Tuesday, December 20, 2011

COXON TAKES CT SOCCER TO NEW LEVEL

HAMDEN – Steve Coxon has been synonymous with soccer in central Connecticut for the better part of two decades.

The native of Newcastle, United Kingdom, first earned acclaim as a player for Central Connecticut State University. He went on to play for the former New Britain-based A-League side, the Connecticut Wolves, turned in an ultra-successful stint as girls coach at Farmington High School and was an assistant coach at Quinnipiac University.

All the while, Coxon was formulating strategy to grab the lead in the field of youth soccer instruction and development, which he has done as one of the founders of the Connecticut Football Club (CFC).

Coxon’s latest endeavor is CFC AZUL, the newest addition to the United Soccer Leagues’ Premier Development League for 2012 and the sole franchise in Connecticut. In addition to being co-owner, Coxon will serve as president. Since the announcement was made Dec. 12, he is diligently working on providing a solid foundation for the club.

“I played in the A-League (now USL PRO, USL’s professional division) for more than six years with the Connecticut Wolves and I learned a great deal about how to run a USL team,” Coxon said.

“Many of my former teammates are still involved in the game and we are going to lean on them and many others in the Connecticut soccer scene to help make this into a top-notch franchise.”

The team has yet to decide on a home venue or coaching staff.

The AZUL will become the pinnacle team in the CFC family, which harbors more than 70 youth teams. Incorporating a PDL team, Coxon said, will enable the CFC’s top players an opportunity to return to the organization during and after competing in college.

The AZUL will play a 16-game schedule between May and August in the PDL, the top supplier of talent for professional soccer in North America.

In 2011, 37 of the 54 players selected in Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft graduated from the PDL. Eight of the first 10 selections in the draft had PDL experience, including 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong of Sporting Kansas City, who previously played for Reading United AC.

The team is co-owned by Costas Flessas.

“I believe sometimes things are just meant to happen,” Coxon said.

“Out of the blue I received a phone call from Costas asking me if I was interested in discussing some soccer expansion plans. The next day I received an email form the USL asking us if we were interested in putting a PDL team together. Six months later a new PDL franchise was born and we can't be more excited.”

CFC AZUL will hold open tryouts.

Coxon guided the Farmington High girls to a 116-10-7 record from 1999-2005. The Indians shared a 2003 Class L title with Guilford and defeated Wilton outright to gain the 2005 crown. Farmington advanced to the final four times in Coxon’s seven years.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

WINNING IS GREAT BUT PARTICIPATING IS GREATER

The high school football season ended abruptly for me when Northwest Catholic fell to Cromwell in the Class S semifinals Saturday.

Hall and Conard each earned home-field advantage in the Class LL tournament, but were beaten by teams from the Southwest Conference and FCIAC respectively.

While Northwest was losing in Cheshire, this year’s flag-bearer for the CCC and greater Hartford area – Windsor – was losing to New Canaan in Class L after a last-second field goal. With that fateful kick, the CCC was precluded from any of the four championship games slated for this weekend at Rentschler Field.

I would be remiss if I didn’t relate just where the CCC rests in the football pecking order.

When the lights go out at Rentschler on Saturday night, the CIAC will have awarded 38 championship plaques since 2005. Two have gone to CCC teams. Berlin defeated Bethel for the Class M title in 2009 and Glastonbury won the ‘LL’ crown in 2008.

Since I administer the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance High School Football Poll, I am keenly aware that the 32-member CCC not only falls short of the Southern Connecticut Conference (New Haven area) and the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference but also the Southwest Conference. Certainly the Naugatuck Valley League (Waterbury) and the Eastern Connecticut Conference (New London-Norwich) can also claim superiority.

So how important is it that Hall, Conard, Northwest Catholic, Glastonbury, Windsor, Berlin and Rocky Hill all made the playoffs but couldn’t get out of the semifinals? If I was sanctimonious enough to place my own desires above the overall picture, shame on me. Some day I would like to get the chance to cover a title game at Rentschler, but how do my needs stack up against what high school football is really all about?

They don’t amount to a hill of beans.

There is nothing I would like better than to see the local kids standing on top of that hill after the final game. I have experienced the joy that comes from being the best of the best many times on the scholastic scene after 20 years on the beat. But the scholastic sports culture must refrain from placing the standards of the professional and major college ranks on our neighbors’ kids.

High school football, like all team sports played by teenagers on down, provides lessons in how unity, synergy and mutual respect can build something far more satisfying than the accomplishments of any one person. What can be more important for our children to recognize that working together with peers toward a common goal is one of the most significant lessons that high school can teach.

So to the boys of Hall, Conard and Northwest Catholic, the boys at Farmington, which went 9-1 but did not qualify for the playoffs, I raise my glass of well water and say congratulations and thank you.

Congratulations for outstanding achievement on the field of play under the guidance of some of the finest coaches I’ve had the pleasure to have known.

Thank you, because you all go out there for 10 or 11 weeks after spending months in training and you give it your all for your schools and towns, and you give me the pleasure of being able to occupy my time with your noble exploits.

I can watch you play and not miss the game at higher levels, where the human specter of greed hovers over the proceedings like the grim reaper.

I don’t concern myself with the greed-driven machinations of the Big East Conference, which is about to have members on the West Coast. Or Major League Baseball, where men in their 30s demand 10-year contracts at $20 million a year knowing that their self-indulgence will preclude more and more fans from ever being financially capable of attending a game.

Oh, the NBA hasn’t been playing games due to the lockout? Thanks to our hard-working local athletes, I truly didn’t notice. Even if I wasn’t covering games, I can think of no better way to support the community and all things that are good by pulling up a portion of grandstand and cheering on the kids.

Kids, don’t fret that you didn’t win a championship. I’d love to see it happen for you but be proud of what you accomplished, even if you stuck with it on a winless team. You will be a better person for it in the long run, and if our youngsters become better people, life in the USA can only improve.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

TEBUCKY'S HONESTY REFRESHING IN BERLIN AFTERMATH

NEW BRITAIN – The CIAC and school administrators expect high school coaches to keep any uncomplimentary thoughts about how games are officiated away from where the public can consume it.

But there are times in the scholastic realm when the quality of officiating simply falls short. Officials are entitled to the same consideration everyone should receive in regard to human error. We all make them. The folks in stripes ought to be commended for performing tasks that many find distasteful, and most of the time their work is impeccable. Where would our sports be without our officials?

Yet sometimes honesty should prevail.

Those who either did not attend the New Britain-Berlin football game or were too far from the action to formulate an opinion deserve to know what went down.

To start with, the New Britain High football team has absorbed its share of detrimental calls from officials over the years.

I was on the sidelines for virtually every game Jack Cochran coached at New Britain. He was winning games by lopsided scores and rode the officials relentlessly when calls went against him.

It seemed whenever a New Britain player made a long punt or kickoff return, yellow flags would litter the field. The 50-point rule was not in effect then so perhaps officials took it upon themselves to manage the score. The fumes continued through the realm of Cochran’s successor Paul Morrell, who told me several times that he was putting together a film for evaluation.

There’s no way I can confirm that the refs took it upon themselves to manage the score, of course, and I understand why they might consider such action, but the New Britain kids who were achieving were bearing the brunt of the perceived indiscretion. Adults behaving badly? Some saw it that way, and I must admit I did on occasion.

With that as a backdrop, I commend current New Britain coach Tebucky Jones for being candid and honest after the Hurricanes’ 14-7 loss to Berlin on Thanksgiving Eve. He was frank about the calls that hindered his team and the fracas that led officials to clear the field with 1:46 still remaining.

“[The officiating] was horrible,” Jones said. “They always tell us not to get involved with the officiating but you know what? I’m saying it. It was horrible. … You shouldn’t talk about officiating but I’m gonna talk about it. It was bad. They can say what they want to say.”

QUESTIONABLE CALLS: On the fifth play of the game, senior defensive end Jared Boddie was ejected for allegedly throwing a punch. I did not see it, but I saw Boddie’s tears. Was it really so blatant that he couldn’t be warned first? Nobody I talked to actually saw it so I’m not certain about the severity of Boddie’s action.

On the very next play, Berlin’s junior running back Kevin Main threw a haymaker that many did see. It didn’t connect, and it drew an identical 15-yard penalty, but Main was not ejected.

The New Britain sideline led by athletic director Len Corto was incredulous. The game was only three minutes old and the officials had lost control.

“They threw one of our kids out, one of our top players and our best defensive players. They said he threw a punch,” Jones said. “Then their kid – one of their top players – threw a punch, which the whole stadium saw, and he finishes the game. It’s all on film.”

Late in the first quarter, Berlin’s superb wide receiver Tom Undercuffler was covered well on an out pattern. Like many receivers are wont to do when coverage is tight, he created separation with a little shove, most likely without even realizing it. Quarterback Mitch Williams delivered a strike. With the defender down, Undercuffler turned it into a 61-yard catch and run that became a touchdown two plays later.

Late in the third quarter, a punt by Berlin’s Tyler Bouchard struck one of his blockers in the back to give New Britain beneficial field position. NB back Devante Gardner gained 23 yards to give the ’Canes first-and-goal at the start of the fourth quarter.

On second down, Malique Jones broke the plane of the goal line on a quarterback sneak. The ball was spotted three inches short. The Berlin defense stiffened and prevented what would have been the game-tying touchdown.

“We scored on the quarterback sneak and they didn’t call it a touchdown,” Tebucky said. “Push off? You name it, it happened in this game.”

With just under two minutes remaining in the game, Berlin was faced with a third-and-2 at the New Britain 30. A first down would all but end it. Undercuffler ran the ball and rolled when he hit the ground. The play happened right in front of me.

Did Undercuffler make the first down? I would say he did, but the ball was spotted after he rolled, giving the appearance that he made it by two yards or so. New Britain requested a measurement but the chains already had been moved. According to Tebucky, the chief official said the pin hole was still evident, although I would guess there may have been a few pinholes in the mud by that juncture.

“They blew it dead and they were supposed to come out and measure it,” Tebucky said. “He said, they moved the chains already but they said the pin was set in the right place. But it wasn’t. They moved the pin. I said, ‘Well you can’t give them a first down.’ They ended up giving the first down. There were a couple spots like that.”

