New Britain: Baseball Town No More

En route to the majors, Joe Mauer spent a half-season in Double-A New Britain in 2003. (photo courtesy of New Britain Rock Cats)

En route to the majors, Joe Mauer spent a half-season in Double-A New Britain in 2003. (photo courtesy of New Britain Rock Cats)

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — It was the same scene that has unfolded thousands of times in hundreds of ballparks all over the country for decades: minor league Opening Day. This time it’s the New Britain Rock Cats, Double-A affiliate of the Rockies, hosting the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Double-A affiliate of the Blue Jays, on a gorgeous April evening, one that was even a little warmer than you might expect during early New England spring.

The event had all of the hallmarks of the first home game of a season — general merriment, drawn-out introductions, local kids performing the national anthem, and a thinned-out crowd by night’s end because, hey, it was a weeknight, after all.

Dampening the mood and consuming chit-chat, though, was an undeniable sense that these celebrations at this Opening Day were different. This is the last time such an occasion will happen in New Britain. Next season, after more than three decades here, the Rock Cats will turn into the Yard Goats and move 15 minutes up the road to a new home in Hartford.

New Britain is like a lot of American minor league towns, known to those outside the region, if at all, perhaps only for its affiliated baseball. First were the New Britain Red Sox in the 1980s and early ‘90s, then the Minnesota Twins’ Hardware City Rock Cats (1995-96) and New Britain Rock Cats (1997-2014). This season the organization kept its name in its first year with the Rockies. Next summer, no more.

“We’re an old manufacturing town. You have average folks that live here,” said George Springer, a longtime New Britain resident and the father of the Astros outfielder with the same name. “For them to walk down the street and watch future major leaguers, where the beer is cold and the hot dogs are good and you can afford it — how can you replace that?”

A local institution

Al Nelson is as much a New Britain institution as the Rock Cats themselves. An 87-year-old World War II veteran and lifelong resident of the city, Nelson has attended games since the old New Britain Red Sox came to town in 1983. Three club nicknames, three major league parent teams, two stadiums — Nelson has been here for all of it.

During day games, Nelson rides his bike the four-mile round trip to the park. He’s occupied the same seat — Section 213, Row A, Seat 1 — since New Britain Stadium opened in 1996.

From his perch, Nelson has seen dozens of major leaguers make their way through the Red Sox and Twins farm systems in recent decades — Roger Clemens, Joe Mauer, David Ortiz, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Mo Vaughn and Michael Cuddyer, to name a handful, not to mention all the other players who visited with other Eastern League teams.

“It’s a great place to sit. I’ve been there for a long time. You ask them, ‘Where’s Al sit?’ They know where he sits,” said Nelson, who paused a 10-minute conversation at least a half-dozen times to greet people he knows, plus once to bro-hug a mascot. “It’s nice and it’s comfortable, and people walk down below you, and I can look at them and they can’t see me.”

Among the youngsters Nelson watched from above was another big leaguer, but no one knew it at the time. Astros outfielder George Springer grew up in New Britain, a regular at Rock Cats games along with his father, George; mother, Marie; and younger sisters, Nicole and Lena.

When the kids were young, the elder George said, the family went as frequently as once a week during the summer months. One day in 1998, the Springers hosted a barbeque for the team, with A.J. Pierzynski and Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz and Hunter chowing down on hot dogs and hamburgers at the family’s home a few miles from the stadium.

Torii Hunter spent most of the 1996-98 seasons with the Double-A Rock Cats in New Britain, Conn., where he made an impression on a young George Springer. (photo courtesy of New Britain Rock Cats)

Torii Hunter spent most of the 1996-98 seasons with the Double-A Rock Cats in New Britain, Conn., where he made an impression on a young George Springer. (photo courtesy of New Britain Rock Cats)

Hunter in particular caught young George’s attention, and even now, with Springer establishing himself with the upstart Astros as Hunter is on his way out, it’s not hard to see how Springer has modeled his game and all-out style after Hunter.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“Torii Hunter has been George’s role model from the very beginning,” Springer said. “He was a guy who could hit and run and throw and he played really hard. George admired that, even as a youngster.”

