By most standards, the 2010 New Britain Rock Cats season would elicit the kind of reaction that no manager or organization would want to endure.
The team finished with a franchise-worst 44-98 record, which ranked it on the bottom rung in all of affiliated baseball let alone the Eastern League.
But before history passes judgment on the team, that history must be allowed to play out, and that’s why manager Jeff Smith gets high grades from the parent Minnesota Twins and has high expectations for 2011.
One of his players – outfielder Ben Revere – even made the jump from the Double-A EL right past Triple-A and directly into the American League Central pennant race. Smith delivered the good news to Revere in what he called his high point of last season.
Others like right-handed hurler Kyle Gibson had successful Triple-A forays and are knocking on the door of their big league indoctrinations. Gibson was the Twins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
And leave us not forget that the Rock Cats attracted a franchise-best 368,523, or 5,500 per opening. No matter what the Cats do on the field, the attraction of high-level baseball at an affordable price with trimmings for the entire family has struck a chord with Connecticut and Western Massachusetts.
Attendance and the continued flow of the Twins’ exceptional player development machine made a .310 winning percentage less of a factor, based on the smiles sported by Smith and the Rock Cats’ staff led by president and CEO Bill Dowling at the Wood-n-Tap in Hartford Feb. 16.
“We’ve now sold 115,000 tickets (for 2011), which is a 15,000 increase from last year and we’re shooting to get in the neighborhood of 170 to 175,000 by opening day and I think we’ll be able to do it,” Dowling said. “It’s been a great offseason for us. …
“It seems to keep on going and going and going. We seem to be like the Energizer bunny. At the end of every season, we say to ourselves, ‘God, can this happen again?’ and for the last five years we’ve drawn over 300,000 and over 350,000 for the last three. The indications are that this will be another banner year.”
Smith said that he blocked last year’s record out on Jan. 1.
“I’m a person who does not look back,” said Smith, summing up 2010 as an adversity-builds-character experience for his young team. “I like to look forward and that’s why I’m so excited about 2011 and the players are the same way.”
Smith expects Twins Minor League Player of the Year, outfielder Joe Benson, to be a leader on the 2011 squad. Benson and Gibson will be in major league camp for spring training. So will Revere, Rock Cats outfielder/first baseman Chris Parmelee and right-hander Carlos Gutierrez.
“We’ll be well-represented by last year’s New Britain team and other guys who have played here in the past,” said Smith, giving the only forecast he could with spring training holding all the answers.
The minor leaguers report to Fort Myers, Fla., March 11.
Smith said the Twins went against their grain in signing minor league free agents, which should strengthen the organization’s base.
“It keeps the guys who you saw develop and become better ballplayers will be right here in New Britain,” he said. “I always think the second year in Double-A, the league starts to slow down a little bit, the pitching looks a little easier, you’re a little more mature, you’ve gained from adversity. We’ll see a lot of repeat guys here.”
The team comes to New Britain April 4 for its annual Elks Club benefit dinner and media day workout before embarking on a road trip to Richmond and Harrisburg. The home opener is slated for April 14 at 6:05 p.m.
Pitching coach Stu Cliburn returns for his 10th season in New Britain. Former Angels and Red Sox slugger Tom Brunansky will serve his first season as hitting coach.