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Best of 2017, #2: Hartford Yard Goats

Dunkin' Donuts Park

We end 2017 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Ballpark Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #2: The Hartford Yard Goats’ (Class AA; Eastern League) triumphant inaugural season at Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

April 13, 1997. The saddest day in Hartford sports history. The day the Whalers played their final NHL game in the city.

And while the University of Connecticut men’s (4) and women’s (10) basketball teams would combine for 14 national championships over the next 20 years — playing a healthy portion of their home games in the city – and the Whalers’ hockey replacement, the AHL’s Wolf Pack, would win a Calder Cup in 2000, the city still felt a professional sports void, a lack of civic pride and positive shared fan experience.

The Hartford Yard Goats were supposed to provide that. But the team, re-located from nearby New Britain and re-branded with a new name and logo, only seemed to add to Hartford’s inferiority complex. The frustration and derision were laser-focused on the team’s new downtown stadium, Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which endured withering public and political opposition when it was first proposed. Things only got worse after a series of cost overruns and missed deadlines caused the Yard Goats to spend their entire first season of 2016 as a perpetual road team.

April 13, 2017. The day all the sadness, cynicism and jokes finally went away. The day the Yard Goats played their first Eastern League game in the city.

“It’s great to look in the rearview mirror,” Yard Goats president Tim Restall said in August. “The [parent club Colorado] 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.

“If you think about it, anyone that was a Yard Goats fan, until [April 13], 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.”

The Yard Goats ended 2017 ranked third in the Eastern League in average attendance with 5,812, trailing only the Reading Fightin Phils (6,054) and the Richmond Flying Squirrels (6,034). 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.

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 Whalers were honored and held an autograph session before a Yard Goats’ record-tying crowd of 6,850 on July 15.

“I had someone come up to me, ‘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.”

Previously in our Top Ten Stories of 2017 List:

#3: Elmore Sports Group Announces Franchise Shifts

#4: MLB Teams Extend Netting at Ballparks

#5: Oakland A’s Ballpark Search

#6: Wrigley Field Renovations

#7: BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field

#8: Tampa Bay Rays Seek New Ballpark

#9: MLB Teams Roll Out Ballpark Passes

#10: PawSox Search for New Ballpark

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