On the Road: A slam dunk in Hartford

After initial tumult, Yard Goats' park emerges as one of MiLB's best

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | August 11, 2017 10:15 AM ET

It certainly wasn't easy. 

In 2015, the Eastern League's New Britain Rock Cats played their final season before moving to Hartford and changing their name to the Yard Goats. In 2017, Dunkin' Donuts Park opened its doors in Connecticut's capital city.

In between, Hartford's fledgling franchise endured a tumultuous 2016. Severe funding shortfalls, and subsequent disputes between the city of Hartford and the development company overseeing the construction of the park, resulted in the Yard Goats having to spend the entire season on the road. 

The fallout from that situation will continue to play out in the courts, and it remains to be seen how it will effect larger development projects in the area surrounding the ballpark. But for Yard Goats players, front office and fans, 2017 has been a season of redemption.

Dunkin' Donuts Park is, quite simply, one of the most impressive new facilities in Minor League Baseball.

The Yard Goats' home is located downtown, at Trumbull and Main streets. It's a comparatively desolate area, however, as Interstate 84 separates the ballpark from downtown Hartford's more prominent buildings. As is the case with so many new ballparks, Dunkin' Donuts Park is considered the centerpiece of a larger revitalization plan.

The main entrance to the ballpark is located down the right field line; if one were to walk in a straight line upon entering, one would (more or less) reach first base. Once inside, the views are striking. Dunkin' Donuts Park, designed by the Kansas City, Missouri-based architectural firm Pendulum, was built on a sloping site and certain portions are below street level. It feels far more spacious on the inside than the brick and glass-paneled exterior would indicate, leading to a surprisingly positive first impression. And once inside, the average fan will notice few, if any, of the compromises that were made as the stadium rushed toward completion prior to this season. 

"We compromised the back end for the front end, prioritizing the player and fan experience," said Yard Goats assistant general manager Mike Abramson, noting that front offices, storage space and the press box (shaded up the third base line) are elements still in need of improvement. 

The press box is on the lower level, accessible from the concourse. The upper level is dominated by the YG Club, a premium space for season-ticket and suite holders and which can be rented year-round for other events. 

The above photo, taken from one of the ballpark's 18 suites, includes views of some of Dunkin' Donuts Park's more intriguing elements. Bear's Smokehouse BBQ, located to the left of the left field foul pole, is the newest incarnation of a popular Hartford-based restaurant. 

"Getting Bear's here was a coup," said Abramson. "It instantly made us that much cooler." 

A giant Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup is located atop the scoreboard. After suffering through a few early season malfunctions, the cup now reliably shoots out steam following every Yard Goats home run.

Moving toward center field, one can see the Yard Goats' two retired numbers on the far right and left hand sides of the centerfield wall: Jackie Robinson's No. 42 is a given -- it's been retired throughout Minor and Major League Baseball -- but the Yard Goats have also retired Roberto Clemente's No. 21. This is a nod, at least in part, to Hartford's large Hispanic population (43 percent, per the 2010 census). The Yard Goats broadcast all of their games in Spanish via New Britain's 1120 AM, with the father-son team of Danny and Derik Rodriguez calling the action. 

Above center field sits the Budweiser Sky Bar, a congregating spot for younger (and often rowdier fans). There are then two tiers of right field seats, with the lower seats providing an interesting, though not entirely ideal, view: nothing but net. 

Balls that hit the right field net are in play; the netting was installed after Minor League Baseball officials determined that otherwise home runs would be too easy to come by. Dunkin Donuts Park's small footprint has led to small field dimensions, and it's only 308 feet down the right-field line. 

2017 Road Trip

But Dunkin' Donuts Park provides plenty of unobstructed views, and often in surprising ways. The home bullpen is visible from the outside of the ballpark, giving fans the chance to watch the pitcher warm up before they've even entered the ballpark (the visitor's bullpen, located amid picnic pavilion seating, is open to the elements as well as potentially hostile fans). Fans entering the Home Plate Club or Dugout Suites premium seating areas are met with a view of the batting cage, while the concourse-level production room is visible to all fans as they walk by. 

"We wanted people to see how we're putting on the show," said Abramson. 

 

From left to right: Dunkin' Donuts Park provides direct views into the batting cages, home bullpen and production room. 

It probably comes as no surprise that Dunkin' Donuts Park features an on-site location (one of 23 food and beverage locations sprinkled throughout the ballpark). Dunkin' Donuts are also incorporated into one of the team's signature concession items, as the "DDBLT" features bacon, lettuce and tomato in between two glazed donut "buns." Also not to be overlooked is the aforementioned Bear's Smokehouse BBQ. The "Bear Attack" seen in the below picture features beef brisket laid atop a bed of mac and cheese. 

And since Dunkin' Donuts Park hosts the Yard Goats, one will see all manner of goats around the ballpark. Mascots Chompers and Chew-Chew make the rounds throughout the ballgame, relentlessly flashing their improbably large teeth as if they had no choice in the matter. Chompers and Chew-Chew may be assisted in their rounds by "Goat Herders," who in most ballparks are known simply as "ushers." Meanwhile, Fancypants and his straw-eating friends can be found on the centerfield concourse during Sunday games, adjacent to the kids (no pun intended) fun zone. These real-life goats are provided by the local Circle K Farms Animal Attractions. 

It was a long, difficult road to get there, but Hartford can now lay claim to having one of the liveliest ballparks in Minor League Baseball. The fan support thus far has been heartening; the Yard Goats are second in the league in attendance and when all is said and done more than half of the games will be sellouts (official capacity is just 5,591, but the layout of the park gives the impression that it can hold far more). And the fans, glad to be supporting a hometown team in a city that still laments the loss of the NHL's Whalers for North Carolina 20 years ago, have proven to be engaged and boisterous. Abramson, broadcaster Jeff Dooley and Yard Goats manager Jerry Weinstein have all said that they've never been a part of a more attentive and intense Minor League Baseball environment.  

In other words, Dunkin' Donuts Park was worth the wait. 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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