It was just over a year ago, August 25, 2016, that Eastern League president Joe McEachern, stood outside the gates of an unfinished Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford. After a year of construction delays and cost overruns had forced the Hartford Yard Goats to play the entire 2016 season, their first in the capital city, on the road, McEachern had had enough. His words echoed those of exasperated local officials, politicians, and a citizenry that had never fully embraced the publicly-financed ballpark—nor the name Yard Goats—after the move from nearby New Britain to downtown Hartford was announced.
“If the stadium is not done, we will not come to Hartford,” McEachern said, standing in front of the locked ballpark gates. “The time is now. We have to have immediate action.”
Fast-forward one year. As the 2017 Eastern League regular season comes to a close, the Yard Goats are proving true the iconic adage from Field of Dreams. Eventually, in time for the April 13 season-opener, they did finish building it. And wouldn’t you know it, after all the controversy, all the money problems and all the jokes at its expense, Dunkin’ Donuts Park is now the apple of Minor League Baseball’s eye.
The Yard Goats, whose final home game of 2017 is on Thursday night, rank third in the Eastern League in average attendance with 5,796, trailing only the Reading Fightin Phils (6,031) and the Richmond Flying Squirrels (5,921). Entering Thursday, the team had sold out 20 consecutive games and 25 of its final 29. Dunkin’ Donuts Park was voted the top Double A ballpark in America in fan voting by Ballpark Digest, an online poll that garnered over 178,000 votes.
For Yard Goats general manager Tim Restall, the 369 days between McEachern’s 2016 threat and the 2017 home finale seems like an eternity, from another place in time. “It’s great to look in the rearview mirror,” Restall said Tuesday. “The Rockies sensed that when we started on this journey and we were getting some hiccups that it would only be a pause, a moment in time, and it’s hard to believe that it was a year ago, because of how exciting it’s been to be in Hartford playing baseball.”
The stadium construction fiasco threatened to undo all of it before it could ever get started. But when the Yard Goats finally opened the doors on April 13, and fans began to experience the park, with all the bells and whistles that make Minor League Baseball a fun, family experience, the crowds seamlessly transitioned from treating Dunkin’ Donuts Park as a novelty and curiosity to Connecticut’s summer steady habit.
“I’ve said this often, that when you work in Minor League baseball, your office is a ballpark. Last year, we didn’t have a ballpark,” Restall said. “If you think about it, anyone that was a Yard Goats fan, until that day, they either were real baseball fans following the team on the road, or they bought a t-shirt or a hat and what they did, in terms of their experience with the Yard Goats, they were waiting to see baseball being played in Hartford. And once those gates opened, we saw the experience start changing, because people started going to the ballpark and having great experiences.”
Yard Goats merchandise has flown off the shelves since the team announced the name after a public naming contest drew 6,000 submissions. While the connection between a Yard Goat and the City of Hartford might seem tenuous, the goat logo—with the chewed-up baseball bat in its mouth – has long overcome any initial skepticism, some of it quite personal for Restall.
“My wife was the first person who texted me after we announced the [name] and she said, ‘We are not getting goats at home,’ Restall said. “My youngest son, who was eight at the time, said, ‘Dad, we were supposed to be the Hartford Praying Mantis.’
“What you realize is that it represents Hartford and gives it an identity, and the goat [mascot] interacts with the kids so well and everyone gets into goat-isms, “No goats, no glory.’ The goat means something to everyone individually and we’re very happy with how the merchandise sales have gone.”
And the park has acknowledged its place in Hartford’s fabric. One of its most popular promotions was Whalers Alumni Weekend in July, when former Hartford Whalers were honored and held an autograph session before a Yard Goats record-tying crowd of 6,850 on July 15.
And there was the recent promotion, with the help of ESPN sports business analyst and ballpark concessions connoisseur Darren Rovell, in which a new ballpark delicacy was created and celebrated: sliced glazed donuts with ‘Rockies’ road ice cream, fried goat cheese, and a grilled banana.
But the one they’ll all remember was the Human Cannonball. “We had a sold-out night and it seemed like every single fan stayed to the end to see the human cannonball fly through the air and land at home plate,” Restall said. It was a perfect metaphor for the Yard Goats’ inaugural season, except once in orbit, the team’s popularity has yet to come down.
“I had someone come up to me the other day, ‘I was one of the skeptics that thought the name was dumb and that you guys would never succeed,’” Restall said. “And now that person has bought season tickets. As we were going through the whole process, a lot of people voiced their concerns and we would address them and they would say, ‘We’ll just have to wait and see.’ Now everyone is seeing what we’re about and experiencing it. They’re enjoying it now, and what was in the past is in the past.
“It’s one thing when you put numbers on pieces of paper and you look at drawings and you talk and plan, and then you execute and then you see it happen, it’s a whole different experience. So we never had any doubts. We just needed to get to April 13 and start playing baseball. And that was a good day.”