THE FRACAS: Shortly thereafter, a shoving match between two players evolved into Scene 2 of adults behaving badly.

Coaches came out on the field as the pushing and shoving escalated and proceeded to toss kerosene on the campfire. A video on the Berlin Patch website shows indisputably that Berlin coach John Capodice was rather animated and could be seen gesturing toward Tebucky Jones.

“I just saw two players arguing and it got a little wild,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Everybody calm down,’ and [Capodice] got smart. He was running like he wanted to fight me. I don’t think he’d want that. He shouldn’t act like that in front of kids. … Instead of trying to break up the kids, he’s running his mouth.”

Berlin was in a kneel-down stage so continuing the game wouldn’t have served any purpose. But the officiating and the fiasco damaged the integrity of a great local sporting event that needs to continue for a long, long time.

Capodice was never a proponent of the so-called Wishbone Bowl due to the size discrepancy between the two schools, but Berlin has won two of the first three encounters. It looms as a great rivalry, if the Berlin people allow it to continue.

“It’s a good thing,” Jones said. “It’s good for the schools but you know what, [Capodice doesn’t] want it. That’s what I think part of it is. [Football] is a tradition in Berlin and New Britain. The town is right there. It should be played every year. It should have been played when I was in high school.”

THE INTERVIEW: After the field was cleared, Tebucky responded to a request from John Pierson of WTNH-TV for an interview.

Pierson asked the tough questions and Jones answered candidly. The interview was still in progress when an adult from the Berlin team pushing a carriage with equipment interrupted the proceedings.

“Tebucky, Tebucky. Why don’t you go after my kid again? You went after my kid,” he shouted, loud enough so Pierson had to alter his interview.

Jones looked at me with a perplexed look on his face.

“What’s he talking about?” Jones said.

And with that the curtain came down on a hard-fought game that Berlin deserved to win. Maybe next year we’ll get a game that’s better officiated and perhaps the adults can set a better example for the fine lads who play the game.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

THE PLIGHT OF COMMUNITY JOURNALISM

I really wonder where my beloved domain of community journalism is headed.

We all know why print journalism is like a lobster about to hit the boiling water. When the internet came along, having a website was prestigious and getting people to hit it an ego trip. The newspapers started giving away the stories for which consumers traditionally paid, and didn’t mind doing so.

When consumers get something for nothing, they aren’t likely to start paying for it.

I learned that the hard way when the owners of the minor league baseball team I administered in Glens Falls, N.Y., started giving away tickets in wholesale bunches. Ownership’s theory, since it was in the Burger King business, was that we would cash in at the concession stand; that empty seats don’t buy hot dogs and sodas.

What they didn’t consider is that the price of admission has almost no overhead and once you give it away, people lose respect for the product. Even if you get $1 a ticket, you’re still making consumers open their wallets. The ticket has some value.

Giving tickets away at the bottom of Burger King bags was like saying the game had no value. Giving the hard work of reporters away was like saying their work has no value. People said, “Why should I pay for the paper when I can go on line and get the information free?”

So how did the newspapers compensate for the dramatic downturn in revenue? Did the CEOs take pay cuts. Nooo! They cut back on reporters, cutting off the resource that enticed consumers to subscribe. They froze their wages, sending them to the exits to find better means of using their skills to make a living.

The papers in major cities, while they may be hurting, continue to thrive, but what of the small-city dailies that were the heart and soul of their regions for over 100 years? Some have perished. Others altered their philosophy, choosing to hire so-called reporters at bargain-basement prices and filling their whittled-down publications with the worst kind of trash.

Reporters are now paid paupers’ wages and asked to work well beyond the traditional 40 hours per week. The papers get what they pay for. Many of the new guard are egomaniacs who resort to filling sports sections with stories about THEIR favorite teams and telling readers what THEIR winning percentage is in picking college football games.

Some actually solicit controversy, providing an online forum for anonymous readers to rip on high school coaches and athletes. They publish inane readers’ comments while high school athletes toil in anonymity.

Where does that leave the legitimate need for local information? America On-Line started its Patch websites, which continue to evolve. Folks interested in local news and sports are beginning to understand that Patch is becoming more reliable than the dailies and timelier than the weeklies, although the weeklies certainly have their place. There are some great ones in the region.

Many fine journalists are now working for Patch and doing great jobs in a number of communities. Whether the model that AOL has established can be profitable is yet unknown. Consumers with an interest in local news better hope so. I hope so for the sake of all the terrific writers/reporters who used to populate daily newsrooms and always did their jobs thoroughly.

Some journalists I know have set up their own websites to share information. I wish them well and respect their intentions. Perhaps they can find a way to earn some cash for the time they are putting in. There aren’t enough hours in the day to make a living, write stories and solicit advertising on a medium that seems more difficult to sell, particularly in an economy with businesses failing in alarming numbers.

The bottom line is that the business of community journalism is evolving. It’s likely to continue evolving for years to come, long after I retire my laptop. My concern is that the awesome young athletes who give their hearts and souls for their schools will get proper recognition, not a litany of either no information or misinformation with error-filled reports and misspelled names.

Friday, September 9, 2011

BACK IN NEW BRITAIN, AND LOVIN' IT

To my dear friends in New Britain:

It hasn't been easy driving through the city since late last November, knowing that I was no longer writing stories for y'all.  My writing comes from the heart, and you know the thousands of stories I wrote over 15 years at the Herald, speak to the passion I have for the kids, the coaches and the people who make sports news in the city.

Well, I'm back, but don't look in the Herald for me!  I'm writing for a weekly paper, the New Britain City Journal, that was started by Robin Vinci and is doing very well.  The NBCJ hasn't had much in the way of sports so we decided that collaborating was a win-win proposition.

Below is my first effort for Robin and her loyal readers.  You'll see plenty on New Britain football, that wonderful boys soccer team that Matt Denecour has assembled, and all the other fall sports.  I still have my ear to the ground with the Rock Cats and perhaps we'll connect on them next season.  Look forward to hearing from you.


The intangible characteristic that depicts sports tradition in New Britain as time-honored beyond most is best described by a French saying that has found a niche in English because English scholars cannot find a better way to say it.

Je ne sais quoi.

A less elegant way of saying it is that when it comes to sports, New Britain has that “certain something.” Translated literally, it means, “I don’t know what,” but since I wrote sports in New Britain on a daily basis for 15 years, I DO know what. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ll give you the particulars.

It has to start with New Britain High School football.

I first felt that je ne sais quoi on Nov. 24, 1999 at Manchester High School. It may seem unusual that I never felt it to such an extent at Hurricane-charged Veterans Memorial Stadium, but such eerie forces generally cannot be explained.

The Hurricanes of Coach Len Corto – the steamrolling ground game provided by senior Chris Bellamy and sophomore Justise Hairston, the leadership of able quarterback Mike Donnelly, a couple of Madigans and thundering fullback Steve Wysocki – were on a roll. They dropped a 27-26 decision at Southington in the season’s second game, but just whipped up unmercifully on people for the next seven weeks.

In my heart and mind, New Britain had the best team in the state, yet with the Manchester game on the horizon, the Hurricanes needed help to get into the Class LL playoffs and the prospects were too far-fetched. Three undefeated teams and several once-beaten squads had mathematical advantages in the CIAC ratings race that only a series of unfathomable upsets could change. Help wasn’t coming.

The game against Manchester had already begun. My wife Lisa, a 1973 NBHS grad with a heart of (maroon and) gold, was in attendance. I never saw her so excited for a game, and that certainly shaped my emotional composition.

Far off in the distance, at the other end of the parking lot, it rose like a crescendo. The New Britain High School Golden Hurricane Marching Band had run into some Hartford traffic, but the unmistakable sound of “Bingo” pierced the night air.

As Bellamy, Hairston and Wysocki were in the midst of rolling up over 250 yards and nine touchdowns, I felt a trickle down my cheek. Wow, I knew I cared, but I didn’t know I cared that much. “Bingo,” and the band marching into the stadium has some deep-seated ethereal effect on me.

Well, New Britain’s 58-0 victory wasn’t enough for a playoff berth. The Hurricanes had outscored their foes 316-12 over the final six weeks, and that wasn’t enough either.

Masuk, Fairfield Prep and eventual champion Greenwich finished their seasons undefeated. Southington notched the fourth and final spot despite losing to Cheshire on Thanksgiving Day. New Britain was a staggering seventh in the ratings, but that day the Hurricanes sealed the number one slot in my heart.

Five years later, as Coach Jack Cochran drove the ’Canes toward their third ‘LL’ title in four years, I had another experience that convinced me just how special New Britain football is.

The date was Nov. 30, 2004. New Britain ventured to Kennedy Stadium in Bridgeport to play Bridgeport Central in the semifinals. I got there good and early as I always try to do and was introduced to a man who personifies extreme dedication to NBHS football.

Eugene Johnkoski, 79 at the time, had relocated to Palm City, Fla., from the Hardware City in 1994. He missed his New Britain football so much that he would return home every fall to take his place among the Willow Brook Park faithful.

I can’t recall exactly what Mr. Johnkoski told me that chilly night in Bridgeport when I asked him why he did this, but it was something along the lines of, “Je ne sais quoi.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A LITTLE HARD-HITTIN' IN THE GREEN MTNS

We’re cruisin’ Route 4 West in Vermont, just entering Killington at the junction of Rte. 100 after visiting Queechee Gorge and Woodstock, and we’re hungry.

We see this down-home lookin’ sign. It’s a smilin’ pig with sunglasses, fork and knife in hand, sayin’ something to the effect that if you like BBQ, don’t go any farther. Well, we’d had burgers, we had shrimp at Pagliacci’s in Plainville before we left and it’s been less than a week since we went to Manchester (CT) for Pepe’s apizza.

Ribs. Yes. Time for ribs, and we’re gonna follow that little piggy all the way home.

The place was called Back Behind Restaurant, and it’s a good thing. You’ve got to go back behind a red caboose to find it down in a little hollow. Might not have found it otherwise. Lots of cars there, always a good sign. Always remember when you’re going to a place you don’t know – if none of the locals are eating there, why the heck should you?

I walk in the place and for those of you who know anything about yours truly, baby you know what I like. There’s an old-fashioned décor, 50s and earlier. I look on the wall and staring back at me is a photo of Errol Flynn, lookin’ handsome as he ever did.

