It was a long and bumpy road to get there, but the Hartford Yard Goats (Class AA; Eastern League) had a successful inaugural year at Dunkin’ Donuts Park. Despite the one-year delay to the park’s opening, the Yard Goats quickly became a hit with their fans, earning the 2017 Ballpark Digest Team of The Year award.
Delays to Dunkin’ Donuts Park construction forced the Yard Goats to spend all of 2016 on the road, and they were late getting settled into the new ballpark in 2017. In fact, the Yard Goats had just gotten into their brand-new ballpark in downtown Hartford weeks before the season began.
“Looking back now, it’s hard to believe we were just getting into the park in March,” said president Tim Restall. “To have a great season afterwards was awesome.”
With little time before the home opener in April, Restall said everyone focused on learning about the ballpark.
“It was a challenge. We didn’t know where things were or how they operated in the new space,” Restall said. “We tested everything from the videoboard to the box office printers to the kitchens. It took time even for the small things like knowing where light switches were in every space, but we figured it out in time for the season.”
The team was apprehensive as the season approached, in part because of the mixed reactions to the new name.
“When we first announced the name, I’m pretty sure we were the most hated people in Connecticut,” Restall said. “But as the season went on, they saw how we incorporated the name into the community. They saw our homage to the Whalers. They came to games and experienced everything from parking to concessions and they have really embraced it.”
The Yard Goats were also embraced from the beginning by Dunkin’ Donuts, the ballpark’s naming-rights partner. “They have been great. We announced they were our naming rights partner and they really have been a true partner and stood by us,” Restall said. “They have hung with us and rode the rollercoaster with us. They have brought everyone out to games from franchisees to their marketing staff to their clients and they’ve loved being part of it.”
As our own Zach Spedden reported when he visited Dunkin’ Donuts Park earlier this season, the facility is the first new ballpark in the Eastern League since the New Hampshire Fisher Cats opened Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in 2005. The shiny new ballpark has many group areas that have been a hit, according to Restall.
“The group areas have gone over extremely well. So well, that we’re looking at opportunities to expand and add to the areas that we already have for next season.”
Earlier in the year, Dunkin’ Donuts Park also won the Ballpark Digest fan vote for Best Double-A Ballpark. It’s something which Restall said validated all the hard work that has gone into the 2017 season.
“It was great. It shows that the community has really embraced what we do here,” Restall said. “It was great because we were playing Altoona when the voting was going on and that’s who we were up against for those games. We were not only playing them on the field but off the field as well.”
With the first season behind them, the only place for the Yard Goats to go is up.
“It was a learning year for us. We are going to do a lot of things different and a lot of things the same. One thing we haven’t figured out yet is if everything we did worked or if it was the new ballpark smell,” Restall said. “We’ll probably follow the minor league road map and see what has worked for other teams and compare it to our community here. This year was special but we think 2018 will be even better.”
Several clubs made strong cases for the 2017 Team of the Year Award, and two are being recognized with an honorable mention.
The Columbia Fireflies (Low A; Sally League) built on a strong 2016 debut, and accomplished more success in 2017. While the presence of Tim Tebow provided a boost early in the season, the Fireflies finished strong to draw 315,034 total fans over the season, including a team-record 9,629 for Total Eclipse of the Park on August 21. “The Columbia Fireflies had a phenomenal second season in 2017,” said Fireflies president John Katz. “Our front office staff did an amazing job of keeping our fans engaged throughout the season, and their tireless efforts have continued to make Spirit Communications Park a true gathering place for our community. Our Total Eclipse of the Park game on August 21 brought out more than 9,600 fans on our way to a record-breaking season, with more than 315,000+ fans enjoying their spring and summer at Fireflies games.”
“I’d like to congratulate Tim Restall and his team in Hartford for earning the honor of Team of the Year,” Katz added. “We all know how much work goes into opening a new ballpark, and they should be proud of their accomplishment.”
In their third season at First Tennessee Park, the Nashville Sounds (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) reached another level of success. The Sounds led the Pacific Coast League with a per-game average attendance of 8,861–their highest since the ballpark’s opening–and continued to provide one of the better fan experiences in the minors. “This is a tremendous honor for the Nashville Sounds organization and we’re extremely humbled by the recognition,” said Sounds general manager Adam Nuse. “We strive to deliver the best possible fan experience at First Tennessee Park. We share this acknowledgement with our fans here in Music City as the support they’ve shown us has been remarkable.”
2017 Ballpark Digest Award Winners
Continued Excellence: Vancouver Canadians
Editor’s Choice Award For Outstanding Achievement: Redband Rally Campaign, Spokane Indians
Best Ballpark Improvement (Under $1M): Modern Woodmen Park Amusements
Best Charity Effort: Quad Cities River Bandits
Editor’s Choice Award: National Eclipse Games
Best New Food Item: Beercheese Poutine
Best New Concessions Experience: Miller Park
Best Ballpark Improvement (Over $1M): Great Dane Duck Blind
Executive of the Year: Ryan Keur
Best New Logo/Branding: Down East Wood Ducks
Best Ballpark Renovation (MiLB): Fluor Field, Greenville Drive
Broadcasters: Howard Kellman and Mick Gillespie
Ballpark of the Year: SunTrust Park, Atlanta Braves