I covered the New Britain Rock Cats for 15 years, so many people have asked me about the team’s impending sale.
It came as a total surprise to me. I’ll bet I would have heard some rumblings in the past, but I am no longer in the loop there, primarily because life’s challenges, both personal and professional, have me focused elsewhere. I haven’t received responses to my phone calls and emails, which had more of a let’s-keep-in-touch nature than professional undertones. I understand. People are too busy for calls non-essential to business these days.
I know management has had some headaches, some of the more tempestuous ones involving New Britain Stadium’s overlord, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. But confrontational issues between tenant and landlord are as common as a ground ball to shortstop.
The financial condition of the Rock Cats is an issue that was rarely discussed during my years covering the team. Any questions I had were rebuffed in a good-natured, change-the-subject way, and I come from a generation that respects that sort of information as private.
Suffice it to say that the Rock Cats’ sales force worked extremely hard and turned out results that had turnstiles whirring at a ratio that had about 90 percent of the seats filled on a seasonal basis. Attendance grew every year, if not the total than the per-game numbers. A waiting line formed for businesses requesting billboards on the outfield wall and in the stadium concourse.
Rock Cats are also quick to give back to the community and spent many hours forming and promoting the Rock Cats Foundation, the team’s charitable arm that has had far-reaching effects throughout central Connecticut. Players and popular mascot Rocky were always made available for promotions. Even as I write, the Rock Cats are handing out free coffee, donuts, hot dogs and soft drinks at their annual FanFest.
So why the decision was made to sell the team I wouldn’t know. I know just what I’ve read. If reports are accurate, I’m extremely pleased that Bill Dowling will retain a portion of the team and stay on for two more seasons as a consultant. What he's done in New Britain goes down in history as the state's most successful professional sports franchise ever.
I have received a few short emails from Jeff Dooley, the Rock Cats’ affable and meticulous director of broadcasting, and his role with the team will continue. They’d hate to lose Dooley, a guy who’s built nothing but goodwill since arriving on the scene in 1998.
Perhaps the best news of all for the team and its fans is that John Willi is returning as general manager. Willi, a former Eastern League Executive of the Year, is a savvy administrator. He left in 2010 to join the DSF Group, a company that operates the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and several other minor league franchises.
Initial reports said DSF would be purchasing the Rock Cats but to the best of my knowledge, one entity cannot own two teams in the same league. But I'm not naive enough to discount loopholes. According to a report published in the Hartford Courant, a Rock Cats spokesman indicated that new ownership has New England ties. Perhaps Willi has put together a new investment group. I have not spoken to him but chances are he wanted to return to central Connecticut to work because he and his family still live in Cheshire.
The Rock Cats’ sales force purred under Willi’s firm but fair hand.
2 BIG QUESTIONS: Here are the questions that I would ask if I was still working for a living.
1) Will the Rock Cats retain their association with the Minnesota Twins or will new management seek out ties to an MLB team with more local appeal?
2) Will the Rock Cats franchise remain in New Britain?
Here are some mitigating consequences that could come into play.
EL IN OTTAWA? Canada’s capital city, is in the process of constructing a new facility and according to ballparkdigest.com will have an Eastern League team in 2013. According to a February report in Newsday, an Ottawa spokesman said the Binghamton Mets would be the one. The B-Mets, EL players since 1992, have foundered at the box office in an area that has been hard-hit by the economy.
Should the franchise bolt to Canada, the Mets would likely switch their affiliation, and the author of the Newsday article speculates that New Britain would be a likely landing point for their Double-A team. Willi, a native of Long Island, attended SUNY-Binghamton and worked in the B-Mets’ front office before his first go-round in New Britain. It’s sound speculation, if deductive reasoning holds any weight.
Should the Binghamton franchise relocate to Ottawa, the new team surely would attempt to forge an affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays currently supply talent to the Fisher Cats. The Fisher Cats would sell their tails to a taxidermist to gain an affiliation with the Red Sox, but the Portland Sea Dogs didn’t build a replica of the Green Monster at Hadlock Field with the intent of losing New England’s darlings.
Meanwhile, the Rock Cats have had a wonderful relationship with the Minnesota Twins since 1995. To a person, the Twins have been an amiable group, but the Rock Cats are reminded constantly that they’re not the Yankees, they’re not the Red Sox and they’re not the Mets.
Could the Mets be on their way, and even if they are, that won’t appease the Yankees-Red Sox delegation. From a business standpoint, I have my doubts whether that would add anything to the attendance figures. It wouldn’t hurt from a public relations perspective though. The Rock Cats would love some additional coverage in the New York media.
WILL TEAM STAY? What is the viability of New Britain as an Eastern League locale in the long-term?
How will the change in the mayor’s office from Tim Stewart (R) to Tim O’Brien (D) affect the relationship? Will a better deal surface elsewhere due to what people on both sides have depicted as a frayed relationship between the team and the Parks and Rec Department?
I wonder if Hartford would ever consider making up for lost time by building a stadium?
New Britain failed to hold onto the CIAC soccer championships and has never been a player in the scholastic baseball championships despite Willow Brook Park’s centralized location and the availability of two quality facilities. I’ve been told the cost of doing business there is too dear.
WHAT ABOUT NEW HAMPSHIRE? How about the possibility of this scenario?
If Binghamton should stay put and Ottawa already has or does get its EL club, would the New Hampshire franchise opt for the Great White North with New Britain filling the hole in the Granite State?
The beautiful new stadium in Manchester – once called Merchantsauto.com Stadium and now known as Northeast Delta Dental Stadium (say that five times fast) – certainly has better amenities than New Britain Stadium, which has been in need of an infrastructural facelift for a few years now.
The article in ballparkdigest.com contained a press release from the city of Ottawa which stated, “Staff today (February 10) tabled a report …, which recommends that the City negotiate a long-term lease for the use of the stadium with Beacon Sports Capital Partners as the authorized representative for a stipulated professional baseball franchise that is a member of the AA Eastern League of Minor League Baseball. This could potentially mean the return of AA baseball to Ottawa as early as the spring of 2013.”
Are those the New England ties that were referred to the Courant by a source said to be a team spokesman? The ballparkdigest.com article said Beacon Sports Capital Partners is Boston-based.
A Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin blog released statements from the B-Mets that the club hasn’t been sold, hasn’t even been contacted about selling and thus isn’t moving. An interview with Eastern League President Joe McEacharn on the website offered the following quote:
"It's fair to say that the league is involved in an exploratory process to make a determination on whether Ottawa is a good fit for the Eastern League. We have not made a decision, nobody has asked to relocate, we're not even considering a club moving there. What we're trying to make a determination on is if Ottawa fits and will improve the Eastern League.”
So it’s plain to see that lots of stuff is going on behind closed doors leaving speculation our only avenue. But does that avenue intersect with South Main Street and John Karbonic Way? It’s all guesswork at this juncture.