset Patriots clinched the Eastern League championship in 2022. Returning for the commencement of the 2023 season, this time as the Yankees’ No. 1 prospect, he continued to captivate fans. The crowd enthusiastically sought his autograph, clamoring for signatures both before and after games, equipped with balls, pens, caps, and jerseys.

Towards the end of the previous season, as Dominguez progressed to Triple-A and eventually joined the Yankees, the organization’s new top prospect, Spencer Jones, made his appearance. A first-round pick in 2022, Jones is a towering 6-foot-6 center fielder boasting impressive left-handed power and speed.

Yankees prospect Spencer Jones is giving autographs to fans.
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McVerry highlighted the immediate impression of Spencer’s imposing stature, especially when compared to the more compact builds of Anthony and Jasson, both around 5-9 or 5-10. Beyond physical attributes, McVerry noted Spencer’s exceptionally friendly demeanor. Upon his arrival last year, Spencer introduced himself with genuine enthusiasm, expressing happiness about being there. He reassured McVerry, saying, “I’m happy to be here. Whatever you need, just ask.” McVerry emphasized that such a positive attitude and willingness to contribute are precisely the qualities you hope for in a player.

In the upcoming season, Jones is anticipated to return to the Somerset Patriots, set to be a pivotal figure for the team. Garnering comparisons to a young Aaron Judge, Jones is poised to make a significant impact both on and off the field for the team.

The Somerset Patriots, true to their tradition, aim to make Jones’s experience with them distinct in various aspects. Jonathan Kalafer underscored that Spencer, like all players, is someone they are dedicated to supporting. He emphasized their pivotal role as a nurturing environment for player development, considering it a sacred responsibility in partnership with the Yankees.

The successful run of the club

The Somerset Patriots’ essence appears to be an intricate blend of baseball and family values. Jonathan and Josh Kalafer, deeply rooted in the front office since the beginning, assumed the roles of co-chairmen in 2018 when their father transitioned from chairman to chairman emeritus. Presently, the brothers not only own one of the family businesses but also retain their co-chairmen titles. Jonathan, in addition to his responsibilities with the Somerset Patriots, has garnered recognition for directing and producing award-winning documentaries.

Yankees' prospects Anthony Volpe, Austin Wells, Jasson Pereira and Oswald Peraza
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A significant portion of the Somerset Patriots’ workforce has remained with the team for extended periods, forming an integral part of the extended family. Eight front-office members boast over two decades of service, with president/general manager Patrick McVerry, who initially joined as director of marketing, being one of them.

When asked about his favorite anecdotes regarding hosting the Yankees’ last three consecutive No. 1 prospects, Kalafer found it challenging to pinpoint specific stories. He explained that, while at the ballpark, his primary focus is on ensuring an excellent experience for the fans and upholding the standards expected by the Yankees organization. Kalafer expressed the view that his stories about the prospects might not have broad appeal to most people.

For the Somerset Patriots’ staff, the relationships they cultivate with both players and fans are regarded as sacred. Their goal is to ensure that players have a positive and enjoyable experience in Somerset while creating an atmosphere at the ballpark that leaves fans eager for a return visit. During Tuesday’s announcement of the three-game rebranding to the Jersey Diners, most of the Somerset Patriots’ staff gathered for a unique celebration. Instead of hosting the event at their ballpark, they invited around 65 season-ticket holders to a diner for a celebration, complete with complimentary breakfast.

In the previous year, the Somerset Patriots averaged 5,181 fans per game, ranking fifth in the Eastern League and 31st out of 120 full-season minor-league clubs. In the preceding year, buoyed by Volpe’s presence, the Patriots averaged 5,241 fans per game, ranking 28th overall.

Anticipating robust home crowds again this year, regardless of Jones’s tenure with the club, McVerry expressed enthusiasm about reestablishing a connection with fans if Spencer starts the year with them. He cited positive communication from Spencer and expressed confidence in Spencer fulfilling those commitments.

Such stories resonate positively with Jonathan Kalafer, who acknowledges missing his father and wishes he could witness these top Yankees prospects playing for the team he initiated. Jonathan emphasized the paramount importance of family within the Somerset Patriots, attributing his father for instilling the value of family, which extended into their business ethos. He considers himself fortunate to have had his father as the family patriarch, emphasizing the immeasurable guidance provided by such familial bonds.

“When you can appreciate family and enjoy spending time with family, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

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