The Springer parents do still go to games occasionally, though a lot of their free time these days is dedicated to seeing their kids play — George with Houston, plus Nicole (CCSU) and Lena (Ohio State) on the college softball scene.

But during those early years, when mother and father Springer were raising a young family, the Rock Cats were an integral part of the family’s routine, as they are for countless others in town, which is an awkward in-between geographically, an hour and a half from Boston and two hours from New York City.

“It’s in a great location. It’s been a tremendous source of family entertainment for as long as I remember,” Springer said. “It’s very cost-effective. No matter what the size of your family is, it’s safe and it’s a great place to watch quality, professional baseball. It’s always packed, it’s always filled. A Rock Cat game on Memorial Day is like going to the parade. It’s just what you do.”

An ugly breakup

New Britain isn’t your stereotypical, ritzy Connecticut community. The median household income is a tick over $40,000, according to the latest census data, and nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty level. The city’s “Hard-Hittin’ New Britain” nickname originated on the high school football fields but since has come to describe its rough-and-tumble reputation, a persona generally embraced by residents.

If you’re not from the area (likely) and have ever heard of New Britain (unlikely), it’s almost certainly for one of a few reasons. There is the headquarters of Stanley Black & Decker, if you’re really into home improvement, and a college, Central Connecticut State University, with Division 1 athletics. And then there are the Rock Cats.

“It’s beneficial to have New Britain Rock Cats on people’s hats and shirts. That’s positive imaging for the city,” said Mayor Erin Stewart. “When people think about the great experience they had at the Rock Cats game, that’s New Britain. As the mayor of an urban center in Connecticut, that positive talk means the world to me.”

That’s part of the reason why the mayor and city are so angry about the way things ended — or are still ending.

Before last summer’s announcement, the club’s owners, led by Boston real estate developer Josh Solomon, negotiated with the city of Hartford in the dark for more than a year to bring the team to the state’s capital. The news caught Stewart completely off guard.

Before he became a big-time slugger for the Red Sox, Twins prospect David Ortiz played for Double-A New Britain during part of his 1997 season. (photo courtesy of New Britain Rock Cats)

Before he became a big-time slugger for the Red Sox, Twins prospect David Ortiz played for Double-A New Britain during part of his 1997 season. (photo courtesy of New Britain Rock Cats)

In return for abandoning their home of the last three-plus decades, the future Yard Goats were promised a souped-up $56 million stadium. City officials hope bustling baseball games will help revitalize a neighborhood that long has needed it.

“The opportunity to build a new state-of-the-art facility in the capital city was too great to pass up,” Solomon told the New York Times last year.

Nelson, the longtime season-ticket holder, won’t go to Hartford games. He says he’s been asked by various people “100 times already,” and his answer has remained the same.

“I’m not going up there. Everybody asks me that,” Nelson said, listing the longer trip, a questionable parking situation and a lack of familiarity with the new surroundings among his reasons. “I’m going fishing and I’m riding my bike.”

The team and city are banking on Nelson being in the minority, on folks from throughout the state — not to mention Western Mass. — who have flocked to New Britain to follow the team to Hartford. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

“It’s always been the region’s team,” said Jeff Dooley, who has served as the Rock Cats’ play-by-play announcer for the better part of two decades. “The team’s address is in New Britain, but it’s been the region’s team.”

For Stewart, 28, the stabbed-in-the-back emotion is still close to the surface, but as a community leader she is trying to make like Jay Z: On to the next one. She’s met with officials from the independent Atlantic and Can-Am leagues, and she hasn’t ruled out the return of affiliated baseball, perhaps in the form of a Short-Season A New York-Penn League team. The latter would need to the approval of the Solomons, who own the rights to affiliated baseball in the region.

“You’ve got hundreds of thousands of people in central Connecticut who are used to coming to New Britain Stadium,” Stewart said. “They’re still going to come as long as it’s good, quality baseball. Baseball has been a staple of the New Britain community for the last [33] years — since before I was born. … It certainly was always a part of growing up in New Britain.”

A clear trend?

The Rock Cats are leaving a smaller city (New Britain) for a larger in-state one (Hartford). The Pawtucket Red Sox, Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox, are also leaving a smaller city for a larger in-state one (Providence).

