Saturday, May 21, 2011


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


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 CafĂ©, 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


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


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.