I ask a few teenagers in front of me in line, ‘Who is this guy, kids?’ One of ‘em said Matthew McConaghey. The other said she couldn’t remember his name but he was in the first Harry Potter. Heaven forbid on both accounts. Try watching a real movie, like Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood. Try understanding what acting is all about, brat.

I look a little further and there’s Bogie and Ingrid Bergman, doin’ their thing in “Casablanca.”

Ricky Nelson is playin' on the juke box.  "It's a Young World." Perfect!

We sit down and the owner comes to the table and tells us about all the homemade stuff they do. I look in the menu and see that her name is Zendzian. Hmm, Zendzian, Zendzian. I know that name from somewhere, I think during my time writing sports for the New Britain Herald. Well, I’m a year and a day from being 60 so you can’t expect the memory to be that sharp.

The waitress -- why do they call themselves ‘server’ now. Sounds like the thing that always used to break down when the Herald computers stopped working – brings out a crock of homemade coleslaw and freshly baked bread.

I went it to the lav to wash up and whose pic is on the door? Mr. James Cagney, of course. Yankee Doodle Dandy. Awesome, this is my kind of place. On the door to the ladies’ room is noneother than Paulette Goddard, intriguing brunette who lit up men’s fancies in a bygone era. Man, I couldn’t have decorated the place any better if I did it myself.

I was jonesin’ for an ear of local corn for a week, wondering why most restaurants wouldn’t just buy a bushel and make folks happy. Sure enough, they were dealing in roasted corn with special butter. I had mine with maple butter. Hey, man, this is Vermont where maple syrup is in every store.

Unbelievable. I was smiling for the first time since I walked out of the West Hartford Press knowing I wouldn’t have to work there anymore.

Lisa had St. Looey style ribs and I had the baby backs. Both fall-off-the-bone good. Smoked right in their backyard. You can smell ‘em smokin’ as you drive by.

The owner is talkin’ to some other people and darned if she isn’t from CT.

I said, “You from New Britain?”

She proundly answered, “Hard-hitting!”
“I used to write sports at the Herald.
“Bart?”
“No, my dear buddy Bart came before me. I’m Ken. Ken Lipshez.”

“Lipshitz?”

“No, not the furniture store people. Not the doc in Rug Rats or the teacher in that Boston high school sit com. How do I know your name? For some reason, the first name Kurt comes to mind.”

“That’s my husband’s nephew.”

“Holy shit. Small world.”

I think Kurt Zendzian played sports at Newington.

Turns out her name is Gerry Zendzian and her husband’s is Conrad. She went to Mary Immaculate Academy. They came to VT about 10 years ago and started firing up BBQ right behind Bear Mountain. I’ll bet those skiers can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff when snow covers things up here.

We had no room for dessert. We just smiled and rubbed our bellies as we made our way back to where we are staying – Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden, VT – where you look out the window of your room and see a panoramic view of a lake framed by the mountains of the Green Mountain State Forest.

Only two days but it’s been great. I wonder if Gerry Zendzian needs a kitchen boy.


Friday, July 8, 2011

MATT HURLOCK: THE LEGACY LIVES ON

The sad news jumped off the page like a knife between my ribs.  Cancer caught up with Matt Hurlock Wednesday.

Hurlock was 39.  His work with student-athletes in Coventry was legendary.  My respect for his accomplishments as coach of the girls volleyball team was immense.  Not only did he lift the Patriots to the heights of Class S (7 championships), his teams consistently flirted with the No. 1 spot among state high schools large and small.

I first met Matt in 2006 when his Coventry High boys basketball team had the dubious task of trying to derail the Berlin juggernaut led by Doran Mitchell.  His Patriots had the higher seed in a quarterfinal matchup at Plainville's Ivan Wood Gym, but Berlin cruised by 31 points. The Redcoats went on to win what was temporarily known as a Class III state title.

When Hurlock's volleyball teams were sparring with the great Southington squads for state recognition, he was a sports writer's dream, responding to all inquiries and answering questions thoughtfully.  His response always reflected his innate desire of promoting his hard-working youngsters and the sport of volleyball, for that was the essence of Matt Hurlock.  He helped kids.

Hurlock, who according to my esteemed Hartford Courant colleague and treasured friend Lori Riley had the unthinkable volleyball record of 208-19, took a program that languished in the obscurity of one of the state's more obscure conferences (the small-school dominated North Central Connecticut Conference) and built a firm foundation based on work ethic and pride.  The Patriots were 6-12 in his first season -- 2001 -- but were atop Class S two years later when the seeds he planted and nurtured with tough love blossomed beautifully.

I ventured to the Patriots' gym for matches with Southington in 2008 and again last October, when the knowledge of Hurlock's fight for life became public.  In between those decisive Coventry victories, the Blue Knights ended the Patriots' 84-match winning streak in October of 2009.

Hurlock could have been sullen like so many successful coaches who hit a bump in the road.  With his players shedding tears by the gallon, he was extremely respectful of the Southington players and the work of their magnificent coach Rich Heitz.

Hurlock displayed the same poise when he learned of the illness that would take his life.  He leaves his wife Julie and their two young children, but leaves them with a legacy that should fill them with unparallelled pride.  Matt Hurlock galvanized a community around a simple volleyball net and some lines on a gymnasium floor.  In my book, that qualifies him as a miracle-worker.

Matt Hurlock's selfless enthusiasm has been infused in those he touched -- players, parents, assistants and fellow coaches alike.  His family should know that his spirit will live on in the hearts and minds of all those he met.  Count me among them.

Monday, July 4, 2011

WHAT JULY 4 MEANS TO ME

The fixated motorist flies by on the right. He weaves in and out of traffic, totally obsessed with his own needs, caring nothing about those around him.

One car he passes nearly swerves off the road. The elderly gentleman was stunned. He remembers when he had some maverick in him but his energy was spent in a different way.

His knuckles weren’t always gnarled with arthritis. It didn’t seem that long ago when things like bifocals and hearing aids were foreign to him.

This man didn’t have the chance to freewheel around when he was trapped between puberty and maturity. He was on a transport carrying him and others his age onto the shores of Normandy, an agent of the free world trying to hold back the sinister arm of tyranny during the dark days of World War II.

The motorist is impervious to the benefits of living in the land of the free. He takes it for granted, pushing safety laws to the limit to satisfy his own needs.

It’s July 4. America is celebrating its 235th birthday. The aging WWII vet is the latest in a long line of freedom fighters dating back to the early days of the American Revolution, when so many gave their lives so that future generations could be free.

Does the motorist, or any of his generation, ever take the time to comprehend how our freedom evolved?

Greedy athletes line up against greedier team owners over financial matters in two of our major professional sports.

The athletes in the NFL and NBA get more and more. The owners want more and more. Lawyers and agents instigate more and more so they can get a bigger piece of the pie. The people pay more and more, making the football and basketball arenas playthings for the wealthy.

None of them give a hoot about the people.

Do any of them stop on July 4 to pay their respects to those who have made it possible to get ridiculously wealthy playing children’s games? How many of them even know the significance of the date?

I wish I could answer that they do, but I don’t think so.

The night crackles with the sound of fireworks going off all around.

The Fourth of July. They have it circled on the calendar in their minds. Fireworks, boom, yeh!

But do they know why they’re shooting off fireworks on this day? How much do they know about what they’re celebrating?

Some of them may remember the history book highlights, no matter how vague or even misleading they may be.

Paul Revere made that ride, right? President George Washington, first man in the White House? Not exactly. Ben Franklin? Five dollar bill, but there are many more reasons he’s pictured there other than flying a kite.

What about Thomas Paine? Daniel Morgan? Nathaniel Greene? There may not be one in 100 who knows about any one of them, and one in 5,000 probably couldn’t identify them all, but there almost certainly would be no speeding motorists, no professional athletes and no fireworks on Fourth of July without any one of them.

Who are they? If you can get out your Google to find out when the latest stupid movie with robots and fire is coming out, you can Google them.

So, what’s the point?

Well, maybe it’s because U.S. history resonates deeply with me. Maybe it’s because you start to think about your own mortality when your age reaches grandfatherly proportions and you want to pass on what you’ve learned. Maybe it’s because things haven’t exactly gone well for me lately and I’m looking for some sort of escape.

It’s probably a little of all three, but I decided that I would take a good portion of time this Independence Day to reflect on those who have sacrificed so I could grow up basking in the glow of freedom.

I attended an afternoon of patriotic music and festivities Sunday that the Farmington Historical Society graciously staged. A troubadour with deep historical roots named Tom Cullinan sang songs including “Rally ’Round the Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He spoke reverently about those who have served our nation, who numbered eight at the event.

I sang when I knew the words. The thoughts that passed through my mind dampened my cheeks. One woman had the foresight to bring two young boys. Hopefully the event will be etched deeply in their minds so they can pass the spirit along to the next generation.

Independence Day. The Fourth of July. The day means everything to me, it should mean everything to you and I don’t mean the procurement of fireworks, scoffing multiple burgers and keeping the beer cold.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

TURNAROUND IS FAIR PLAY FOR CATS

Many of the New Britain Rock Cats’ names are the same.

Nobody signs high-priced free agents to improve Double-A baseball teams, so that isn’t the answer. There hasn’t been an influx of talent deemed to be can’t-miss major league. Neither have the parent Minnesota Twins significantly altered their philosophy of promoting young players to this lofty level on the game’s developmental scale, such as the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays are prone to do.

So how, then, can a team that finished buried so deep in last place among Eastern League teams in 2010 that even an archeological dig couldn’t locate it have reversed their fortunes so quickly? The New Britain Rock Cats were 44-98 last year. The stately EL hadn’t recorded a team that unsuccessful since the Utica Braves tortured fans in central New York with a 37-101 debacle in 1943.

But as the 2011 season veered through the month of May, neither horrors of the past nor a disproportionate slew of player transactions due in large part to injury at the major league and Triple-A levels have deterred our Cats. With the month at its halfway point Sunday, manager Jeff Smith had his boys tied for first place in the Northern Division at 22-13.

New Britain’s humble skipper doesn’t have a Narcissistic bone in his body. He doesn’t take credit for success any more than he should be blamed for last year’s failure. The one-time Rock Cats catcher provides the kind of even-keel leadership for which the large majority of players yearn.

