HARTFORD, April 13 – As time marches on, we change. Our cities change. Our state changes.
Once upon a time, there was a major league baseball team in Hartford – the Dark Blues who played two seasons in the National League in the late 19th century. For 14 years, an Eastern League called Hartford home with future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn playing here. But the Chiefs left in 1952 and Bulkeley Stadium was razed soon after.
Sixty-five years later, professional baseball is back in Hartford. It took a year longer than planned to build Dunkin’ Donuts Park forcing the Hartford Yard Goats to play the entire 2016 Eastern League campaign on the road.
On Thursday night, the Yard Goats came home for the first time. Before a sellout crowd of 6,850 fans, Hartford (3-5) gave up five runs in the seventh and eighth innings in a 7-2 loss to New Hampshire but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the fans who filled the $71 million state-of-the-art stadium. There was energy and a level of excitement crackling through the facility throughout the contest.
“We bought season tickets two years and we’ve been waiting and believing,” said Marcella Fahey of West Hartford, sitting at a table with her husband Tom Lynch before the game. “We believed.”
Fahey is a big baseball fan. She has attended games in all 30 major league baseball stadiums in the U.S. and Canada. The couple attended New Britain Rock Cats games for years and weren’t thrilled when the team announced in 2014 that they would leaving New Britain to play in Hartford.
But former Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra convinced her that this could work. “I think it is great,” Fahey said. “They did a very nice job. It’s really nice.”
Segarra was at the ballpark Thursday night, part of a group of current and former city officials on the field for opening ceremonies. Team owner Josh Solomon spoke before the game along with Patrick O’Connor, president and chief executive officer of Minor League Baseball. “Welcome to one of the most beautiful ballparks in the country,” O’Connor said.
“What we celebrate tonight is a lesson about Hartford,” city Mayor Luke Bronin said. “We perserve. We don’t give up and we get the job done.”
Farmington’s Steve Lucca didn’t have tickets for his two boys and his girlfriend, Cheryl. But he found a way, obtaining four standing room only tickets. Lucca’s two boys, Max, and Zachary, were sitting on the concrete, wrapped up in a Yard Goats blanket on the outfield terrace that goes along right field.
“We’ve been really excited for this,” Lucca said. “I’ve been pumped up for this for a long time. I’m a big fan of the city. I lived here for a while.
“This feels like a major league stadium but it’s smaller,” he said.
With low fences along the playing surface, the seats seem more intimate. The concourse is open so you can turn around and see the action on the field. And if you don’t turn around, you can look up one of the several television monitors scattered throughout the ballpark.
Folks from around Connecticut and beyond were in attendance. Julie Imperato and Caylee Ribeiro were joined by co-workers from the nearby Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection in Hartford and a young man from New York City, C.J. Murano. Why? “I wanted to see the ballpark,” he said simply.
The Yard Goats selected a special person to honor with throwing out of the first pitch at the new facility. Bloomfield’s Lynnette Taylor-Grande, the daughter of Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor, was selected to throw out the first pitch.
Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor was born in Hartford in 1916 and died here in 1987 at the age of 71. He played baseball in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans and Pittsburgh Crawfords and in the Mexican Leagues. Taylor struck out what is believed to be a state record 25 batters against New Britain in his final scholastic appearance for Bulkeley High in Hartford in 1933.
Taylor finished his career in 1949 with the Hartford Chiefs.
“It’s such an honor,” Grande said. “My dad would be so proud to see this (stadium). Baseball was his life.” As a youngster, Taylor watched the Hartford Senators, a team that included Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg.
It was ironic that opening night for the Yard Goats was the on the same day that the beloved Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League played their final game in the city 20 years ago.
The Yard Goats selection of green and blue as their primary colors was in homage to the Whalers.
Yes, baseball and sports have a rich heritage in Hartford. But this was an evening to savor a new facility to watch baseball and dream of the days to come and the players that we will have the opportunity to see on their way to the major leagues.
New Hampshire 7, Hartford 2
On the field, Hartford hurlers walked 10 men with five coming around to score.
Visiting New Hampshire scored the first run in the new ballpark on a sacrifice fly by Reese McGwire in the second inning, but the Goats came back to tie in their half of the frame on an RBI ground out by Drew Weeks.
A lead off walk to Anthony Alford in the fourth inning led to another Fisher Cat run but Hartford tied the score, 2-2 in the fifth inning on a two-out RBI single by Ryan McMahon.
New Hampshire took the lead for good in the seventh inning, when a throwing error by losing pitcher Konnor Wade, attempting to pick a runner off of first base, enabled Jonathan Diaz to score. An RBI single by Tim Lopes gave New Hampshire a 4-2 lead.
The visitors broke the game open with three runs in the eighth, including the ballpark’s first home run by Gunnar Heidt, a two-run home around the left field foul pole.
Game two of the series is Friday night at 7:05 p.m. Hartford sends right-handed pitcher Parker French to the mound against Francisco Rios. The game will be broadcast on WPOP 1410 AM.
New Hampshire 7, Hartford 2
New Hampshire (3-4) 010 100 230 — 7-10-1
Hartford (3-5) 010 100 000 — 2-5-3
Conner Greene, Carlos Ramirez (6), Murphy Smith (8) and Reese McQuire; Yency Almonte, Konner Wade (6), D.J. Johnson (7), Austin Wright (8), Luis Ramirez (8), James Farris (9) and Jan Vasquez; WP: Ramirez (1-0); LP: Wade (0-1); 2B: Vasquez (H), McBroom (NH), Lopes (NH); HR: Heidt (NH)