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Devotees bid adieu to beloved Rock Cats

New Britain stalwarts recall three-plus decades of Double-A baseball
September 2, 2015

Ben's BizAll good things must come to an end. On Sunday, the New Britain Rock Cats took their time getting there.

In their last-ever game at New Britain Stadium, the Rock Cats squandered a veritable boatload of late-inning scoring opportunities before finally, mercifully, prevailing over the Portland Sea Dogs, 7-5, in a 15-inning marathon contest. Jordan Patterson's walk-off home run was the last swing of the bat that fans will ever see from the Rock Cats, since, in 2016, the Double-A Eastern League franchise is set to relocate 11 miles to the northeast and assume a new identity as the Hartford Yard Goats

Sunday, then, was a day to see old friends and revel in long-established routines. 

One last time.

Eastern League baseball got its start in New Britain in 1983 after Boston's Double-A affiliate relocated there from nearby Bristol. From that debut season through 1995, the team played at no-frills Beehive Field, a comparatively miniscule facility still standing in the shadow of 8,000-capacity New Britain Stadium. Through the 33 seasons spent at these two parks, the franchise has gone through three affiliations (Boston, Minnesota, Colorado) and as many names (New Britain Red Sox, Hardware City Rock Cats, New Britain Rock Cats). 

Al Nelson, an 88-year-old World War II veteran and retired firefighter, has been there through it all. He lives two miles from the ballpark and Sunday as always, rode his bike to the afternoon contest. (He won't ride at night, he explained, because "you can't find the potholes.") Nelson, who has his name engraved on his first-row bleacher seat, is the unofficial mayor of the ballpark. From his familiar perch, he greeted a steady stream of well-wishers as they filed past him on the concourse. 


• Read more about Ben's visit to New Britain on the Biz Blog »


Many fans shook Nelson's hand, some asked him to sign that day's edition of the Hartford Courant (he was on the front page), and one young woman asked him to pose with her for a selfie. "What the hell's a selfie?" Nelson asked good-naturedly before consenting to this new life experience. With the possible exception of rehabbing Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau (a Rock Cat from 2001 through 2003), he was the most popular and sought-after man in the ballpark.  

"I could say it's the seat," said Nelson as to why Rock Cats games have always been so appealing to him. "I've been sitting here since they built it. The whole nice part of this is the people. I always got along with the people. … And the owner, Bill Dowling, he'd come see me every night. He'd stand right here [on the concourse]. 'Hi Al, where's your girlfriend?' Every time."

Dowling was the face of the franchise from 2000 until selling the team in 2012. The new ownership group, led by Josh Solomon, wasted little time clearing a path to Hartford. Just don't expect to see Nelson wearing a Yard Goats cap anytime soon. 

"I'm not going over there," he said. "For one thing, they don't have a parking lot. You're gonna park in a garage or something? It's not gonna be good. I'm not walking around Hartford at 10:00 at night. I'm not gonna feel safe. I'm not going to have any wheels when I get back. Where the [heck's] my tires?"

Not all New Britain Stadium stalwarts were taking such a hardline approach. 

"[Yard Goats] is going to take a little getting used to, but I guess it's selling well online from what I hear," said Larry Michaels, the team's longtime scoreboard operator. "Certain people, you hear a lot of negativity if you talk to them. 'I'm not going there.' 'It's a stupid name.' This and that. But, hey, that's the Minor Leagues today. We've got the Akron RubberDucks, we've got the [Richmond] Flying Squirrels, so what's the difference?"

mascot
New Britain mascot Rocky waves to fans in his final game with the Rock Cats. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

Michaels is old enough to remember the last time Connecticut's capital city had a Minor League team -- his father would take him to see the Hartford Chiefs play at old Bulkeley Stadium. The Chiefs, an Eastern League franchise, played their last season in 1952. Some 31 years later, Michaels would become an avid supporter of New Britain baseball.