The answer is multifold. Smith talked about the defense. He praised the starting rotation and the bullpen. He loves the way his hitters are approaching their at-bats. But he said a huge part of the equation is the intangible qualities of peer leadership and clubhouse chemistry.

“The big thing is we’ve had some guys step up with good leadership and it’s been a fun start to the season,” Smith said May 13 after the Rock Cats vanquished the struggling Red Sox farm club, the Portland Sea Dogs, in a crisply played 2-0 game before nearly 7,300 at New Britain Stadium.

“There are a lot of guys. The returning guys – (first baseman/left fielder Chris) Parmelee’s been real good out there, we have a lot of pitchers who have stepped up. I think the addition of Mike Hollimon, too, has been terrific for this team in the clubhouse and on the field, too.”

Hollimon, at 28, is older than the vast majority of Rock Cats past and present. After an All-Star season with Erie (EL) in 2007 and an 11-game stint with the Detroit Tigers the next year, injuries and subsequent surgeries on both shoulders limited him in 2009 and 2010.

He played independent ball last year after the Tigers released him in March. The Twins signed him in December, hoping he would add a veteran presence to a team that is always among the youngest and least experienced in the league. Hollimon was unaware just how bad 2010 was for the Rock Cats.

“When I saw the roster, in my head I was thinking we’ve got a chance to be really good,” Hollimon said. “Trust me, there are going to be a lot of guys from this team that are going to be playing in the big leagues. I was excited.”

He found that the team that broke spring training was a good group of guys.

“It’s mind-boggling because the chemistry in this clubhouse is fantastic,” Hollimon added. “I feel like everybody gets along. I don’t see any cliques. The pitchers aren’t staying with themselves. The infielders aren’t staying with themselves. Everyone’s together.

“I know for a fact that it’s a key ingredient for becoming a winning team. You have to pull for each other, and really pull for each other with your whole heart.”

With the chemistry in place, every aspect of play has been solid.

“It’s been a fun start, regardless of wins and losses,” Smith said.

Hollimon, Chris Cates and Steve Singleton have shared the shortstop slot. Combined with Yangervis Solarte at second, there’s strength up the middle.

Through Saturday’s doubleheader sweep of the Portland Sea Dogs (the Red Sox farm club), Solarte is second in the league in batting at .362. Parmelee, a 2006 first-round draft pick with a sweet left-handed swing, is eighth in the circuit at .326 and third in RBI with 24.

Outfielder Joe Benson leads in homers with four and Singleton, despite spending 10 days in Triple-A, has three.

“Regardless whether you get a lot of hits or not, one of the most important things is how you grind out at-bats,” Smith said. “Are you going to give them away? They’ve done a really good job. … The guys have kind of fed off each other and when you do that, it makes the lineup pretty deep.”

From a pitching perspective, right-hander Cole DeVries, 26, was 8-19 with a 5.15 ERA and gave up 26 homers in 206 innings in two years with the Rock Cats as a starter and reliever.

This year in the closer’s role, DeVries has converted all eight save chances and has a 1.59 ERA in 12 appearances.

“He’s been lights-out at the end of our games,” Smith said.

Staten Island’s Bobby Lanigan is 4-2 with a 2.61 ERA in seven starts to pace the starting rotation. Australian-born Liam Hendriks is 3-1 with a 3.66 and Steve Hirschfeld is 2-0 with a 2.08.

So how have the Rock Cats turned it around? It’s impossible to pinpoint one reason but there can be no doubt that Smith all his factors in place as May plays out.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A ROSE GREW IN WEST HARTFORD

Passing stories from generation to generation is an inherent human trait, I guess. Whether the tales are exaggerated a little or a lot, history is built upon their foundations.

The desire to weave yarns seems to grow as a person ages.

I remember sitting on my grandpa’s knee listening to him spin anecdotes of his childhood in the Ukraine, how a Cossack on horseback swept through his town brandishing a sword and left a gash on his father’s neck. Great-grandma stitched it up with a needle and thread.

But before I digress as I’m prone to do, allow me to relate a West Hartford tale of my very own, which of course revolves around my beloved game of baseball.

The story begins Monday afternoon, May 2, at the first high school game I ever covered at the nicely maintained Hall High School baseball field in the far corner of that sweeping complex.

Hall, in its injury-depleted state, was hosting Newington, the details of which are available elsewhere within these pages. The Warriors’ Stephen Ranieri had a career day, logging a strong start on the mound and blasting a home run. Even in the wake of the hard-to-swallow extra-inning loss, it was hard for him to be too forlorn as he and his teammates did some groundskeeping.

With participation in baseball dwindling at the high school level, I found it particularly important to let Stephen – his mom stresses intently that it is not to be spelled Steven – know that I appreciated his effort. As I began to recognize his love for the game, I decided to tell him about the first time I covered a baseball game at the Hall complex.

First, I went into my wallet and extracted a baseball card of myself when I was general manager of the Eastern League’s Glens Falls Tigers in 1988. The card, thinned and frayed at the edges by more than 20 years on my person, displayed a scrawled autograph across the bottom still very visible.

I asked Stephen if he could identify the autograph. That wasn’t fair. A 17-year-old baseball fan lives in the land of Derek Jeter and Big Papi, far different from the one I lived in when I was a teen awestruck by the game. I would have recognized the autograph in a heartbeat, with that bulbous “P” at the front of the first name and the equally bulbous “R” beginning the last name.

Well, the game that day wasn’t baseball in its truest form.

I was working for the Bristol Press at the time. My days working as an administrator in the Eastern League were over. My attempts to find myself professionally hit a few dead ends so I decided I wanted to go back to my roots. Sportswriting was something I wanted since I sat on grandpa’s knee.

Bristol sports editor Keith Freeman had given me a few freelance opportunities when he saw that Pete Rose was coming to West Hartford to participate in a benefit softball game organized by the late, great sports promoter Syd Conn. West Hartford is well outside Bristol’s jurisdiction but Keith knew how much I loved Rose and the Cincinnati Reds, so he gave me the chance of a lifetime. The date was August 25, 1991.

The game was played in a roughed-out diamond fanning out from the southwest corner of Chalmers Stadium. There he was, larger than life, aptly decked out in a red jersey. His playing days had ended in 1986 and his managerial reign three years later. He was a little thicker around the middle, but still looked like he could step up to the dish from the right or left side and rifle a base hit into a gap.

The indomitable Rose pride was evident in his actions and his words but it was his showmanship which provided the gathering with another perspective of Major League Baseball’s all-time hit leader.

At one point, his team – Conn’s Kings – being waylayed by Peter Pan Café, Rose blurted out, “Where’s (former Reds closer and Southington native Rob) Dibble when I need him?” When a youngster dropped a ball he had just autographed (at no charge), Rose quipped, “Hey kid, do you eat with those hands?” Vintage stuff.

Rose’s banishment from Hall of Fame induction by late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti because of his gambling addiction was in the news. His words that day reflected what has since become public knowledge, but at that time he was denying he bet on baseball. His confession came years later in his book, “My Prison Without Bars.”

“I believe deep down that the Commissioner of baseball (Fay Vincent at the time) understands that I made some mistakes,” Rose told me. “He’s a fair man, an honest man. I’m totally convinced of that in my mind.

“There’s no personal vendetta that the Commissioner has lodged against me. I just did some things I shouldn’t have done. I shouldn’t have bet on those other sports. I did it. I admitted to it and that’s why I was suspended from baseball. I think the Commissioner of baseball will be a fair man, though.”

Stephen listened to my abridged version of the story intently. His open-mouthed reaction to what I told him was of great reward to me. I learned that when you can no longer stroke a baseball like Stephen can, you have to resort to the only means available to an old sports writer – the stories. Grandpa, I know how you feel.

Friday, May 6, 2011

CATS GRADS ABOUND IN MLB

The kind of baseball the New Britain Rock Cats play tends to be unevenly judged by the sport’s casual observers.

“It’s good,” some say, “but I’d rather watch professional baseball.”

That, of course, is a totally incorrect observation. The Rock Cats and all the teams they play in the Eastern League ARE professionals. They play for pay, obviously not anywhere near what their major league brethren pull down, and anybody that is paid for a service they perform is a professional.

But this goes beyond semantics.

While they are pros, the Rock Cats are not major leaguers. They don’t possess the name recognition that reverberates across the sports universe because nobody chronicles their every move on and off the field like the 24/7 media tend to do in the big time, particularly in New York and Boston.

Joe Mauer has surged to the forefront of baseball’s elite.

The Minnesota Twins star, the first American League catcher ever to win a batting title, has become a Madison Avenue icon beyond his record-shattering accomplishments on the field. The phrase, “Well played, Mauer,” uttered in an EA Sports advertisement by spokesman/comedian Kevin Butler, has become embedded in contemporary sports jargon.

Mauer’s latest foray into the marketing world has him trading barbs with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ legendary All-Pro cornerback Troy Polamalu to promote the virtues of Head and Shoulders Shampoo.

On June 15, 2003, Joe Mauer was en route from Class A to the New Britain Rock Cats. He distinguished himself here by hitting .341 in 73 games and leading the team to the EL playoffs.

Mauer is the flag-bearer for former Rock Cats who have gone on to bigger and better things. With that in mind, I pose the following trivia question: How many former Rock Cats players were on major league rosters when the 2011 season started?

I’ll let you ponder that as I ramble on about a few other Rock Cats alumni who have stirred the MLB pot.

Many of you are Red Sox fans. Did you know one of your beloved and most regaled Beantown boys once launched majestic moon shots among the willow trees beyond the right field wall at New Britain Stadium?

David Ortiz was not “Big Papi” when he hit .322 with 14 homers and 56 RBI in 69 games for the Rock Cats in 1997.

That was the Rock Cats’ third season. Prior to their birth in 1995, Red Sox prospects roamed adjacent, outdated Beehive Stadium. Think for a moment how unbelievable it is that one former New Britain Red Sox player remains active in the major leagues.

Matt Stairs, 43, is a left-handed pinch-hitting specialist for the Washington Nationals, playing for his 13th major league organization. In 1994, he gave an indication of the hitting machine he would become when he hit .309 in 93 games with New Britain.

Even more amazing is that another ex-Britsox player is in Triple-A, biding his time in the hope of getting yet another chance to compete in the majors. Ron Mahay, then an outfielder, played in eight games for the 1993 New Britain entry and hit .120. The left-hander wisely switched to pitching, which he has done for eight big league clubs since 1997.

