Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I'm not fond of being critical.

There's nothing more that I would like to do than tell our readership every night how wonderful the Rock Cats are playing; how even in defeat, they strive to drain every ounce of effort out of the talent with which God has blessed them and can be counted upon for top-notch entertainment.

What we're watching lately has fallen somewhat short of entertainment. Pitchers are either getting pounded or bowing to opposing hitters by issuing walks. The defense has suffered. When fielders endure walk-a-thons, they tend to rock back on their heels, unprepared to react. Even the hitters, resolute as they've been for most of the season, are losing their edge.

This is nothing new in New Britain, where winning baseball has eluded local fans since 2003. I can understand a season in the basement now and then, and as many sub-.500 campaigns mixed in with the plus years. But for one reason or another, the Minnesota Twins' Double-A offerings have lacked the kind of luster that true baseball fans crave.

Despite on-the-field shortcomings, tickets continue to sell briskly. The Rock Cats' administration does its due diligence, providing affordable fun, good food, a colorful atmosphere, intriguing promotions and making enough phone calls to bring in groups of all kinds. But it's time the fans get rewarded with some winning baseball.

We've watched the Portland (Red Sox) Sea Dogs and Trenton (Yankees) Thunder march exceptional pitchers through the Eastern League and into the heat of major league pennant races for the last five years: Jonathan Papelbon, Clay Buchholz and now Justin Masterson in red, Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes in blue.

We've caught smatterings of Francisco Liriano and Matt Garza here, but for some reason I can't dissect, they don't seem to inspire at the Double-A level. We haven't seen a prodigy in our midst since we marveled at the skills of Joe Mauer. That was 2003, when the Rock Cats last made the EL playoffs.

Now it's time to draw conclusions, and that's no easy task. The Twins are great people to work with. They're always as candid as their industry allows them to be without cutting their own throats. Their administrators come through town often and pleasantly answer all the questions.

The painful truth is the organization that drew such high praise when it was sending us Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Mauer and Garza just hasn't been unearthing the best talent over the last four or five years. First-round draft picks have fallen short of expectations and the later rounds haven't produced the diamonds-in-the-rough that gleam from some of the buses entering the New Britain Stadium lot with each passing homestand.

Perhaps the day is coming. Former Rock Cat catcher Jeff Smith, one of the most popular players to frequent New Britain during the Twins' 14-year term here, has managed the high Class A Fort Myers Miracle to a first-half title in the Florida State League's Western Division.

Some of the players who could ignite a Rock Cats rebirth are second baseman Brian Dinkelman, outfielder Rene Tosoni, third baseman Danny Valencia, catcher Wilson Ramos, right-handed starter Jeff Manship, former St. John's University right-hander Rob Delaney and right-hander Anthony Slama.

Some of the players on the current New Britain roster could still be in town for such a transformation, but given the dismal record here over the last month in particular and five years in general, something needs to be done to initiate a spark that can shoot another championship banner up the flagpole ... or at least give the central Connecticut fan a bit more bang for the buck.