"They started over here in '83," said Michaels, referring to the Eastern League's debut season in New Britain. "And the first two years I went to a lot of games. So my wife finally said to me, 'Why don't you go down there and ask them for a job? You go to so many ballgames.' So I did."

Prior to the 1985 season, Michaels secured a job as an usher -- or, as he puts it, "the usher." Beehive Stadium was predominantly bleacher seating, so the team really only needed one. That job didn't last long, however, since Michaels was soon recruited to work the scoreboard. 

"They had a press box down the third base side. It was like a trailer on stilts," he said. "I walk in and there's a console, big archaic thing, phone dials on it for the batters. [The general manager] says, 'Hey, you're a college grad. You can figure that out.' And he left. So that was my training."

Thirty years later, Michaels is still operating the scoreboard. On Sunday, he was wearing a watch commemorating the Rock Cats 2001 season, highlighted by what he believes was the most memorable moment in New Britain Stadium history. Jeff Dooley, the voice of the Rock Cats since 1998, would agree. It occurred during Game 1 of a semifinal playoff series against the Norwich Navigators. 

"I think one of the biggest home runs the Rock Cats have ever hit was Michael Cuddyer's walk-off home run in 2001 against Domingo Jean," said Dooley. "[Jean] had pitched for the Yankees before, and of course Cuddyer going on to do what he's done in the Major Leagues is pretty impressive. It's still one of the biggest home runs the Rock Cats have ever hit, just because it was a playoff game."

walk off
New Britain's Jordan Patterson is mobbed by teammates after he hit a walk-off home run Sunday. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

Cuddyer's clutch home run clinched the series, sending the Rock Cats to the Eastern League finals versus the Reading Phillies. Game one was scheduled for Sept. 11, but the tragic events of that day led to the series being canceled and the teams involved being declared co-champs. The Rock Cats never again won a playoff series. 

*  *  *

But for fans of the Rock Cats -- or any team -- the infinite possibility that exists within each and every game is what keeps them coming back. Down on the concourse, standing behind home plate, Doug Kern could be found keeping score at a Rock Cats game for the 229th -- and final -- time. Sunday's epic win gave the Rock Cats a 116-113 record in the games that Kern attended, going back to the 1999 season.  

"I actually have the scoresheet from that first game," said Kern, unveiling a meticulous, albeit coffee-stained, document of the contest. "[The Rock Cats] were playing the Trenton Thunder, which was the Red Sox [affiliate] at the time. Tomo Ohka pitched; Shea Hillebrand got ejected."

Kern, who still has his ticket stub from Game 1 of the 2001 Eastern League Finals that never was, has traveled the country extensively via a series of stadium road trips. But, to him, there's no place like New Britain Stadium. 

"189 ballparks later, this is still home," he said. 

*  *  *

It was home for many people, and Sunday was the final farewell.

"It's bittersweet, it really is," said Patrick O'Sullivan, who spent four seasons as a Rock Cats community relations and media manager. "This place is what [the fans] grew up with and possibly where they now bring their kids to. ... It's been synonymous with something that Connecticut has on its own. There's a lot of Yankees fan, Red Sox fans, Mets fans here, but Rock Cats has been a Connecticut exclusive."

first pitches
MiLB.com's Benjamin Hill and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers threw out ceremonial first pitches. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

"I'm gonna miss this place, naturally," said Michaels as he prepared to man the scoreboard for the final time. "I've been here the 20 years that the park's been in existence, and I've gotten quite comfortable here. But I'll keep rolling with it and see what happens in Hartford."

Nelson, of course, will not roll on to Hartford. He's hoping New Britain Stadium will find a new lease on life and begin hosting independent league baseball, a development that would allow him to hop on his bike and once again pedal that familiar path to the ballpark. But on Sunday, Nelson was mourning what had been lost. 

"I feel sadness," he said. "It used to be, every year when September came, I would know that next season was coming."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.