So how many ex-Rock Cats were on MLB rosters on opening day 2011? Eight? How about 15?

Try 32.

Seventeen made the natural progression through the Twins farm system to Minnesota, among them slugging first baseman and AL MVP Justin Morneau.

Morneau was in New Britain awaiting the EL championship series against the Reading Phillies when 9/11 changed our lives. The next year, he hit .298 with 16 homers and 80 RBI in 126 games here before advancing.

Twins aside, the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres lead the majors in ex-Rock Cats.

Pale Hose catcher A.J. Pierzynski played in our midst in 1998 and 2000. Jesse Crain, perhaps the most impressive pitcher to wear the smiling cat on his hat, had a 0.69 ERA with 56 strikeouts and 10 walks in 39 innings in 2003.

San Diego’s Jason Bartlett emerged as one of the two best shortstops to regale the New Britain infield (Cristian Guzman was the other) when he posted a .296 average with 41 stolen bases in 2003. Sidearming right-handed reliever Pat Neshek, a New Britain bullpen staple in 2003-04, is also with the Pads.

Another ex-Cat of note, Torii Hunter, still plies the outfield for the Los Angeles Angels after laying the foundation for his defensive prowess for parts of three seasons (1996-98) on New Britain’s south side.

And how about Kyle Lohse, the right-hander with the live arm but shaky mound presence, who went 3-18 with a 6.04 ERA for the 2000 Cats? At last look, Lohse was holding down one of the top spots in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation and earning in the neighborhood of $12 million a year.

In addition to Mahay, there were 26 former Cats in Triple-A toiling for their chance to reap those kinds of riches. Among them is the standard-bearer of the Rock Cats’ All-Name team, right-handed hurler Boof Bonser. Boof, 12-9 with a 4.37 ERA for the 2004 Cats, bounced around the bigs for a few years and hopes to make it back with the Mets.

For you Red Sox fans who say they won’t come to the games because they aren’t interested in the Twins, Matt Fox is pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket after going 9-9 with a 3.58 ERA in 28 games for the 2009 Cats. If one of the Sox starters should be incapacitated, a former Rock Cat could possibly hold Boston’s playoff aspirations in his right hand.

Hey, stranger things have happened.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

CATS' SOLARTE IS E.L. PLAYER OF THE WEEK

New Britain Rock Cats outfielder/second baseman Yangervis Solarte has been named the Eastern League Player of the Week for the period from April 25 through May 1, the league announced Tuesday.

The switch-hitting Solarte, 23, batted .448 (13-for-29) with five doubles, two home runs, nine RBI and an .828 slugging percentage in seven games last week.

He began the week by going 3-for-5 with a homer in a 9-2 New Britain win against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. He went on to get at least one hit in each of the seven games and currently has a nine-game hitting streak.

Through the week, Solarte led all EL hitters in batting, runs, RBI, and total base (24), and was tied for first in hits with 13. He is tied for the EL lead in hits (31) and extra-base hits (14) for the season. The native of Valencia, Venezuela, ranks second in batting (.373) and total bases (50), and is tied for second with 11 doubles.

Last season, Solarte hit a combined .301 in 77 games between advanced Class A Fort Myers and New Britain. He began the season in the Florida State League, where he batted .330 in the first 24 games and earned a May 12 promotion to Double-A.

He was placed on the disabled list with a knee injury June 21. He was reactivated August 10 and finished the season with Fort Myers. He ended the season with an eight-game hitting streak and was third on the team in batting (.320 in 45 games).

Solarte entered the season a lifetime .270 hitter in five professional seasons.

The last player of the week for the rock Cats was last July when 1B/OF Chris Parmelee earned the recognition.

The parent Minnesota Twins signed Solarte as a non-drafted free agent on June 16, 2005.

Friday, April 29, 2011

BETTER DAYS FOR CATS BUT TWINS SUFFERING

For those of us who didn’t know already, we learned in the sordid 2010 chapter of New Britain Rock Cats baseball that winning ballgames at the minor league level ranks pretty low on the importance meter.

What the Minnesota Twins took to the bank wasn’t the 44-98 debacle that reduced the Rock Cats to an Eastern League punching bag.

The silver lining that framed the cloud over New Britain Stadium included the continued development of center fielder Ben Revere, the rapid growth of right-handed starting pitcher Kyle Gibson and the sharp upward turn in the careers of multi-talented Joe Benson and sweet-swinging left-handed hitting Chris Parmelee.

The virus that left the Rock Cats as the worst Double-A team in baseball and the worst in the Eastern League in 67 years has surfaced in Minnesota. The Twins at this writing have the worst record in the American League after being torched twice in one day, at home by the Tampa Bay Rays.

So what have the Twins, a team guided by exceptionally astute and equally benevolent administrators from top to bottom, done to incur the wrath of the baseball deities? That’s a rhetorical question, Twins and Rock Cats fans. Answers are not readily available.

Let’s review the facts.

Justin Morneau, on the cusp of a brilliant career, loses half the 2010 season to a concussion that obviously included complications that only his neurologist can accurately relate. The good news is that the Canadian-born slugger is back and showing signs of regaining the prominence that has stuffed his trophy case.

Under the same heading – weird and unfortunate injuries – we have Joe Mauer, trying desperately to put what doctors say is bilateral leg weakness behind him when he gets struck down by a viral infection.

Between games of Thursday’s doubleheader from hell, he addressed the media and was quoted by Twin Cities media as saying that he thought the leg weakness would dissipate as spring training became regular season, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. His return remains in question.

General Manager Bill Smith dips into Japanese baseball and pays big cash to sign infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka sustains a broken fibula before anybody can begin to assess what kind of impact he can have.

Outfielder Delmon Young, fresh off a sensational season that quelled chatter that the Twins’ 2007 trade which dispatched former Rock Cats Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett was a bust, is on the disabled list with that trendy injury, a strained oblique muscle. DH Jim Thome and outfielder Jason Repko are day-to-day.

Carl Pavano comes down with the flu and the Twins are forced to summon former Cat Anthony Swarzak from Triple-A Rochester for a start. The next day, Swarzak is back with Rochester and former New Britain reliever Alex Burnett has returned to Minnesota.

The curse that has befallen the Twins has wreaked havoc with Rochester. According to Rochester publicity man Chuck Hinkel, the Red Wings have promoted seven players to the majors in 22 days, the most in the International League.

Shockingly, the wholesale changes have not sliced and diced the New Britain roster. Only two who started the season as Cats – utility man Toby Gardenhire and catcher Danny Lehmann – have been moved. The
Twins have little recourse other than to disrupt the Cats' flow, which is bound to occur soon.

The Rock Cats are playing winning baseball but leave us remember, the important thing is what’s happening in the big leagues, and right now the Twins are hoping that destiny soon deals them a better fate.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

BROMBERG SUFFERS BROKEN ARM

NEW BRITAIN – The New Britain Rock Cats announced Thursday that right-handed starting pitcher David Bromberg has been placed on the disabled list with a broken right forearm from being struck by a line drive in Tuesday’s game against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.


Bromberg was hurt in the sixth inning when Adeiny Hechavarria’s knocked him from the game.

The parent Minnesota Twins have not yet announced any plans to replace him on the New Britain roster.

Bromberg, 23, was 5-5 with a 3.62 ERA for the Rock Cats last year before a promotion to Triple-A Rochester in mid-July. He went 1-4 with a 3.98 ERA in nine starts for the Red Wings.

DOOLEY KNOWS CATS BEST

Nobody knows New Britain Rock Cats baseball better than West Hartford’s Jeff Dooley.

Dooley, voice of the Rock Cats on radio since 1998, builds everything in his life on a foundation of optimism, whether he’s delivering his smooth play-by-play portrayals or adding stations to his ever-growing Rock Cats Radio Network.

Life hasn’t been easy for the native of Lincoln, R.I., in recent seasons, but nothing short of death and destruction can dent the Dooley optimism. Last season, the aspirations for a winning season plummeted right from the start. The Rock Cats crash-landed in last place in the Eastern League’s Northern Division and proceeded to write new chapters of futility.

Dooley accentuates the positives in situations that would send others spiraling into the depths of despair. The Rock Cats compiled a 44-98 record (.310 winning percentage), the worst of its kind in the EL since the 1943 Utica Braves went 37-101 (.268).

But as Dooley points out, there were positives.

Center fielder Ben Revere, a Rock Cats most of the season, wound up with the parent Minnesota Twins in the midst of a torrid American League Central Division pennant race.

Right-handed pitcher Kyle Gibson showed why he looms as a future big league starter, perhaps even before 2011 plays out, by going 7-5 with a 3.68 ERA in 16 Double-A starts.

Outfielder Joe Benson, good enough at football to warrant a scholarship offer from Purdue after his high school days, displayed his multiple talents while leading the team with 23 home runs and uncorking laser-like throws to nail unsuspecting baserunners.

Revere and Gibson have advanced to Triple-A, but Benson returns to New Britain with the hopes of improving the rawest aspect of his game. So does sweet-swinging left-handed first baseman Chris Parmelee, and Dooley likes repeaters.

“I think the game slows down for them the second year in the league,” he said.

“[Current Twins outfielder and former Rock Cats MVP] Michael Cuddyer is a good example. He struggled in 2000 then comes back in 2001 and I think he was the best player in the league.

“No question Benson and Parmelee were overmatched last year. They had to go back to A-ball to figure things out. But Benson ends up winning the Twins’ minor league player of year award. I think they have bright futures.”

Benson struck out 136 times in 459 at-bats and was vulnerable against right-handed pitching. Given his strong arm, ability to hit for power and deceptively fast footspeed, he possesses the kind of raw ability that makes scouts swoon.

But in order for the Rock Cats to re-establish their EL credibility, pitchers and players will have to improve and emerge in number. Dooley cites a change in the Twins’ philosophy as the primary reason for optimism.

The Twins habitually have the youngest team in the EL while others are known to stack their teams with veterans. The Twins altered that approach, presumably to help their high-level minor league clubs compete, and perhaps find a diamond in the rough.

“There are some veteran guys,” Dooley said. “There’s some leadership, but with that being said, we have to take a look at the other teams in the league. Until you see whether the league is up or down, it’s hard to judge.

