On Thursday, April 11, the Trenton Thunder will hold their 20th season home opener at the newly “branded” Arm and Hammer Park, where the local version of America’s Pastime has out lasted the naysayers and outplayed the competition from ballparks around the state, becoming as much a part of summer as water ice and trips to the shore.

After a couple of balks due to construction delays and poor field conditions, on May 9, 1994 the ball was finally thrown from the mound at what was then called Mercer County Waterfront Park and a new era of baseball had begun. Minor league baseball had returned to Trenton after a more than 40 year absence.

Talent, up close

Bringing professional baseball back to the capital city was a gamble. It was pitched as just the shot in the arm New Jersey’s beleaguered capital city needed.

The steady first-year attendance got a boost when the Major League players went out on strike in August. Minor league baseball continued on, and some fans turned their full attention to local pro ball.

After the inaugural season ended, so did the one-year affiliation with the then-hapless Detroit Tigers. It wasn’t all bad for Trenton fans, though. Thunder first baseman Tony Clark went on to play six years for the Tigers, making the American League All-Star roster in 2001. The first Thunder player to have his number (33) retired, the switch-hitting Clark played for all three Major League clubs Trenton has been affiliated with (including Boston 2002 and the Yankees in 2004) as well as the Mets, Diamondbacks and Padres during his 15 year career.

The Thunder switched parent clubs for 1995 and, for the next eight years, was the AA farm team for the Boston Red Sox. That affiliation ushered in the first “golden era” of the Thunder’s history.

When the Red Sox arrived, they brought with them an athletic, driven 22-year-old by the name of Nomar Garciaparra. That year Nomar (as he was often called by fans) was a basestealing, slick-fielding shortstop whose hitting was a little behind his glove, but he eventually became a slugger, winning the AL batting title in 1999 and 2000. Garciaparra’s number 5 was the second one retired by the team, and he was the second of 14 Thunder players to be named to the All-Star team in the majors.

Two of the highest attended games occurred during the Trenton-Boston affiliation. The first, when Trenton hosted the AA All-Star game in 1996, saw the best and brightest players at the AA level — two levels below the majors — come from across the country to showcase their stuff on the banks of the Delaware River.

The second was when the parent Red Sox club made the trip to Trenton for an exhibition game against their farmhands.

Perhaps the biggest change came with the 2003 season and the switch of affiliations from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees. A natural pairing, the geographic proximity to and large, existing fan base for the parent club put the Thunder in a cozy relationship with the Yankee organization.

Players on rehab and scouts from around the country regularly pay a visit to the Thunder. Over 250 players have passed through the cozy confines of Arm and Hammer Park on their road to the majors.

We can have one too

After the first flush of success in Trenton, baseball stadiums started popping up all around the state.

Major League Baseball and its network of Minor League affiliates protect owners’ investments by tightly controlling territories where teams can be located. As other communities tried to replicate the Trenton success, they found they couldn’t get affiliations with major league teams.

Atlantic City, Camden, Newark and Somerset County all built parks and lured teams that played in independent (unaffiliated with Major League Baseball) leagues. The results were mixed.

Thunder General Manager Will Smith says baseball, even in the minor leagues, is a big business.

“If the owners and management aren’t prepared and planning for the long haul, it works for awhile, but the honeymoon eventually ends,” Smith said in a recent telephone interview. “They came into communities that were kind of baseball starved but they didn’t have the right to negotiate with major league baseball teams in those territories because they were blocked by other teams.”

Meanwhile, the Trenton operation soldiered on.

While the county built/taxpayer funded ball park was not the economic magic bullet some promised it to be, there is no denying that the presence of the Thunder has had some positive impacts on the Trenton community.

Smith sees it as the product of smart, solid ownership.

“They were good business people before they invested in minor league baseball. They are fair business people. The Trenton Thunder has been able to sustain way beyond that honeymoon period and that’s really a tribute to the ownership.”

Just like a major league club constantly seeking new talent and developing a stream of players, good management of a ball club means making connections with the community to ensure a strong and continuing fan base. The Thunder has done that.

The whole package

Attending an event at the ball park is not just “family friendly”; it is family-like. The relationship amongst the staff and between the staff and the fans goes beyond business. The care, concern and interest shown between co-workers extends to the patrons. From box office to concessions; gift shop to security, everyone has a smile and a hello for regular and first-time guests alike.

That attitude of “we’re one big family” is felt even between the fans themselves.

“I know a lot of people that are friends because they are here,” Smith said. “They are season ticket holders and they move their seats to be closer to each other.”

A big part of the company’s philosophy is to build strong connections to the community outside the ball park.

Giving back

The Thunder are constantly finding ways to be an integral part of the greater Trenton area. According to the team website, the Thunder has provided $4.7 million worth of goods, services and monetary donations, through a variety of community programs over the past 19 seasons.

Their “Super 50/50” initiative allows local 501c3 organizations the opportunity to not only raise awareness of their work, but raise funds as well. Almost $950,000 has been generated for area nonprofit organizations through that activity alone.

Another facet of the Thunder’s success is the willingness of the owners to reinvest in the facility. The recent naming rights sold to Church and Dwight Company did more than just put their famous Arm and Hammer trade name on the marquee. The money raised through the deal has allowed the team to make improvements to the park. The most visible of which will be the new, high definition video board in the outfield.

There are also improvements being made to the clubhouse areas. While not necessarily noticeable to the fans, these facility upgrades are part of what keeps the Yankees happy with their Trenton affiliate.

A happy parent club satisfied with the quality of the minor league ball park just a short ride down the turnpike from the home office leads to things like Roger Clemens’ rehab appearance at the park in 2007 that set a park attendance record. Derek Jeter’s 2011 rehab stint and his five game stay in 2003 also brought out the fans by the thousands. Andy Pettitte’s appearance last year drew 8,212, which made the top 10 all time for attendance.

All told, 7,773,900 fans have officially passed through the turnstiles since the gates first opened. There is every reason to expect that the Thunder will celebrate the arrival of the eight millionth fan sometime this summer.

What will the 20th season bring to fans this year?

Smith says there will be special 20th season memorabilia for the giveaways. The club is also honoring the 100 or so “20 year season ticket holder accounts” by letting one or two of them throw out a ceremonial first pitch at each home game.

When asked about his prediction for the team’s record this year he reluctantly but generously suggests the Thunder could have an 87-55 season.

As Smith likes to say, he and his team control what goes on outside of those white lines on the field. He is confident that they will provide another winning season for baseball fans at Arm and Hammer Park.