NEW BRITAIN, Aug. 30 – The tale of the New Britain Rock Cats began on a cold April night in 1996 and it ends on a warm, sunny August afternoon 19 years later.
The team arrived in the city in 1983 and played for years at Beehive Field. In 1994, it looked like New Britain could lose its team. Owner Joe Buzas struggled with the decision to keep the team in the city or move it to Springfield.
In the end, Buzas went with his heart and kept the team in New Britain. One of the reasons was if they left, another team wouldn’t be coming back. In response, the state paid $10.5 million to build a new stadium for the team which was renamed the Rock Cats.
The Rock Cats played their first game at New Britain Stadium – a facility soon to be nicknamed as The Emerald by long-time Rock Cats beat writer Ken Lipshez of the New Britain Herald – in 1996. Buzas sold the team in 2000 to an ownership group headed by Coleman Levy and William Dowling, sparking a golden era in Rock Cats baseball.
Attendance rose each year, peaking in 2010 at more than 368,000 fans with a team that finished 54 games under .500. The Rock Cats shared an Eastern League championship in 2001 and saw a flurry of future Major League Baseball stars play on the Emerald turf. They were the Minor League organization of the year in 2001.
Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer went to the Minnesota Twins where they won American League MVP awards in 2006 and 2009, respectively. Morneau, who spent the weekend in New Britain on a rehabilitation assignment, was the National League batting champion in 2014.
David Ortiz, who has won three World Series championships with the Red Sox, played here twice in New Britain (1997, 2001) along with current Mets first baseman Michael Cuddyer and long-time catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Longtime Twins and Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter played at New Britain Stadium in the Buzas era.
Twice, New Britain Stadium hosted the Eastern League All-Star Game in 2003 and 2013.
This weekend, the Rock Cats are playing their final home games at New Britain. The home finale is Sunday at 1:30 p.m. When the team moves to Hartford next year after 33 years in the Hardware City, the team will be known as the Yard Goats. It was an emotional time for many long-time Rock Cats fans.
The team set a new single game attendance record on Friday with 8,672 fans packed into New Britain Stadium to see the Rock Cats play Portland and fireworks. It broke the old record of 8,633 at the 2013 Eastern League All-Star Game. On Saturday night, more than 6,400 fans saw Morneau hit a solo home run in the fourth inning to lift New Britain to a 2-1 win over the Sea Dogs, Boston’s Double A affiliate.
Most fans we spoke to plan to attend a game in Hartford next year to see how it is. But they will miss their team here in New Britain.
There were still plenty of kids throughout the stands over the weekend and long lines between innings for ice cream on the concourse. Some fans we interviewed were coming to the park for the first time. As usual, the team mascot, Rocky, was a big hit with the kids.
Some fans were purchasing Yard Goats merchandise on the concourse but many Rock Cat fans were scouring the gift shop, purchasing a variety of Rock Cats logos, signs and equipment. Most of the t-shirts remaining were for youngsters. For adults, there were some game-worn uniforms, hats and batting helmets were on sale. Posters and banners adorned with Rock Cats logos were on sale along with pennants, pencils, pens and media guides.
Still, business was brisk as fans looked to purchase an artifact to help them keep their Rock Cats memories and experiences alive.
We snapped some photos during the final week of games at New Britain Stadium.