The power that nostalgia holds over me was palpable Saturday as I parked my truck in the New Britain Stadium press lot.
For 15 years, I covered the New Britain Rock Cats like they were a major-league team. For the better part of 40 years, I was active as either an administrator or a sports writer in the ballparks of the Eastern League. I watched the Double-A circuit graduate from small, dingy ballparks in smaller towns or in the seedy section of cities to the grand palaces like New Britain Stadium, where a family can enjoy a night of merriment without any concern for safety, without spending a fortune.
Everything looked just as I had left it. Former co-owner/president/general manager Bill Dowling, who will go down in history as the founding father of the state’s most successful professional sports franchise to date, was conspicuous by his absence. Dowling, supremely dedicated to his patrons, was a fixture in the portal from the concourse to the first-base side of home plate. He remains a consultant, but only attends games occasionally. His contribution to the welfare of New Britain must never be overlooked.
Who better to replace Dowling in the GM’s chair than John Willi, his disciple for nearly a decade? Willi left the team for a year, but returns with the Dowlingesque passion for the fan and the community.
The weather is spectacular. The Rock Cats, two years removed from the embarrassment of a 44-98 season in 2010, are playing representative baseball. Manager Jeff Smith, one of the most popular players during his playing days in New Britain, guides the young Minnesota Twins protégés with a firm but friendly hand. His wife Ronna and young sons Cutter and Cooper have become part of the culture. The boys can’t wait to don their gloves. They worked on their double-play turn around the keystone bag after the teams hit the showers.
The grandstands are packed. The Rock Cats announce their ninth sellout of the season and second in two days. Summer weekends that attract over 20,000 people to the city have become the norm. Here’s a comparative statistic to chew on a spell: the 1988 New Britain Red Sox drew under 80,000 to outmoded Beehive Field, which stands next door.
People congregate in front of the stadium dubbed “The Emerald of the Eastern League” because of its distinctive green façade. A band plays familiar tunes. People line up at the ticket windows and gleefully distribute their bounty to families and friends, anticipating a relaxing evening where the kids can safely romp in a well-supervised playground, cold adult beverages flow freely and the enticing aroma of barbecuing meats satiate the air.
Just like I hadn’t missed a day, I greet some familiar people and make my way to my former auxiliary office, the press box. Radio announcer Jeff Dooley flashes by as he prepares for his broadcast. Venerable scoreboard operator Larry Michaels has seen almost as many innings in Willow Brook Park as Vin Scully has in Dodger Stadium.
A new group of youngsters, determined to forge careers in professional baseball, buzz around in every capacity of support. As Willi notes, he has seen groups of dedicated employees come and go. His new management group took the reins at a late date in terms of season preparation and his roster underwent more sweeping change, but newcomers like media assistant Patrick O’Sullivan and box office manager Josh Montinieri blend magnificently with the “old guard” – behind-the-scenes stalwarts like community relations mavens Lori Soltys and Amy Helbling.
The relationship between the Rock Cats and Twins continues to prosper fruitfully.
The Twins have fallen on some hard times in terms of player development and their resultant standing in the American League Central Division. The flow of high-level prospects moving through like Torii Hunter (1996-98), Joe Mauer (2003), Justin Morneau (2001-03), Michael Cuddyer (2000-01), Jason Kubel (2004) and more recently Denard Span (2005-06), has slowed to a trickle.
The Twins rely heavily on player development. They are reluctant to engage in the high-priced free agent derby, and painfully have been unable to lock up their own. Cuddyer and Kubel rejected the team’s advances over last winter and signed with Colorado and Arizona respectively. Consequently, the Twins put a heavy emphasis on what happens in New Britain and management is almost always represented at Rock Cats games.
I am fortunate that my visit coincides with that of long-time friend Bill Smith. Bill Smith and I go back to the early 1980s when I was general manager of the White Sox’ Double-A team and he was in the same slot at Class A Appleton, Wisc.
Bill was presented the opportunity to become the Twins’ general manager when his decorated predecessor Terry Ryan opted to focus more on the scouting end of the business. Like so many GMs, Bill was relieved of his duties, but his deep loyalty to the Twins, and theirs to him, has him back in a consulting position. He’s a New Hampshire boy by birth, but grew up in Ledyard where he still has family. Talking baseball with Bill Smith is like talking religion with an archbishop.
The most uplifting facet of the evening was reconnecting with former Rock Cats manager Riccardo Ingram (2006-07).
The good-natured, always positive Ingram faced his own mortality when he was confronted with a cancerous brain tumor in the summer of 2008. He sports a significant scar on the top of his head, but his faith through the whole ordeal was unshakeable. He is in good health and commutes between New Britain and Triple-A Rochester as a minor league hitting instructor.
Pitching coach Stu Cliburn is in his 11th season in New Britain, qualifying him as an adopted son. He spent a couple seasons (2006-08) in Triple-A Rochester when his twin brother Stan (Rock Cats manager from 2001-05) was managing the Red Wings, but like the prodigal son, he returned to his familiar post in the New Britain bullpen.
One of my goals in life is to sit through a game on television – a time when Stu isn’t working – to have him evaluate and analyze the art to which he’s dedicated his life. There is so much about pitching that even the most avid baseball enthusiast (and so many baseball writers) don’t comprehend.
The game moves forward. The Rock Cats, leaders in the Eastern Division for a large chunk of April and May, show a disturbing trend of failing to hit in the clutch, the plague of so many slumping ballclubs. They drop a 4-1 decision to the Erie Seawolves and fall closer to the .500 mark.Jeff Smith can’t offer an explanation. A multitude of Hall-of-Fame managers before him couldn’t either. The nuances of a game played daily are that fortunes rise and fall, just like everything else that contains a human fingerprint. The constants – symmetry, tradition and color – are reasons why I’ll shed the depression of not having it as a daily routine and continue going back for reinvigoration.