A decade ago, the Double-A Round Rock Express left for Corpus Christi, Texas, three hours south and three times as populated (though Round Rock did get Edmonton, Alberta, Canada’s Triple-A franchise in its place.) In the 1990s, the Double-A Canton-Akron franchise moved from tiny Canton to its significantly larger neighbor, Akron. A couple of years before that, the Double-A Hagerstown Suns moved across Maryland to a larger home to become the Bowie Baysox. New Britain itself benefited from a similar move, when a then-Red Sox affiliate left nearby Bristol for Hard-Hittin’ in the early ‘80s.

Minor league teams relocate all of the time, of course, and those are just a few examples of intrastate moves. But the thought process is seemingly obvious: When looking for a new home for your club, the bigger the better.

It makes complete business sense, on paper. Bigger towns and more populated areas mean more potential fans — or customers — and maybe a shiny new stadium is thrown in to sweeten the deal.

But what’s the town left behind to do? New Britain is going to find out.

“You wonder what’s going to fill the gap, what’s going to fill the void in the summertime,” Springer said. “When you have unifying cultural traditions, that’s why they’re so valuable. I don’t care where you came from or how much money you make. We can all go down and root for the Rock Cats. That’s going to be missed.”

Tim Healey is a Boston-based sportswriter. He works for Sports on Earth and the Boston Globe and can work for you, too, if you want. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey or email him here.
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9 years ago

Thanks for the article Tim. Growing up in the area, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Most of Connecticut is thoroughly working-class, especially in a triangle from Hartford to New Haven to Waterbury, and having AA ball in New Britain was a great treat for families in that area.

I hope they can find a new team to fill New Britain Stadium.

Chris Mitchell
9 years ago
Reply to  tz

Me too. I have fond memories of going to New Haven Ravens and NB Rock Cats games when I was growing up. Stinks they both had to move away.

Jim S.
9 years ago

Nothing like timing. Springer hit the winning HR last night for Houston. Oh, and very nice article.

9 years ago

As a resident of East Hartford and a baseball fan, I’m thrilled that the team is moving to Hartford! It’s a step in the right direction for the city of Hartford and the state in general.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago
Reply to  ithrowplastic

Nice of you to be so sympathetic to New Britain.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

As an antitrust lawyer, I find it outrageous that the owners can “own” the rights to affiliated baseball in New Britain. Who gave them this market? This is pure and simple market division which is illegal under antitrust laws. Apparently, baseball’s antitrust exemption applies to the minor leagues as well. Can you imagine a supermarket telling a community, we have the only store in town, this market belongs to us and no one else can move in? No other business but baseball could dream of getting away with this.

9 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Actually, these types of divisions are a bit more prevalent than you’d imagine, look at the alcohol industry, the 3 tiered system at the distributor level subscribes to these same types of divisions, under the auspices of lower cost due to ‘decreased’ competition, and more clarity for purchasers as to who to purchase from.

Paul G.
9 years ago

It is always a tragedy when a city that supports its baseball team loses its baseball team. I presume that is the case here. This is more like the Brooklyn Dodgers leaving for LA rather than the St. Louis Browns heading to Baltimore, right?

The ownership may find that they should be careful of what they wish. Sometimes the larger market is not a better baseball market. In New Jersey the thriving teams are in places like Bridgewater while the team in the largest city Newark went bankrupt.

danny c
9 years ago

the rock cats were consistently among the most successful minor league teams, the central location of new britain allowed fans from all parts of the state to attend games. the false hope of a minor league team reviving Hartford are the same old song and dance locals have heard for years. it’s not going to change much, the city needs a major overhaul. Hartford residents are split, some being furious over taxpayer funds being spent on a baseball team, while roads crumble and public schools remain in the gutter. the details surrounding the yard goats new deal with hartofrd are sketchy to say the least.

Mr Baseball
9 years ago
Reply to  danny c

The Rockcats were a typical minor league franchise. They certainly weren’t among the most successful.

9 years ago

Great article. Thank you.

Sounds like Josh Solomon will be remembered in New Britain as Walter O’Malley is remembered, to this day, in Brooklyn. Sounds like they’ll see each other in the lowest level of Hades.