“It’s a great league and it was definitely very good last year. One of the scouts said the pitching was the best it had been in 15 years. Still, there’s no excuse for losing 98 games, but it’s tough to compete when you have young kids.”

Shortstop Estarlin de los Santos, touted as a prospect heading into 2010, had a horrible showing (.177 batting average, 22 errors in 64 games). He’s been replaced by Michael Hollimon, who has some major league experience with the Detroit Tigers.

Infielder Ray Chang, a Red Sox farmhand last year, was an opening night starter and he cracked three hits.

Pitching, as always, is the key, and New Britain’s 5.17 ERA and staggering WHIP (walks and hits to inning pitched ratio) of 1.57 leave no wonder why the team failed so badly.

Right-hander David Bromberg, Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, earned passage to Triple-A last year after going 5-5 with a 3.62 in 17 Double-A starts, but returns to the EL for further seasoning.

He and Deolis Guerra, the last remaining Twins asset from the Johan Santana trade to the Mets prior to the 2008 season, are the lone 40-man roster hurlers and loom as manager Jeff Smith’s top starters.

“Guerra struggled his last 10 or 12 starts last year, but they say he’s keeping his fastball low and throwing his curve for strikes,” Dooley said. “[Pitching coach Stu Cliburn] said he’s never seen him look so good in spring training. The Twins still have a lot of stock in him.”

Also of interest is left-hander Spencer Steedley, an effective reliever until injury incapacitated him from the beginning of May on.

One thing’s for sure – win or lose, the Rock Cats are well received by area fans. They break their season attendance record every year, so while Dooley may lead the league in optimism, there are a lot of central Connecticut fans in the first division.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

MY GOLD KEY DINNER SPEECH

I have been asked to post the speech I made at the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance's 70th annual Gold Key Dinner held April 17, 2011, at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.  Thank you to those who have asked.  It was important to me to pay tribute to our mission rather than focus on myself.  I'd like to think that weaving in some family and a bit of American history refelects my ideals. Here goes:

One of the first rules dictated by the august body of sports writers who run this dinner is KEEP YOUR SPEECH SHORT. They waggle their finger at you and say, “Five minutes … tops.”

It’s a good rule. If anybody’s going to run long, let it be the other people on this dais, those who have done so much to enrich Connecticut’s sports landscape.

And besides, who says you have to be long to be effective? Seven score and eight years ago, President Lincoln needed just short of 270 words to articulate the most famous speech in American history, honoring the Civil War dead at Gettysburg, Pa.

This one surely isn’t going to change the world the way that one did, but I hope it has some effect in our little corner of it.
The Art McGinley Award is presented for meritorious service to the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance. Why should I or any other state sports journalist put time and effort into this organization?

As the late, great Bo Kolinsky impressed upon me in a way that only he could, the mission of the Alliance is indeed a worthy one. Our mission is to perpetuate our craft by raising money to help the next generation of sports journalists defray their college expenses.

We do so by honoring these folks who sit next to me. A win-win situation. MONEY GOES TO THE KIDS; AWARDS GO TO THE DESERVING, and the gracious people of the Alliance who donate their time to make this happen recognize that their selfless acts have a way of filling their hearts when this day comes to an end.

Art McGinley and the other Founding Fathers of the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance had some of these things in mind. Bo Kolinsky enabled their vision to evolve into something more contemporary, and since he passed in 2003, it has continued to evolve.

To today’s honorees, I thank you for a lifetime of dedication to sports in our state, and for helping steer the Gold Key Dinner toward what I pray will be a vibrant future.

To those here to honor me in particular, I am humbled by your presence. And by the way today is my mother-in-law’s birthday. God bless you, Fayna. I don’t think you want all these folks knowing how old you are, but leave us to say that next year will be a milestone in your blessed life.

To the men of the Alliance, thank you so much for selecting me to receive this honor. I will cherish it forever.

And to Abe Lincoln who steered this nation through a most difficult test that began exactly 150 years and 5 days ago, every person owes you a great debt that can never be repaid.

Monday, April 18, 2011

TWINS SEND EX-CAT MANSHIP TO TRIPLE-A

The Minnesota Twins announced after Sunday's game that they will recall right-handed pitcher Jim Hoey
from Triple-A Rochester. Hoey will join the team in Baltimore and will be available for tomorrow night's game with the Orioles.

In four relief appearances for the Red Wings this season, Hoey has posted a 2.70 ERA (6.2 ip, 2 er) with eight strikeouts. Hoey, who will wear number 37, was acquired by the Twins from the Orioles this offseason and will be looking to make his Twins debut.
To make room for Hoey on the 25-man roster, the Twins have optioned right-handed pitcher Jeff Manship to Triple-A Rochester. Manship made five relief appearances for the Twins allowing three runs in 3.1 innings pitched.

Friday, April 15, 2011

ROCK CATS' LEHMANN PROMOTED TO AAA

New Britain Rock Cats catcher Danny Lehmann has been promoted to the Triple-A International League in the wake of the injury that put Joe Mauer on the Minnesota Twins’ 15-day disabled list with bilateral leg weakness.


The Twins promoted catcher Steve Holm and tabbed Lehmann to replace him on the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings’ roster. Holm played in 95 games for the defunct Norwich/Connecticut franchise in 2005 and 2007.

The move leaves the Rock Cats with just one able-bodied catcher – Allan de San Miguel. Dan Rohlfing is en route from Class A Fort Myers. Jair Fernandez (hamate bone injury) remains on New Britain’s disabled list.

Rohlfing, Minnesota’s 14th-round pick in the 2007 draft, is hitting .182 (2-for-11) in three games at Fort Myers. The St. Louis native hit .242 with a homer and 13 RBI in 41 games with the Miracle last year.

Lehmann, 25, a non-roster invitee to big league spring training, was hitting .462 (6-for-13) in four games with the Rock Cats.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

BENSON LEADS CATS TO 5TH STRAIGHT

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – New Britain Rock Cats center fielder Joe Benson is sending an early message that graduation day from Double-A may well be drawing near.
Benson, a good enough football player in high school to get a Big 10 scholarship offer, has all the tools, but some of them were a little raw last year.

Benson showed the Portland Sea Dogs the value of a year’s experience Thursday by ripping two doubles and driving in three runs in leading the Rock Cats to a 6-2 win in their home opener before 6,684 at New Britain Stadium.

The Rock Cats (6-2), atop the Eastern League’s Northern Division after finishing last in 2010, have won five straight.
Benson was the Minnesota Twins’ minor league player of the year last season but high strikeout numbers ushered him back to the Eastern League for a second season. His other numbers are catching scouts’ eyes thus far in 2011 – a .406 batting average, nine RBI and five extra-base hits in eight games.

“He plays above the speed of this level from what we saw tonight,” Portland manager Kevin Boles said. “The two throws he made from center field, he’s got a great arm. He’s a plus runner, plus bat speed with power potential. There’s a lot to like about this kid. He’s a superior athlete and a gamer as well.”

Portland starter Brock Huntzinger retired the first two hitters of the game without incident when his fortune changed with one swing of the bat.

Ray Chang, who spent 2010 with the Sea Dogs, turned on the first pitch and drove it over the left field wall for his first home run of the season. Huntzinger walked Chris Parmelee and Benson drilled a long RBI double to right center giving New Britain an early 2-0 lead.

“As a hitter you only get a few times when you see the ball that well and get to barrel up balls and take advantage of pitches,” said Benson, who spurned a chance to play football at Purdue to sign with the Twins in 2006. “I definitely feel more comfortable back this year. Working at the end of last year I got a lot of my confidence back.”

Portland third baseman Will Middlebrooks (2-for-4) answered with a solo homer off New Britain starter Bobby Lanigan in the second, but Huntzinger’s first-inning struggle was a harbinger of things to come.

In the third inning, the Rock Cats rapped four solid hits and the Sea Dogs (3-4) made two miscues, one physical and one mental. Four runs scored and Huntzinger’s night ended prematurely.

Consecutive doubles by Parmelee and Benson were the key blows. Evan Bigley added an RBI single. Bigley took second on an errant throw by right fielder Chih-Hsuen Chiang and scored when Mark Dolenc tapped a two-out grounder to first and Huntzinger was late covering.

Portland’s bullpen held New Britain without a baserunner the rest of the way. Veteran right-hander Eammon Portice retired all 10 batters he faced. Seth Garrison set down the next six.

“Our bullpen kept us in the ballgame and that’s something that Portice and Garrison have done,” Boles said. “They’ve started out strong and we really like out bullpen. I’m very comfortable with the arms coming out of the pen.”

Lanigan (1-1) allowed just one earned run on five hits and two walks while striking out four in six innings. Cole DeVries earned the save with three innings of one-hit relief.

The teams hook up today at 12:05 p.m. with right-hander Stolmy Pimentel taking the hill for Portland against New Britain right-hander Steve Hirschfeld.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

ROCK CATS TAKE TWO IN HARRISBURG

Unfortunately for the Harrisburg Senators, two for Tuesday took on a different meaning for them as they were swept in two games by the New Britain Rock Cats. The Rock Cats took game one, the completion of the suspended game 3-1 and then took game two 8-1.

Game one started on Tuesday night, but was suspended in the top of the 2nd inning. When the game resumed, RH Brad Peacock was on the mound for Harrisburg and RH David Bromberg for New Britain. The Rock Cats plated two runs in the fifth, then tacked on another in the seventh to take a 3-0 lead into the last of the ninth. The Senators put the first two men on base, but couldn’t come up with much needed hits though they scored a run on a wild pitch and passed ball.

Steve Singleton and Evan Bigley paced a 13-hit New Britain attack with three hits each. Ray Chang had a single, double and two RBI. Bromberg earned the win with six shutout innings. Jake Stevens earned the save, his first.

In game two, New Britain broke the game open in the third inning with five runs off of spot starter Jimmy Barthmaier.

Singleton hit his first homer of the year and a double. Chris Parmelee had two doubles and three RBI. Spot starter Santos Arias pitched 3 2/3 innings of one-hit shutout ball. Brett Jacobson earned the win and former UConn hurler Mike Tarsi finished by striking out the side.

The Sens scored their two runs on a two-run single by Buck Coats in the sixth.

