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With changes looming, fans savor the joy of going to the ballpark as Rock Cats win

For the 33rd season, the Rock Cats opened their Eastern League season in New Britain. The Cats beat New Hampshire, 8-5 Thursday night.

For the 33rd season, the Rock Cats opened their Eastern League season in New Britain. The Cats beat New Hampshire, 8-5 Thursday night.

NEW BRITAIN, April 16 – Change. It’s fine for other people but when you have to change, things can be uncomfortable.

It could be an awkward year at New Britain Stadium for the Rock Cats. Last June, the Rock Cats announced that they will be moving 12 miles west to Hartford to play in a shiny, new stadium next April. And when the Rock Cats play in the capital city, they’ll be the Yard Goats.

Let’s just say that all of this change hasn’t gone over particularly well in New Britain.

Yet, on the final and 33rd opening day of Eastern League baseball in the Hardware City, there were plenty of smiles in the grandstands and reminders of why one comes to the ballpark.

The eyes of four-year-old Angel Calderon of New Britain were wide with excitement and joy as he met the mascot called Rookie as his parents, Angel and Omayra smiled. It was the first game for young Angel. There were plenty of photos being taken with Rookie. Throughout the ballpark, Rookie and Rocky, the famous team mascot, were big hits with the kids.

Newington's Lloyd Cassita is 90.

Newington’s Lloyd Cassita is 90.

Ninety-year-old Lloyd Cassita of Newington was in his seat nearly an hour before first pitch. He has been watching the Rock Cats for decades. He was here in 1996 on a cold April evening when New Britain Stadium opened with over 6,000 fans crammed into the facility to see the New Haven Ravens beat the Rock Cats, 3-0. He watched the New Britain Red Sox at Beehive Field and saw the Bristol Red Sox at Muzzy Field, too.

Cassita likes watching the youngsters that eventually play in the big leagues. And he smiled when recalling that a young David Ortiz once saw him on the concourse, said hi and gave him a big hug.

Wethersfield’s Justin and Janice Grimaldi have been coming to New Britain Stadium since the beginning. Justin remembered that it was Jamie Wright of New Haven that beat the Rock Cats on opening night when New Britain Stadium was shiny and new. For the past few years, they’ve attended several games a week.

“It’s the sport itself and the ability to see players that will play in the major leagues,” Justin Grimaldi said. “This is the best level (Double AA) because they’re one call away (from the major leagues).”

The Calderon family from New Britain -- Omayra, Angel Jr., and Angel

The Calderon family from New Britain — Omayra, Angel Jr., and Angel

Will they follow the Cats to Hartford? Perhaps. They’re worried about affordable parking and the traffic to get to the new ballpark.

There is one fan who won’t be following the Cats to Hartford. Newington’s Al Cassella has been a season ticket holder for years. He has two seats in the front row behind the visitor’s dugout. “I love baseball,” he admitted. He enjoys the atmosphere and the affordability of the Rock Cats experience.

“In the summer, it’s better than sitting inside watching TV. Sitting outside watching baseball, how much better can it be than that,” he said with a smile.

But Cassella, a retired New Britain firefighter, is upset that negotiations for the move to Hartford were done quietly with no notice to New Britain.

“We’ve been spoiled here,” he said. “It’s good baseball and lot of these kids have gone straight to the major leagues. A great deal of talent has come through here and I’ll miss that.”

The Rock Cats had 11 hits and five doubles Thursday night in an 8-5 win over the New Hampshire Fisher Cats before an announced crowd of more than 5,500 fans. Catcher Tom Murphy was 2-for-3 with a home run in his first swing at New Britain Stadium. Teammate Will Swanner had two hits including a double.

New Britain catcher Tom Murphy

New Britain catcher Tom Murphy

New Britain (3-5) had three doubles in the seventh inning to score four runs and snap a 4-4 tie. Tyler Massey doubled, Trevor Story had an RBI double and Murphy had an RBI single. One out later, Noel Cervas had an RBI double.

It was the first game for the Rock Cats in New Britain as the minor league affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. After 20 years together, the Minnesota Twins ended their affiliation with New Britain last fall.

Most everyone – outside of the visiting Fisher Cats – left happy. Some were thrilled with the win. Some were tickled with a smooth, soft serve ice cream, a hat or t-shirt from the gift shop or a souvenir magnet from Rock Cats general manager Tim Restall, who was passing them out to fans at the gate.

“For our fans and our sponsors, we have 70 more games here in this ballpark and we’ll give them the best show we can,” he said. “(Our pending move) doesn’t affect what we can do at the ballpark (today) – have a great time and create some great memories. Catch a foul ball, see a great game. Those experiences are what creates us. It’s a great place to watch a ballgame. And Hartford will be one, too.”

Upcoming promotions include bobblehead nights for former Rock Cat stars Kenny Vargas (July 2) and Ortiz (May 14) along with a Star Wars night on May 16.

NOTES: A Rockies affiliate won the first opening night contest at New Britain Stadium in 1996. New Haven beat the Rock Cats on that cold April evening before a sellout crowd, 3-0. Rockies All-Star Todd Helton drove in the first run of the game and at New Britain Stadium.  … Wednesday night’s game was the first of a six-game homestand. New Britain faces New Hampshire (Blue Jays affiliate) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday before hosting three games with Portland, the Red Sox Double AA affiliate. … Murphy leads the EL with five doubles and the Rock Cats currently lead the Eastern League with 20 doubles. … Vargas played in New Britain last year and is currently with the Minnesota Twins. Ortiz played in New Britain in 1997 and nine games in 2001.

Kids of all ages are getting their photos taken with Rocky.

Kids of all ages are getting their photos taken with Rocky.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 30 years.

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