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 Prior to their birth in 1995, Red Sox prospects roamed adjacent, outdated Beehive Stadium.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.

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