Starting this year, the town of New Britain, Connecticut, will welcome a new parent club for its hometown Rock Cats. After a more than a decade with the Tulsa Drillers as their Double-A affiliate, the Colorado Rockies have partnered up with the Rock Cats for the next two seasons.
As Rockies fans, there is (understandably) a good chance you don't know much about the Rock Cats. In a state with no major professional sports teams, the Rock Cats are an integral part of Connecticut sports and one of the most prominent teams in the state. In the last ten years, the Rock Cats have been 7th or higher in the Eastern League in attendance and have drawn more than 300,000 fans in each of those seasons.
During this terrible stretch in which there is almost no baseball to watch, it's time to learn a little bit about the past, present, and future of the Rockies' newest affiliate, the New Britain Rock Cats.
Hard Hittin' New Britain
New Britain received its first taste of minor league baseball when Joe Buzas relocated the Red Sox Double-A affiliate from Bristol to New Britain in 1983. After 11 seasons in New Britain, Buzas threatened to move the team to Massachusetts if a new stadium was not built. New Britain Stadium was completed to start the 1996 season, but the Red Sox had already left. The Twins took over as the parent club, and the Hardware City Rock Cats, as they were called at the time, were born.
New Britain Stadium was built adjacent to the old stadium, Beehive Field, in a complex called Willow Brook Park. Built in 1996, New Britain stadium holds just over 6,000, though the Rock Cats have topped 8,000 in attendance multiple times due a large amount of standing room only areas. The stadium features split level seating, with a large picnic area down the right field line and an outdoor grill and bar area on the third base side. The main concourse sits below the seating areas, where it is filled with concession stands and the Rock Cats team store.
These Cats Rock
In their 20 years as the Double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, the Rock Cats were a perennial proving ground for the organization's top talent. In fact, the Twins feature 23 players that suited up for the Rock Cats at one point in their career on their current 40 man roster. This propensity to push top talent through New Britain exposed the state to stars such as Joe Mauer, who hit .341 in 73 games in New Britain in 2003. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz suited up for the Rock Cats in 1997 and 2001 before leaving the Twins and rising to superstardom with Boston.
Former Rock Cats Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer flourished in New Britain before reaching the big leagues with Minnesota and spending last season as Rockies teammates. Morneau was a fan favorite in New Britain, spending 2001-2003 with the Rock Cats, hitting .293 with 22 home runs in 156 games. Cuddyer came to New Britain as the No. 18 prospect in baseball, and after struggling in 2000, rebounded with a phenomenal season in 2001 in which he hit 30 home runs and had an OPS of .955 to reestablish himself as one the Twin's premiere talents.
The change in affiliates is just one of many changes coming for the Rock Cats in the next two years. In 2016, the final year of the Rock Cats' contract with Colorado, the team will move roughly 12 miles north to a new stadium in Hartford, bringing minor league baseball to the state's capital for the first time in 64 years.
With the lease on New Britain Stadium expiring after this coming season, the Rock Cats were expected to renegotiate a deal to stay in New Britain. Instead, Rock Cats owner Josh Solomon was working on a deal behind the scenes to move the team to a new stadium at the heart of the state's capital. New Britain mayor Erin Stewart, as well as Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, had no idea of the move until the team announced it, sending shockwaves through the New Britain community.
The new stadium in Hartford is the centerpiece of a $350 million project to help connect the northern part of Hartford to its livelier downtown portion. This new section, called "Downtown North" will feature a grocery store, roughly 600 apartments, various shops, and a local restaurant/brewery. At the heart of this revitalized area will be a $60 million, 9,000-seat ballpark that is expected to be ready for the start of the 2016 season. Hartford passed the necessary legislation in mid October, and construction is expected to begin soon.
With a season left in New Britain and the beginning of a new era in Hartford in 2016, the Rock Cats organization should be an exciting one to watch for the next few years, especially with the influx of talented players from the Rockies' strong farm system. Regardless of the team's location, Rockies prospects can expect a friendly and passionate fan base that will support them as they strive to reach baseball's highest level.