9 years ago

Great article, Tim. I grew up going to that stadium and had my first job there. My lifelong passion for the game of baseball started with the Rock Cats. In all of its modesty, this was a great thing for families in the area and something that my parents, sister, friends, and I enjoyed year in and year out. Hartford may only be a a few miles down the road, but the circumstances that led to this move make it feel so much further away.

Kevin Walker
9 years ago

I am sorry to see New Britain lose their team. I live in Richmond, Va. We lost the Braves (AAA) in 2008, and had the Connecticut Defenders relocate here in 2010, becoming the Richmond Flying Squirrels (AA) of the Eastern League. Since that time I became a fan of New Britain as well, as their players are nothing but class, and I like the Rocky mascot. It truly is a shame that owners can backdoor the people that have supported them over the years. I feel for you folks in New Britain.

9 years ago

I saw a Rock Cats game against Harrisburg a couple years ago. It was notable for the first baseman losing a throw in the sun and bailing out, and the ever-popular walk-off wild pitch. Plus Long Trail Ale on tap. It was a good place to watch a game.

I like Hartford OK, but in this case: F*** Hartford.

Steve from Connecticut
9 years ago

To be fair, the team has history earlier than in New Britain. It was previously in Bristol, Connecticut for 10 years, just down the street from where ESPN is now. Known as the Bristol Red Sox then, I’ll never forget the 400 pound ticket taker. I saw Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Wade Boggs play there.
In 1983 when the team moved to New Britain, there was no complaining from the residents of the new home and yet Bristol, another blue-collar town (of Aaron Hernandez fame) had lost a piece of itself.
My point is not that New Britain or Hartford deserves scorn; just that life goes on.

9 years ago

Great place for a game. In 2013 took my 2 1/2 year old to his first AA game. Sat next to the dugout for $11 each. Manager gave him a ball prior to the start and got a game ball from now Rays OF Steven Souza. Food super priced and just a friendly place for a game. Pawtucket Red Sox leaving for providence is a huge issue here in RI. No one wants to pay for a stadium for rich owners after the 38 Studio/schilling disaster. Many of us here expect the AAA Sox to leave RI if they don’t get what they want. It’s more interesting now that the owner pushing the stadium issue died over the weekend.

9 years ago

Greedy bastards. And just what the hell is a ‘yard goat,’ anyway? Do they have a contest for the stupidest team name?

9 years ago

The team will move to Hartford in 2016. We will see the parking go trom 5 to 10 dollars. The GA ticket price will double fom 6 to 12 dollars and concession prices raise 50 percent.
The new park will be built in a sketchy section north of downtown, Expect attendance to go down from 300,000 to 225.000.
Who wants to go to game located in the “Hood”?

9 years ago

I have been going to local games since Muzzy Field in Bristol hosted them. I remember when they moved to New Britain…people weren’t happy. The thing that they seemed to understand was that Muzzy was a great place but in no way could it grow with the team and crowds that attended. So gradually New Britain wasn’t as spited for the move. (I still love Muzzy.)

The New Britain stadium gave local kids a chance to work in and around the park, as well as many retirees. The team supported many community initiatives. The past owner felt strongly about the community. As the years went by, the team might not have always had the most wins, but they had one of the highest attendance rates from fans.

The move to Hartford only makes sense in a gambling perspective. Their thinking: Hopefully when they build it, the people will come. Why I don’t think that will happen has been mentioned…safety issues and cost. Another reason why New Britain made more sense than Hartford is the traffic. It is a nightmare already. I can’t imagine trying to get to a gate opening at 5:30 PM.

The other reason it’s left a bitter taste is the upgrades that were asked for the New Britain park, knowing full well (now) that the team had been negotiating with Hartford. NO respect for a city budget or its people that was trying to work with the team.

As the years go by, people will move on and accept the change, and it will just be the way it is, with higher costs and more corporate. Better? Hmmm….

The only way they will succeed in filling those seats is to keep a monopoly on options, because if New Britain can have a decent team, they will still support that team, fill those seats, and not drive to Hartford. And I am not talking about only New Britain residents. As mentioned, the park is in a good location and brings back that old-time local feel to the game. THAT can’t be bought or brought to Hartford with the current proposal.

8 years ago

Boston Real Estate Developer Josh Solomon just about says it all.