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Monday, Jul 28th

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New Britain Stadium / New Britain Rock Cats

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If you find yourself in New Britain, Conn., you're in the hometown of Stanley Works, which, if your house is like mine, manufactured your tape measure, your hammer, and probably a lot of toys and gadgets in your toolbox. If you find yourself in New Britain, you're in a central Connecticut town that's proud of its parks and recreational opportunities, a town that's home to one of the state's top high-school football programs, and a town with a growing state university that's building an athletic tradition of its own. You're also on baseball's equivalent of the 38th Parallel.

Year Opened: 1996
Capacity: Approximately 6,100; 7,500 including standing room
Dimensions: 330L, 400C, 330R
Playing Surface: Grass
Website: rockcats.com
Phone: 860/224-8383
Ticket Prices: Club seats, $12; Field Box, $10; Reserved, $8 ($5 seniors and children 4-12); General admission, $6 ($5 seniors and children). Children under 4 are free if they can sit on your lap.
League: Eastern League (Class AA)
Parent: Minnesota Twins
Parking: $4
Address/Directions: 230 John Karbonic Way, New Britain, CT. New Britain Stadium is one of three stadiums located in New Britain's Willow Brook Park, which is right off of CT Route 9. You'll find Route 9 off of I-91, which runs north to south down the center of Connecticut, and off of I-84, which runs east-west.
Text By: Mike Pastore
Photos By: Steve Kapsinow

You see, if you're in New Britain, about 110 miles to the southwest, as the crow flies, is Yankee Stadium. About 110 miles to the northeast is Fenway Park. So if you're in New Britain you probably root for either the Yankees or the Red Sox. And while it's possible you might be a Mets fan, it's also possible you root for, or at least have a soft spot in your heart for, the Minnesota Twins. That's because the New Britain Rock Cats are the Twins' AA Eastern League affiliate, and many of the players that have led the Twins to success on the field in recent years, such as Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Mauer, played for the Rock Cats.

It's not a bad situation for the Rock Cats, if you think about it. If the team was affiliated with either the Yankees or the Red Sox, it would risk alienating half of the local fan base. As it stands, the Rock Cats get to take advantage of the Yankee fans coming to see the Trenton Thunder and the Red Sox fans filing in to see the Portland Sea Dogs, the Eastern League affiliates of their respective organizations. Besides, said VP and General Manager John Willi, who could possibly be offended by the Minnesota Twins?

Willi isn't just talking about the Twins as a slice of mid-American purity, but the Twins are known throughout baseball for their player development, and the major-league team has used home-grown talent to its advantage in recent years. That's been good news for the Twins' affiliates where that talent develops. In addition to respectable citizens, Grilli says Twins affiliates can count on putting a good product on the field.

Central Connecticut hasn't always been a Minnesota Twins outpost. Nearby Bristol used to be home to the Bristol Red Sox, which years ago nurtured Red Sox prospects like Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. The Red Sox then moved to New Britain, where the New Britain Red Sox saw players like Roger Clemens pass through Beehive Field.

In 1996, the city built New Britain Stadium right next door to Beehive Field. In this, the 25th season of minor-league baseball in New Britain, you'll still find the Hive behind the left-field line seats at New Britain Stadium, where it's now used for high-school baseball. Compared to the minor-league stadiums of today, it's hard to believe affiliated baseball once played there.

In 2000, new ownership led by Bill Dowling came to New Britain where, despite a ballpark that was just four years old, the team was last in the Eastern League in attendance. That's the real story in New Britain. The ballpark itself is nice, comfortable and modern in every aspect, but people are now buying what the Rock Cats are selling. Attendance has risen each of the past eight years and the Rock Cats are now fifth out of 12 teams in the Eastern League. Sure, the Eastern League landscape has changed in New Britain's favor in recent years. The New Haven Ravens left for New Hampshire and the Yankees moved their affiliation out of Norwich. But if you're in New Britain, halfway between Boston and New York, not too far from the shoreline and forest, and not far from casinos, there's no shortage of ways to pass the time. Increasingly, it seems people are heading to the ballpark. A few years back, the Rock Cats drew their fans mainly from New Britain and neighboring Newington. Through hard work, a lot of marketing, and doing things the right way, the Rock Cats now draw fans from six counties in Connecticut and Southern and Western Massachusetts.

Doing things the right way, according to Willi, is treating the fans to an enjoyable evening at the ballpark, paying attention to details, and becoming a part of the community. The night of our visit put everything the Rock Cats' management told us to the test. It was a picture-perfect Saturday night in July, without a trace of humidity, with the setting sun lighting up the scattered clouds, and with the Trenton Thunder in town. The night before, Yankees' prospect Joba Chamberlain took the mound (and got shelled) in front of Yankees' GM Brian Cashman and Reggie Jackson, bringing the Connecticut media out in full force. Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was in town representing the Twins for a few days. It was the Rock Cats' Christmas in July promotion. And 7,394 fans showed up at New Britain Stadium, the fourth-largest crowd in ballpark history, leaving the Rock Cats looking for room to squeeze everyone in.

