Thursday, September 17, 2009

FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND

A heaviness of heart lay in the background at Dodd Stadium in Norwich Wednesday night.

The Connecticut Defenders, conquerors of the New Britain Rock Cats in the recent Northern Division Championship Series, were playing their final Double-A game. They will soon be the Richmond (Va.) Something-Or-Others.

As people are prone to do, the fans who attended 4,008 strong wore smiles. They chose to celebrate the life of the Norwich Navigators/Connecticut Defenders franchise rather than weep over its demise.

There was Little Miss Norwich -- I believe Jennifer is her name -- with her UConn cheerleading outfit, pompoms, perpetual smile and gyrating dance steps. There were numerous faces I deemed familiar from the 30 or so times I've gone there who were a little less conspicuous.

There was Ed Wyatt, the perennial ballpark voice of the franchise, whose version of "Happy Birthday" has been known to melt public address equipment. And Mike DiMauro of the New London Day, surely among the finest sports columnists in Connecticut if not THE finest. Joe Perez of the Norwich Bulletin, covering his beloved beat for the final time, and didn't he go at it with his heart and soul.

But alas, the nice crowds that attended games toward the end offered too little, too late. The southeastern Connecticut baseball fans were like a man on his deathbed, lamenting the sins of his life and trying to make up for them with what time remains.

Perhaps Norwich will be blessed with Connecticut's first short-season Class A club from the New York-Penn League. The league's name may be an antiquated misnomer as there are teams in Lowell, Mass., Pittsfield, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., but nostalgia supersedes geographical correctness.

The baseball isn't as good as the Eastern League. Of that there can be no question, but it is far better than the independent leagues that proliferate in the northeast (although generally not for long). And Dodd Stadium is far too picturesque, well-kept and professional baseball appropriate to be left for the weeds, moles, birds and the ravages of neglect.

I will attend short-season A games in Norwich when I can. I like the ballpark. I like stopping at Harry's Hamburger Stand in Colchester and the various native fruit and veggie locations in East Hampton. I like skirting the Hartford traffic by ambling down Rtes. 16 and 66, even if I do get stuck behind a tractor now and then.

I never thought moving the Albany-Colonie Yankees to Norwich was a particularly intelligent maneuver. For the life of me, I can't understand constructing a stadium in an industrial park, on top of a mountain, far from the cars passing on Rtes. 2 and 395. I can't comprehend why they trashed the Norwich Navigators to hatch the Connecticut Defenders.

Yet with all those eccentricities, I love the place and I'll miss the rivalry with the Rock Cats. To Mike, Joe, Ed, GM Charlie Dowd, radio voice Brian Irizarry, the rest of the people who made a go of it, and maybe even Jennifer the Cheerleader, I'll miss you. Come visit us in New Britain, will ya?

2 comments:

Nick said...

Hey Ken, I put alot of thought into this and it is really bittersweet. New management for the Defenders had a tendency to overlook what baseball ment to the city of Norwich. It did wonders for the area at hand. I believe many fans arent happy about the sale and rightfully so. My question is will their be another team that joins the division? say like Bridgeport?

Ken Lipshez said...

Eastern League baseball in Norwich is almost surely gone forever. A New York-Penn League team (short-season Class A generally for players just out of school) is very likely. Perhaps a New England Collegiate Baseball League team could call Dodd Stadium home. The NECBL is similar to the Cape Cod League, a summer forum for college players using wooden bat.

Bridgeport is in the Atlantic League, an independent but professional league that attracts the occasional ex-big leaguer. These teams usually get a few "headliners" and fill in the roster with some local players to save on expenses.

If I were a Norwich fan, I would rather see the NY-Penn League because big league prospects will keep on coming, although they will be fewer and farther between than those in the EL.