With the doubleheader loss the Sens are now 2-3 on the season while the Rock Cats improve to 4-2.

The final game of the series and opening homestand is Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. Harrisburg sends RH Brad Meyers to the mound against RH Deolis Guerra for New Britain.

Monday, April 11, 2011

ROCK CATS GAME SUSPENDED MONDAY

Harrisburg and New Britain Suspended Due to Wet Grounds



(Courtesy of Terry Byrom, Harrisburg Senators broadcaster)

On Monday night at Metro Bank Park, the game between the Harrisburg Senators and New Britain Rock Cats was suspended with one-out and runner on first base in the top of the second inning. The game will continue on Tuesday, April 12 at 5:00 p.m. and be played to a nine-inning conclusion. The regularly scheduled game will be seven-innings and start approximately 30 minutes after the conclusion of the suspended game.

The probable pitchers for the regularly scheduled game on Tuesday, game two, are RH Brad Peacock for the Senators against RH David Bromberg for the New Britain Rock Cats.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

SIZZLING BENSON LEADS ROCK CATS TO WIN

Joe Benson is making a case that he’s made the right offseason adjustments and is ready to graduate from Double-A.

Benson slammed a homer and double to drive in three runs in support of shutout hurling Sunday to give the New Britain Rock Cats a 4-0 win over the Richmond Flying Squirrels and a draw in the first series of the year.

Benson deposited the second pitch from Richmond starter Clayton Tanner for a leadoff homer in the second inning -- his first of the season -- to get the Rock Cats (2-2) started. His two-bagger came at an opportune time – with Ray Chang and Chris Parmelee on the corners in the fourth inning – for two RBI and a 3-0 lead.

Benson is batting .471 (8-for-17) with five RBI.

Steve Hirschfeld (1-0) limited the Squirrels to just one hit – a second-inning single by Roger Kieschnick – in his five-inning stint. He didn’t walk any while striking out three. He retired the final 11 he faced before the early season pitch count caught up with him.

Three southpaws finished Richmond (2-2) off. Jake Stevens followed with two innings of one-hit ball. Spencer Steedley pitched 2/3 of an inning before Tyler Robertson earned his first save by notching the last four outs.

Chang and Parmelee had two hits each. The middle of the New Britain order went 6-for-12 with four extra-base hits, scored all four runs and drove in three.

The Rock Cats travel to Harrisburg for 7 p.m. games Monday through Wednesday before opening the home portion of their 2011 campaign with a four-game weekend set against the Portland Sea Dogs, the Boston Red Sox' Double-A Eastern League affiliates.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

HARD LUCK, QUIET BATS DOOM ROCK CATS

Two Richmond pitchers pitched four-hit shutout ball over eight innings Saturday night to lead the Flying Squirrels to a 6-2 win over the New Britain Rock Cats before 6,093 at The Diamond.

Starter Justin Fitzgerald (1-0) yielded two hits over five innings in his Double-A debut. David Quinowski extended the Rock Cats’ misery for another two innings before the visitors struck for two runs in the ninth inning.

New Britain starter Bobby Lanigan (0-1) allowed just one run on six hits over 5 1/3 innings. The Flying Squirrels made former UConn pitcher Mike Tarsi’s first appearance a hard-luck nightmare by reaching him for three runs in the seventh.

Tarsi replaced Lanigan with runners at first and second with one out in the sixth but pitched out of the jam. A walk to Roger Kieschnick, a balk, and infield hits by Mike McBryde and Johnny Monell produced a run and brought on Brett Jacobson in relief.

Danny Lehmann’s passed ball and a squeeze bunt by Justin Christian gave Richmond (2-1) a 4-0 lead.

The Squirrels tacked on two runs in the eighth against Santos Arias.

Joe Benson had three hits for New Britain (1-2) to raise his batting average to .462. Evan Bigley and Marc Dolenc had RBI singles in the ninth.

Richmond is slated to start left-hander Clayton Tanner against New Britain righty Steven Hirshfeld in the series finale Sunday.

ONE EX-CAT ON DL; ANOTHER GETS BIG LEAGUE CALL

The Minnesota Twins announced Saturday that former New Britain Rock Cats right-hander Kevin Slowey has been place on the disabled list with a right shoulder strain. They have recalled ex-New Britain reliever Alex Burnett from Triple-A Rochester to take his place.

Slowey, who lost the fifth spot in the Twins rotation to Scott Baker out of spring training, was 0-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 3 2/3 innings this season. He allowed a hit, didn't walk anybody and struck out three.

Slowey,26, had nine starts for the Rock Cats in 2006, compiling a 4-3 record and 3.19 ERA after starting the season in high Class A.

Burnett, 23, made one bullpen appearance in Triple-A and retired the only hitter he faced.  In 2009 in New Britain, he was 1-2 with a 1.79 ERA in 40 games, all in relief. He converted nine of his 10 save opportunities.

Burnett appeared in 41 games for the Twins last year. He was 2-2 with a 5.29 ERA.

Friday, April 8, 2011

CATS' GARDENHIRE PROMOTED

Infielder Toby Gardenhire will be promoted to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings from New Britain on Saturday. Gardenhire, who was on the Rock Cats' disabled list will take the place of infielder Luke Hughes who was promoted to Minnesota.

GUERRA, DEVRIES PITCH ROCK CATS TO 1ST WIN

What took the 2010 New Britain Rock Cats eight games to accomplish they’ve achieved in their second game of 2011.

The Rock Cats erased the zero in their win column Friday night, riding strong pitching performances by starter Deolis Guerra and Cole DeVries to a 7-1 triumph over the Richmond Flying Squirrels before 5,638 at The Diamond.

Guerra (1-0) allowed three hits in five shutout innings. DeVries, a right-hander who was 8-19 with a 5.16 over the last two years with the Rock Cats, spun three hitless frames while fanning five. Nate Robertson finished up, yielding the lone Richmond tally in the ninth inning.

The Rock Cats (1-1), losers of their first seven games en route to a 44-98 record last year, were stymied by Richmond starter Eric Surkamp over the first four frames, gathering just three hits while striking out 10 times. But they scored twice against Ronnie Ray (0-1) to grab the lead in the fifth, and added two in the eighth and three in the ninth to win going away.

Chris Parmelee had three hits to lead a 13-hit New Britain attack. Michael Hollimon’s two-run homer in the fifth was the Rock Cats’ first round-tripper of the year. Evan Bigley had two hits and drove in a pair of runs.

Yangervis Solarte, Joe Benson and Deibinson Romero also had two safeties each.

Joe Koshansky knocked in the lone run for Richmond (1-1).

ROCK CATS HISTORY LESSON

(Rock Cats notes, courtesy of broadcaster extraordinaire Jeff Dooley)

The New Britain Rock Cats are the longest tenured professional franchise in Connecticut history.  The team was affiliated with the Boston Red Sox when it moved from venerable but antiquated Muzzy Field in Bristol prior to the 1983 season.  This year marks the 29th season of operation in the state. ....

Of the teams entering Eastern League play in 2011, the New Britain franchise ranks second in longevity.  Only the Reading Phillies (1967) have been EL members longer than the Red Sox/Rock Cats. ...

This season marks the 17th that the New Britain franchise has been affiliated with the Minnesota Twins.  The Red Sox' tenure in Willow Brook Park was terminated by the late Joe Buzas after the 1994 season because the Sox wanted their Double-A franchise moved to Springfield. ...

New Britain is now 9-20 in season openers after dropping a 6-4 decision to the Richmond Flying Squirrels on Thursday, April 7.  The franchise has posted a 4-11 mark in road lidlifters and has been on the short end in five of the last six seasons. ...

Seven of the last eight openers have come against the Double-A affiliates of the Toronto Blue Jays, six against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and the 2003 opener against the defunct New Haven Ravens. ...

The Rock Cats' roster features 20 who played for last year's club and seven who did not.  The roster includes 12 pitchers, three catchers, nine infielders and three outfielders.  The Rock Cats' top prospects, as assessed by Baseball America, are: OF Joe Benson (#4); RHP Liam Hendricks (#6); RHP Dave Bromberg (#13); 1B Chris Parmelee (#18).  Bromberg, Parmelee, Benson and RHP Deolis Guerra are on the Minnesota Twins' 40-man roster. ...

The season marks a homecoming of sorts for RHP Mike Tarsi.  Tarsi, from Danbury, pitched for the University of Connecticut.  He is the first state player on the team since Plainville's T.R. Marcinczyk in 2001.  Jeff Bagwell (Killingworth; University of Hartford) and Mo Vaughn (Norwalk) played for the New Britain Red Sox. ...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

ROCK CATS BLOW 4-RUN LEAD IN LOSS TO RICHMOND

(Report courtesy of the Richmond Flying Squirrels)


The New Britain Rock Cats’ bullpen squandered a four-run lead Thursday night, enabling the Richmond Flying Squirrels to gain a 6-4 win in the Eastern League opener before a capacity crowd of 9,560 at The Diamond.

The Rock Cats reached Squirrels starter Daryl Maday for four runs in the third inning.

Mark Dolenc ignited the rally by beating out an infield hit. Catcher Danny Lehmann followed with a double that plated the game’s first run.

Maday walked Michael Hollimon. Yangervis Solarte moved the runners into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt and former Red Sox farmhand Ray Chang drove them home with a double. A double by Joe Benson gave Rock Cats starter David Bromberg a 4-0 lead.

The Squirrels answered with three runs off Bromberg in the fourth inning. Mike McBryde worked a one-out walk and scored on a double by Johnny Monell. Jose Flores split the left-field gap with a double and Justin Christian delivered him with a single.

Bromberg allowed three runs on six hits in four innings of work.

Richmond pieced together the game-winning rally against left-hander Spencer Steedley in the eighth inning.

Monell rapped an RBI double and Flores reached when Lehmann uncorked a wild throw to third on his sacrifice bunt. Monell scored the game-winning tally. Charlie Culberson added some insurance with an RBI single.

Right-hander Osiris Matos earned the win in relief by retiring the Rock Cats last batter in the eighth. Jason Stoffel closed the game with a perfect ninth inning.

The Rock Cats are expected to start right-hander Deolis Guerra in the second game of the series Friday night. Richmond counters with lefty Eric Surkamp.

