When the Hartford Yard Goats begin their inaugural season on April 7, 2016 against the Richmond Flying Squirrels at Dunkin' Donuts Park, it will mark the third different Double-A affiliate in three years for the Colorado Rockies. It'll also mark the Eastern League opener for a group of Rockies prospects likely to be an exciting who's-who of the future in Denver.
But to local fans and the team itself, it'll mark the culmination of months of hard work by Yard Goats staff -- and stadium construction workers -- to prepare for a new season representing a new city in a brand new ballpark.
Wanting to better understand how it's all coming together, I caught up with Mike Abramson, the Yard Goats' assistant general manager, who was nice enough to share what's happening in Connecticut six months before Opening Day, and how the team has already become a cult favorite without playing a game.
"It seems like everywhere you go, someone is wearing a Yard Goats cap, t-shirt or other apparel," Abramson admitted about fans in Connecticut's capital city. "We literally overhear people in coffee shops, restaurants, and on the streets talking about the Ballpark, the logo, and the 2016 season. We are definitely expecting a banner year in 2016."
A banner year may be on the way, but the club will need a ballpark to do it. Fortunately, construction on Dunkin' Donuts Park hasn't been delayed due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances, and the Yard Goats are on track to christen the ballpark on April 7.
"The weather has been tremendous," Abramson told me about Dunkin' Donuts Park going up this fall, "and the visual and esthetic progress is noticeable daily, even hourly. The steel phase is almost complete, and preparations are underway to put the field down."
The team and ballpark all grew out of the shadow of the New Britain Rock Cats, a Double-A club with history back to 1983 as an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins before their final season (and only one as a Rockies' affiliate) in 2014.
While the club moved just 12 miles away to Hartford -- a place still accessible for New Britain regulars -- that didn't stop the anger from coming out at the end of the season.
That anger, according to Abramson, has subsided in time.
"Change is difficult for everyone, and we’ve always been sympathetic to those fans who were disappointed by the move. As time has gone by, we’ve continued to see a groundswell of support for the Ballpark, and the Yard Goats. Many a fan has uttered the words 'it’s growing on me' over the past year."
"What’s great is that, as we continue to receive support from our past and current fans, we’re bringing on new fans every day from the Hartford area and points North, East and West. Fans who weren’t making the trip [to New Britain] in the past."
Those new fans, in a bigger market (Hartford's population is nearly 125,000, plus a large metro area, while New Britain's population is less than 75,000), are what Abramson and the Yard Goats must cultivate for more success than just an inaugural season splash.
"There will be a lot of enthusiasm and interest because the Ballpark is new, and because the branding is so unique, but we are working hard to build a sustainable and unique brand that will keep the Ballpark rocking for years to come," Abramson said. "We’ve got a lot of exciting things cooking in the way of promotions, community programs and additional non-baseball events."
Ever the showman as most minor league front office leaders must be to drum up excitement, Abramson deferred as to specific non-baseball events.
"Our promotional schedule is being finalized as we speak. Keep an eye on Twitter!"
One of those non-baseball events occurred right before this post was published, in fact: the Yard Goats announced their new mascots early Friday morning on Twitter.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Chompers and Chew Chew:
"We thought with all the excitement that the Yard Goats has generated that Hartford deserved not one but two primary mascots," General Manager Tim Restall said in a press release Friday.
"Chompers and Chew Chew are fun and appeal to all ages and will be our community ambassadors all year long."
While all minor league promotions -- Twitter included -- err on the side of wacky, Abramson has jumped in full force as the man behind the Yard Goats' Twitter account, busy making Fetty Wap references, and cheering unabashedly for the New England Patriots, and poking fun at camouflaged merchandise.
"When your stadium is under construction, and your players won’t be determined for another 5 months, it takes a little bit of creativity to build a virtual, social community," Abramson admitted about his Twitter strategy.
"A real voice of the brand has developed through Twitter and people are obviously attracted to it, so we try to build on that. Twitter is fun because randomness seems to be appreciated, along with pop culture references, current-events humor... Sometimes you just have to throw a Fetty Wap reference out there and see what happens!"
What's happened so far has been a positive response from fans:
The person @GoYardGoats hired as their social media manager is an absolute gem. They do such great work on that twitter account.— Liz Roscher (@lizroscher) October 29, 2015
And for Abramson, that sentiment has reinforced what the Yard Goats should be all about online.
"Companies and organizations spend a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to monetize social media," he said. "We’re just trying to build a passionate fan base, a familiarity, so when the gates open in April fans feel they already know us in some way."
"Most of it has developed organically; understanding what our fans are watching on TV, what kind of music they are listening to, if they’re home with kids or out at a bar on a Thursday. That’s helpful in communicating in a way the fans want to be communicated with."
And for Abramson, reaching out on social media -- even if it sometimes seems off-topic for a professional baseball team's official account -- will pay dividends down the road as the Yard Goats connect with residents of the Nutmeg State's fourth-largest community.
"We’re trying to meet them where they are, and we’re having the time of our lives in the process. The monetary benefit will come later, when fans come out to games. We’re not worried about that now. We're just focused on trying to stay fun and relevant."
Interestingly, the Yard Goats are already building that relevance worldwide in a way Abramson and the front office never anticipated: merchandise.
A fun logo combined with the Yard Goats' unique voice on social media has brought in merchandise orders beyond what the club expected up to this point.
"It helps that the logo is awesome, and that our group has ordered really cool merchandise," Abramson said.
"We’ve sold merchandise in all 50 states, and out of the country, and a lot of that has to do with the reach of the Yard Goats name. So much attention was received when we rolled out the name, that people were waiting all over the country, and the world, apparently, to represent the Yard Goats!"
You could be wearing this right now pic.twitter.com/xsANaKSAeo— Hartford Yard Goats (@GoYardGoats) October 26, 2015
But if the Yard Goats seem light on baseball up to this point, well, that's by necessity.
Rosters for the Double-A affiliate won't be announced for about five months, and the big league front office doesn't yet have much to do in Connecticut.
Very soon that will change, though, and Abramson noted the Yard Goats and Rockies still communicate quite a bit, even this early in the offseason.
"It’s a great relationship and we try to learn as much from our parent club as we can," Abramson divulged. "The rosters definitely begin to develop once Spring Training is underway, but we keep an eye on the news coming out of Colorado and try to keep our fans up-to-date on prospects and who they can expect to see play at Dunkin’ Donuts Park."
If the on-field product next summer is half as sharp as the Yard Goats' media strategy to this point, season tickets at Dunkin' Donuts Park might be a wise investment for fans in the Hartford area.
At the very least, it sounds like the Rockies have found themselves a unique and fun Eastern League affiliate in what will be a gorgeous setting.
For more on the Hartford Yard Goats, including tickets, merchandise, season schedules, and other team information, click here.
I'm thinking about starting a band. Who's in?— Hartford Yard Goats (@GoYardGoats) October 29, 2015