We took in a few innings from the Sam Adams Bar & Grill, a rooftop gathering spot above the third base line with food and beverage and outdoor seating. It's one of several standing room areas in the ballpark that can accommodate groups or allow you to socialize without being stuck in a seat. This being a minor-league facility, rooftop is a relative term. This would still be considered pricey real estate in New York or Boston. If this sounds like a good vantage point to watch the game, arrive early to grab a seat along the fence on the field side. The area isn't tiered so you won't catch much of the game from many of the tables.

From the seats, New Britain Stadium has clear sight lines, and the main concourse is located inside, under the grandstand. While that means you can't see the game while you're off finding food (though small concessions are scattered throughout the ballpark), it also means there isn't a lot of traffic to distract you and block your view. The food and beverage offerings are plenty, and range from the traditional hot dogs, burgers, and chicken fingers, to burritos, Famous Dave's barbecue (a Minnesota chain that found its way to New Britain), and fried dough, a local favorite. The portals out to the grandstand are extremely wide, so they stay clear even when people stop to take in some of the action.

Two years ago a full-sized video board was added to left field, and it's visible from everywhere in the ballpark. The outfield dimensions aren't extraordinary by any means, but the outfield wall is 16 feet high. The Eastern League is known as a pitchers' league, but the locals say that despite the big wall around the entire outfield, New Britain Stadium plays pretty fair to hitters and pitchers alike.

 

So how are the Rock Cats doing when it comes to making friends in the community? Certainly among the business community, the Rock Cats have sold themselves well. In addition to Sam Adams, corporate sponsors include local banks, AT&T, Best Buy (for the kids' fun zone), Captain Morgan, and Stanley Works. The New Britain Sports Hall of Fame sits on a wall not far from the main entrance. Most of the names won't ring a bell if you aren't a local, but New Britain has a long athletic tradition in the state, so it means something to the New British. The night of our visit saw the Salvation Army help ring in Christmas in July, the local Shriners sing God Bless America with a drum accompaniment, and local girls' softball players on hand. The crowd ranged from infants to seniors, with kids and families everywhere you looked.

One local issue the Rock Cats had a few years back was a disagreement concerning post-game fireworks. As anyone who's been to more than a couple minor-league games can attest, they can sometimes drag on forever. The nearby residents were less than pleased with the postgame pyrotechnics starting late into the night. The issue was finally resolved with a city ordinance that said no fireworks shows in town can begin later than 10:30 p.m.

Overall, there is a nice vibe to what's going on at New Britain Stadium. The promotions are plenty, like any good minor-league venue, but they aren't tacky and they aren't in your face with loud music that prevents conversation in a ballpark that accommodates socializing and baseball. The dancing contest between two kids in inflatable sumo costumes was highly entertaining. The games are very well-staffed with Rock Cats representatives in their red and black shirts everywhere you look. When the rooftop bar and grill saw its garbage cans overflow under the strain of a large crowd, the Rock Cats' crew got on their walkie talkies and summoned help. You can even forgive them for running low on napkins and utensils. It was just too beautiful a night to care.

CONCESSIONS
There's good variety to the menu, and different concession stands serve different tastes. In addition to the traditional, fried dough is popular with the Rock Cats' crowd, and the most expensive item on the menu is probably a $6.25 burrito. Beer sets you back $4.50 for a large, $5.50 for a premium brew, and even wine can be had for $4.75. The Sam Adams Bar & Grill features an actual bar with beer on tap and in bottles. You'll find Sam's favorites like Summer Ale and Cherry Wheat up there. While the main concessions are under the grandstand, you're never far away from your seat.

WHERE TO STAY
There is a La Quinta Inn & Suites in New Britain, and national chains are located in surrounding towns like Southington, Berlin, Bristol, and Cromwell. There are a pair of Marriott properties in Farmington, Conn, which sits right on I-84.

FOR THE KIDS
The Best Buy Zone sits between New Britain Stadium and Beehive Field. There you'll find games for the kids, an appearance by Rocky the mascot, and a picnic area that lets you watch the game from the leftfield line. The atmosphere throughout New Britain Stadium is very friendly to kids. Even the rooftop bar and grill area, which would likely become a rowdy collection of drinkers in New York or Boston, was friendly to families with children.

BEFORE THE GAME
New Britain isn't really far from anywhere in Connecticut, which can be crossed in less than two hours anyway. Locally, New Britain has a Museum of American Art, the first museum in the country to focus solely on American art, and an Industrial Museum where you can learn how Stanley and other area industries got started in the region. New Britain is home to Central Connecticut State University, a growing state school that boasts its own Division I athletic programs. CCSU brings its share of cultural events to the area, including art, dance, music, and theater. Hartford is less than 20 minutes away, with its convention center, arena, and museums of its own.