It is important to remain objective in journalism. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start off this piece by saying that the Trenton Thunder were a huge part of my life.
They’re part of the reason I’m such a baseball nut. Growing up 15 minutes away from the stadium, it was incredible to have Double-A minor league baseball, especially Yankees minor league baseball right around the corner. Bored on a Friday night? If the Thunder were in town, you knew you could go there for a fun family night out at the ballpark without putting a dent in your wallet. I can’t begin to estimate the amount of hours I spent at beautiful Arm & Hammer Park, watching Yankees prospects with my family and friends while overlooking the Delaware River.
So, hearing that the Yankees terminated their relationship with the Trenton Thunder hit me like a gut punch. I know I’m not alone, either.
In a world where small-market minor league ballclubs fold under economic duress every year, the success of the Thunder made them seem like the great outlier. Back in 2016, Forbes ranked the Thunder the 30th-most valuable team in all of minor league baseball, worth $26.5 million. The organization consistently had great attendance, invested in its fans, and was a winner on and off the field. The club’s success helped revitalize Trenton’s economy, and led to the development of a nearby arena to host more events. The Thunder were also known for their great work in the community, and hosted several high school playoff baseball games.
However, the Yankees saw fit to pull the rug out from under the Thunder after all this success. We knew there would be a realignment of minor league baseball this year, involving the cutting of at least 40 clubs nationwide. For the Yankees, it was reported that Staten Island was to be on the chopping block. While the Yankees ultimately cut ties with Staten Island last week, at least the writing was on the wall there. It still hurts, but the community had the chance to process the news, and wasn’t completely blindsided.
The Yankees did just that with the Thunder, abruptly heading to Bridgewater, New Jersey to partner with the Somerset Patriots. Now, the Patriots have built a great reputation in the independent Atlantic League and have a newer ballpark, offer public transit into the stadium and are closer to New York than the Thunder. Fans should absolutely expect the Patriots to do a great job as the Yankees’ new affiliate.
But there is something more sinister going on here, as accused by Thunder owner Joseph Plumeri. Plumeri called the move “a betrayal” and “despicable,” before going in with the dagger:
“New York Yankees management has made the calculated and ungracious maneuver to leave the urban setting of Trenton for the affluent confines of Bridgewater Township ... It seems the Yankees were only focused on trying to cut culturally diverse Trenton down in favor of a wealthy, higher socioeconomic area in Somerset.”
The look here isn’t pretty. Had Trenton been a poor partner or struggling to fill the ballpark, maybe the Yankees have a point, but that’s not the case. As the local saying goes, “Trenton makes, the world takes.”
The Yankees cited poor field conditions, a small clubhouse in need of expansion, and, according to Plumeri, the surrounding community as reasons for the move. The Thunder are owned by a small group, and have to use local taxpayer money for upgrades. However, don’t the Yankees have a responsibility to pitch in and improve conditions to their standards considering it’s one of their affiliate teams, instead of just packing up and leaving for an organization with more money?
These issues seem to have come about recently, as the Yankees used to partner with the Thunder extensively, sending players like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte all to Trenton twice, as well as Hideki Matsui, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Curtis Granderson and Michael Pineda over the years. The Yankees have suffered more injuries than just about any other team in recent seasons, but have strategically avoided sending players to Trenton to rehab. These used to be hallmark events for Yankees fans, a chance to see an All-Star MLB player up close and personal, granted more access than at the buttoned-up and bougie Yankee Stadium, and maybe even the chance to get an autograph.
It doesn’t seem as though Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Brett Gardner, Austin Romine, Dellin Betances or countless other Thunder alumni were hampered in any way by the “poor facilities” at Trenton. Alex Rodriguez sure didn’t mind when he blasted three home runs in a Thunder uniform, greeted fans who came out to support him amidst controversy, and played with the renowned Thunder bat dogs, Chase, Derby and Rookie.
The Yankees owed the Thunder more fairness after all they did for the Yankees’ brand over the years. Instead of telling the Thunder at the eleventh hour that they were cut after months of stringing them along, maybe the Yankees could have pitched in a little bit. Instead, they said “thanks for 18 great years, but you’re on your own now,” and left for greener pastures. Yes, sports is a business, but the Thunder were long-term partners who represented the Yankees’ image while developing their own identity in the Central Jersey community. The move was stunning, to say the least, and put hundreds of employees out of work.
The Yankees will enjoy their partnership with the Patriots, who apparently offer more of what the Yankees value in a relationship. Business is business, and hopefully baseball will return to Trenton with a new affiliation. After 18 years, four championships, three bat dogs, and countless memories for local fans, the Yankees have left Trenton.
It’s just a shame it had to happen in the way that it did.