Friday, March 30, 2012

BUSINESS AS USUAL FOR ROCK CATS

The atmosphere at New Britain Stadium has a bright and breezy feel.

The early spring weather has the grass looking lush. The walls along the stadium concourse have been spruced up in patriotic blue, red and white. An alternate uniform and cap show traces of baseball tradition.

But the upbeat nature in the Land of the Rock Cats has much more than just some superficial alterations. The era ushered in by the omnipresent Bill Dowling and his local partner Coleman B. Levy has run a fruitful course. Their investment group has sold the team to the DSF Group, a Boston-based commercial and residential real estate investment group led by its president Josh Solomon.

Solomon’s father Arthur owns the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. The group will be doing business as New Britain Double Play, LLC.

Rock Cats fans will notice quickly that the familiarity of the Dowling-Levy regime won’t be diminishing anytime soon. Dowling, who retains a portion of the team, is slated to spend two years as a consultant, and he’ll be consulting his old Rock Cats confidante John Willi.

Willi, now the Rock Cats’ president and general manager, spent 11 years working for the team before departing for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2010. Along the way, Willi, 36, was chosen as Eastern League Executive of the Year in for 2009 and selected by the Hartford Business Journal for its “40 under 40” list, distinguishing him as one of Greater Hartford’s top 40 business executives under 40-years-old.

Obviously I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a Rock Cat again, especially under these circumstances,” Willi said. “This franchise has such a strong reputation, following and incredible people, which separates it from other organizations.

“Our plan is to build upon all the incredible things we were able to do in the past. We obviously have an infusion of new energy and we want to put that toward community outreach, customer service, game experience and the overall value of coming to a Rock Cats game.”

Solomon and Willi were on hand in the Stadium Club Thursday to formally announce the change in an ownership changes that was about nine months in the making, and to elaborate on plans for the future. The New Britain Parks and Recreation Department, partners with the Rock Cats in maintaining the facility, was also present in force. Chairman Angelo D’Alfonso publicly welcomed the new management team.

"This is a wonderful show of support for the new ownership, particularly for John Willi,” said Dowling, who found the circumstances to be “bittersweet.”

“I’ve had 12 wonderful years with the Rock Cats. When we decided to sell the team we obviously were concerned about finding the right kind of buyers to keep the team in New Britain and continue the family-friendly entertainment that the Rock Cats have become known for over the years.”

Solomon came across reflecting amicability akin to that of Dowling, whose relationship with fans has always served as a manifestation of the Rock Cats’ extensive civic contributions. New Britain Double Play includes his siblings Jim and Jennifer Goorno.

“[Dowling’s] commitment to the community and entertainment seemed to really be in line with myself and my siblings,” said Solomon, who lives with his wife and their four children ranging from 4 to 13-years-old in Sudbury, Mass.

Solomon and his siblings, witnessing the joy that minor league baseball ownership brought their father, sought a team of their own in the region.

“It’s one of the main reasons in my sister, my brother and me had an interest in owning a minor league team,” he said. “We look to have the same joy, fun and excitement that he’s had, and we’ll have a little rivalry, too.”

He cited the interaction between fans and ballplayers at the minor league level as an attraction that the Rock Cats seek to build upon.

It was an emotional day for Dowling.

“This was a very bittersweet moment in a lot of ways for me,” he said. “After running this franchise for 12 years and putting my heart and soul into it – I probably missed six games over 12 years – it’s tough to give up the culture and the lifestyle.”

Dowling said the investors felt the time was right to put the team on the market.

“Josh Solomon and his group came along and I’m convinced that they’re committed to keeping the team in New Britain and also carry on the same fan-friendly culture that we managed to instill here,” Dowling said. “Bittersweet, but on the other hand, I’m at certain age in my life where I’ve got one more big push left and I want to figure out what that is. I’m not going to retire. I’ll be here for the next couple of years. I’ll be a consultant. I’ve got a little investment in the team and I’ll be the ultimate baseball authority for the next couple of years.

“It’s a little bit painful but life goes on and we’ll see what the next couple of months bring.”
History likely will validate Dowling as a savior for minor league baseball in the city. Under his guidance, attendance jumped from an EL-worst 181,643 in 1998 to 363,759 last season.

Willi’s year away from New Britain was spent as vice president of DSF Sports, which operates the Class A Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods in addition to the Fisher Cats. Jeff Garner, former assistant general manager of the EL’s Altoona Curve, joins the management team as the executive vice president. Ricky Ferrell, who has been in the Rock Cats’ front office for seven years, has been promoted to vice president of ticket sales.

Willi also announced that the team has forged a new radio deal with Fox Sports 1410 WPOP. The station, operated by Clear Channel Media & Entertainment Hartford/New Haven, will air most home games. All home games will be streamed live on www.foxsportsradio1410.com and aired in high definition on ESPN 97.9 HD2.

Road games can be heard on WMRD 1150 out of Middletown and WLIS 1420 out of Old Saybrook.
Jeff Dooley, the Eastern League’s longest tenured broadcaster, returns for his 15th season.

The Rock Cats open their 30th season in the city at home April 6.

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