EX-ROCK CAT HUGHES RETURNS TO MAJORS

(Courtesy of Twins communications director Mike Herman and Rochester Red Wings publicist Chuck Hinkel)

Former New Britain Rock Cats star Luke Hughes is getting another shot at some major league playing time.


Hughes was recalled from Triple-A Rochester after the Twins placed infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka, imported from Japan after winning a batting title in his homeland last season, was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a fractured left fibula sustained when trying to turn a double play against the Yankees in New York Thursday afternoon.

Hughes, 26, from Perth, Australia, showed New Britain fans that he was a legitimate prospect in 2008. After spending the entire 2007 season with the Rock Cats as a utility player, he emerged the next year by hitting safely in 29 of his first 32 games.

He was named Eastern League Player of the Week April 26 to May 1 when he hit .406 with six homers and 10 RBI. He was rewarded with a promotion to Triple-A July 31 after starting at third base in the Futures Game.

An oblique injury set him back in 2009. He spent most of June on the disabled list and was sent back to New Britain for the remainder of the season.

Hughes received his first big league chance at the end of last April and went 2-for-7 (.286) in two games against Detroit, including a homer off Max Scherzer in his first major league at-bat.

He was returned to Rochester, but played in just eight games before suffering a sports hernia that ended his season.

Hughes played 218 games in a Rock Cats uniform. He hit .319 with 15 homers and 40 RBI in 70 games in his breakout 2008 campaign. In 2007, he batted .283 with nine homers and 43 RBI filling in at first, second, third and the outfield.

Nishioka played seven seasons for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League before giving American baseball a shot. He played in all six games with the Twins this season hitting .208 (5-for-24), with a double, two RBI and a stolen base.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

SPRING -- WHEN AN OLD MAN'S PASSION TURNS TO BASEBALL

My heartbeat seems to have slowed a bit.

I feel tears forming in the corners of my eyes more than ever before and on those rare days in late March when I can feel the warmth of the sun, it’s like getting a passionate embrace from dear Mother Nature.

Spring fever is nothing new. It’s afflicted people of these New England climes for generations dating back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But this is different. It’s a strain of spring fever to be sure but with a touch of another more recently diagnosed malady called Baseball Fever.

In my case, it’s rather acute. For the first time in 12 years, I’m waking up at home the last week of March instead of in Fort Myers, Fla., near the training grounds of the Minnesota Twins and their Double-A affiliates, the New Britain Rock Cats.

I miss the perfect mornings when the bronzed young men jog out to the pristine minor league complex adjacent to majestic Hammond Stadium, the beautiful facility that houses major league camp and the Twins’ Class A team, the Fort Myers Miracle. How perfect that name. There is something miraculous about Southwest Florida. In some ways it does seem like it’s a little closer to heaven.

Four diamonds fan out from a three-story tower where the Twins’ administrative hierarchy can oversee everything that happens.

On one field, the Rock Cats-to-be work out and play an early afternoon game against similar competition that trains in the region. The Red Sox are right across town. The Orioles aren’t far away nor are the Pirates.

On another field, you have the Triple-A team, composed largely of players whose big league dreams have been temporarily – or permanently – derailed. I remember one spring when my dear friend and former Rock Cats manager Stan Cliburn had to lecture a young Triple-A outfielder dismayed by the trauma of being optioned to the minors.

Cliburn’s discourse was poignant and brilliantly mixed with equal parts of human compassion, baseball reality and the charm of the southern gentleman that characterizes the native of Jackson, Miss. Ex-Rock Cat Denard Span is now a Twins staple as leadoff hitter/centerfielder.

The third field features the newest professionals, bound for the lowest echelons of minor league baseball, where glory and attendance are rare commodities and dues must be paid.

The fourth diamond has no outfield – a perfectly manicured infield with a fence five feet beyond the skin portion. I’ve often talked to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor there after watching him bang grounders at infield hopefuls, stressing the fundamentals that made him one of the greatest players of his time whom few around here know about because he never played in New York or Boston.

Atop the tower, you’d find the inimitable Jim Rantz, the Twins minor league director who has been with the franchise since it moved to the Twin Cities from Washington, D.C., in 1961 and he was a pitching prospect.

Few people live to have the unique pleasure of witnessing the tributes that have rightfully been bestowed on Mr. Rantz. Since 2002, the Jim Rantz Award has gone to the top minor league pitcher in the system. All nine recipients have pitched for New Britain, including the most recent honoree Kyle Gibson, the rangy right-hander who surely will be the object of fantasy baseball devotees before long.

Mr. Rantz is benevolent, kind and a frequent visitor to New Britain Stadium.

One time about 10 years ago, I tossed my computer bag in the back of my minivan as a headed to the stadium. As I was driving, I heard a voice. I was able to distinguish it as the soft, thoughtful tone of Mr. Rantz.

Divine intervention? It very well could have been, but in this case, my computer bag had landed in such a way that set off my tape recorder.

The Rock Cats manager is Jeff Smith. Talk about kindness and benevolence, I know Jeff didn’t invent the traits but he ranks among the finest baseball gentlemen I’ve ever met.

As a player in New Britain for parts of six seasons, Smitty did everything he could to endear himself to the people of the region. He visited hospitals and read to children. He took the time to encourage the elderly in nursing homes. He was a regular at Klingberg Family Center, the stately facility on the hill in the center of New Britain that does wonderful things for youngsters in need.

As manager, Smith and the Twins expect no less of the players, and they respond with selflessness. Many a central Connecticut native will recall spending time with the likes of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, the heart of the Twins’ batting order these days.

Springtime in Fort Myers was always my time to reminisce with them and others who I befriended in my 30 years around the world’s most exquisite game. I knew I would miss that and I knew the most difficult moments would come as opening day grew close.

When it comes to the milk of human kindness, the Twins are the cream of the crop. That’s one reason why Rock Cats owner/general manager/president/patron saint Bill Dowling relishes a partnership that does not include the Red Sox, the team he rooted for passionately growing up in Holyoke, Mass., or the Yankees, for whom he worked as general counsel.

Spring training has come and gone, and I’ve missed it dearly. I take solace in the fact that nothing will keep me from frequenting my perch in the New Britain Stadium press box just as often as I can as the 2011 season plays out.

Friday, April 1, 2011

2011 ROCK CATS ROSTER SET

(Rock Cats press release)

New Britain, CT – The Opening Day edition of the 2011 New Britain Rock Cats has been assembled in Florida and on Monday morning, the group will be arriving at their summer home in Connecticut.

Returning manager Jeff Smith and his players – 20 returnees and seven promising rookies - are ready to begin the franchise’s 39th consecutive season of professional baseball in the Nutmeg State. The Eastern League club will open their new baseball season at 7:05 p.m. next Thursday night (4/7) in Richmond, Virginia. The home opener is slated for Thursday, April 14, at 6:05 p.m.

The Rock Cats’ 2011 Opening Day roster contains a veteran presence that had been missing in recent years, when the New Britain team was consistently among the youngest in the historic baseball circuit. Indeed, of the 27 players starting the new campaign in the Hardware City, 20 are returnees who have previously performed in a New Britain uniform.

One returnee, 23-year-old 1B Chris Parmelee, was Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2006 while another, 23-year-old slugging OF Joe Benson, was named Minnesota’s 2010 Minor League Player of the Year. Baseball America ranks Benson the #4 Prospect in the entire Twins system and the sweet-swinging Parmelee, #18.

Other top prospects en route to Connecticut include three highly-regarded right-handed pitchers: 22-year-Liam Hendriks (ranked #6 by BA), 23-year-old David Bromberg (#13), and 23-year-old Bobby Lanigan (#31). Joining them will be a rookie and the pride of Danbury High and the University of Connecticut - 6’8” lefthander Michael Tarsi. The Twins selected Tarsi out of Storrs in the 2007 draft and he’ll soon be making his Double-A debut.

Other key returnees to the Rock Cats include 21-year-old RHP Deolis Guerra – a 2010 EL All-Star – and 23-year-old LHP Tyler Robertson, who led the 2010 club in starts (27), innings (144.2) and strikeouts (91). While Guerra is penciled in as a starter, the 6’6 Robertson likely will be working out of the bullpen.

Additional players include veteran catchers Danny Lehmann, Jair Fernandez and Allan de san Miguel. Fernandez will start the year on the disabled list.

In addition to Parmelee, five infielders who previously performed in Rock Cats uniforms will also be back in 2011. They are Chris Cates, Estarlin de los Santos, the versatile Toby Gardenhire, Yangervis Solarte and Steve Singleton. Both de los Santos and Gardenhire – the winner of the Rock Cats 2008 10th Player Award – will start the new season on the DL.

Coming to New Britain for the first time are four veteran players who were acquired by Minnesota after they had performed in other organizations. This group includes RHP Brett Jacobson, a 6’6 reliever acquired via trade with Baltimore,

LHP Jake Stevens, a bullpen specialist was signed away from San Francisco. Infielders Ray Chang, a 2010 EL All-Star with Portland who signed as a free agent, and Mike Hollimon, a middle infielder who has MLB time with Detroit, give the Rock Cats veterans they generally lack.

Along with Tarsi, another rookie who will be debuting in New Britain this season is infielder Deibinson Romero, a highly touted prospect who is now healthy after suffering a series of leg injuries.

The complete 2011 Opening Day roster:

PITCHERS (12): RHP Santos Arias, RHP David Bromberg, RHP Cole Devries, RHP Deolis Guerra, RHP Liam Hendriks, RHP Steve Hirschfeld, RHP Brett Jacobson, RHP Bobby Lanigan, LHP Tyler Robertson, LHP Spencer Steedley, LHP Jake Stevens, LHP Michael Tarsi.


CATCHERS (3): Allan de san Miguel, Jair Fernandez (DL), Danny Lehmann.


INFIELDERS (9): Chris Cates, Ray Chang, Estarlin de los Santos (DL), Toby Gardenhire (DL), Mike Hollimon, Chris Parmelee, Deibinson Romero, Steve Singleton, Yangervis Solarte.
OUTFIELDERS (3): Joe Benson, Evan Bigley, and Mark Dolenc.

The 24-year-old Bigley was impressive as a late-season call-up last year, batting .336 with nine doubles, four homers and 15 RBI in just 27 games. The versatile Dolenc contributed in several different ways and won the Rock Cats 2010 10th Player Award.