Rise and Fall of Pro Baseball in New Britain, Part 3: Rock Cats are sold to Josh Solomon, changing New Britain baseball forever, as team bolts for Hartford

Published on Monday, 18 November 2019 09:37
Written by RYAN CHICHESTER

@ryanchichester1

The New Britain Bees recently announced they would be leaving the Atlantic League to join the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, effectively ending a 36-year history of pro baseball being played in the city. This four-part series chronicles the rise and fall of pro baseball in New Britain. In Part 3, the Rock Cats are sold to Josh Solomon, changing New Britain baseball forever. Part 1 can be read herePart 2 can be read herePart 4 can be read here.

If 2010 was the pinnacle of professional baseball in New Britain, after the ownership group of Bill Dowling and Coleman Levy led the New Britain Rock Cats to record attendance, the sale of the team to Josh Solomon represented the pause atop a steep roller coaster, preparing for the pending freefall.

In the early years of Solomon’s ownership, the decline was much more subtle than that, but still steady. Attendance dropped every season after 2010, dipping to roughly 363,000 in 2011 and 267,000 in 2015. The year before that final season, Solomon had already begun to make his move. Like the investors who urged Dowling and Levy to sell the Rock Cats, Solomon, who purchased the team for $15.25 million, didn’t see a vibrant future in New Britain, despite its flourishing in recent years. Dowling, who was still with the team, hadn’t caught any scent of a potential move, but it was in the works, and there didn’t seem to be anything that could stop it.

“I had no idea at all that these guys were thinking of moving the team,” Dowling said. “I began as a consultant with the new guys, and they brought me on as president for a couple years, but I still had no idea they were moving to Hartford. But it was their decision to make, though I completely disagreed with it.”

The lure of a brand new, state-of-the-art ballpark in downtown Hartford, plus improving the playing fields from the much-maligned New Britain Stadium surface, was more than enough for Solomon to move forward.

While the Rock Cats were in the middle of the 2014 season, Solomon went to work on getting the team to Hartford, where a shiny new ballpark that would wind up costing roughly $70 million would present improved amenities for the players and more room for more fans. Solomon, who did not return several messages to talk about the Rock Cats moving, kept his work quiet, which New Britain residents saw as a dirty, sneaky maneuver that would decimate baseball morale in the city. Others saw it as a cautious means of making sure everything was in order before the news was released.

“I didn’t get the sense it was secretive,” said Ryan O’Rourke, who pitched for the Rock Cats in 2014 and was in the clubhouse when Solomon first voiced his plans to the team, but preached discretion. “From what it sounded like to him, a lot of things had to fall into place for his vision to finally come to fruition. I think he was just trying to protect his vision for the team.”

 

SPOILER: ROCK CATS ANNOUNCE THEY’RE LEAVING

 

The final pieces of the team’s move to Hartford started to take hold in the summer of 2014, but New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart still believed the Rock Cats’ future was in the city she led. In June of 2014, Stewart, who declined to comment for this series, took to Twitter and announced, “SPOILER ALERT: The Rock Cats aren’t leaving New Britain.” No more than 90 minutes later, news broke of a conference that would be held on the steps of Hartford’s City Hall, where Solomon would help announce the team’s move to the state capital.

“It was sad what (Solomon) did,” said former Rock Cats usher and New Britain native Christian Sawyer. “He took a new mayor and made her look like a fool. She said the team wasn’t going anywhere, and soon after he is on the steps of City Hall in Hartford. It was kind of shitty what he did to her.”

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Dowling, whose agreement with the team ended around the time of the announcement, wouldn’t join the Rock Cats, who would go on to be known as the Yard Goats, in Hartford. He was no longer part of the ownership group, but the team’s departure went against the gentleman’s agreement he made with Joe Buzas nearly 15 years earlier, where the sale was made with a request to never move the team out of New Britain.

“It was disappointment and complete sadness,” Dowling said. “I felt so bad for the New Britain people. They had been so supportive of us for over 12 years. It was a place for them to congregate, and the thought that it would be dark for any period of time was really disappointing.”

 

ONE HAPPY GOODBYE, THEN ANGER

 

Fans flooded New Britain Stadium the final weekend of the 2014 season, filling the park with over 8,000 spectators to see Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau help say goodbye to an affiliation with the Minnesota Twins that began with future major league stars like David Ortiz and Torii Hunter. The final home game, perhaps in a last-gasp effort to change Solomon’s mind, dragged on for 15 innings.

“The fans couldn’t have been better,” O’Rourke, now 31, said of the atmosphere at New Britain Stadium. “I remember some fans that had custom made shirts with ‘O'Rourke’ on the back. I felt so welcomed there. It’s definitely a place I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”

The outcry over the impending move to Hartford carried over to the team’s final season in 2015, when the Rock Cats were preparing their farewell campaign in the city under a new affiliation with the Colorado Rockies. Sawyer, who served as Exalted Ruler at the New Britain Elks Lodge at the time, began preparations for the yearly “Welcome Home” dinner, which served as a chance for locals to meet the players before each season, with proceeds going to benefit the Connecticut Children’s Hospital. Many members of the lodge wanted to cancel the event, feeling betrayed by the team’s move. But for the sake of the children in the hospital, Sawyer and the group hosted the dinner, which Solomon would attend.

“I’m standing there, and I have to talk on behalf of the Elks,” Sawyer remembered. “I have Josh Solomon standing right next to me at the head table. I thanked Joe (Buzas), Gerry (Berthiaume), Bill (Dowling), Coleman (Levy), everyone I can think of, but I never mentioned Solomon’s name. At the end of the dinner, he looks at me and says, ‘you thanked everyone and their brother but you didn't thank me?’ I said, ‘well, my mother always told me if I don’t have anything nice to say, just keep my mouth shut.’ So, he stood up and put out his hand, and I put my hands in my pockets. He walked away, and I was fine with that.”

Others, if they had a chance to tell Solomon how they felt, wouldn’t have been as kind.

“I don’t think you would be able to print what I would say to Josh Solomon,” New Britain native Scott Markiewicz said.

 

CITY WITHOUT A TEAM, BUT NOT FOR LONG

 

After 36 years of minor league baseball, the city was without a major league affiliate, and the city was devastated.

“It was a total bummer,” said Tim Healey, author of “Hometown Hardball” and a frequent visitor of Rock Cats games throughout his childhood. “There were so many good memories there for me. The only time I caught a foul ball ever at a baseball game was in New Britain. Those are the things you don’t forget. To see the team up and leave its city, especially the way they did it with a sudden move and catching the mayor off guard, was a bummer. You hate to see things end like that. It was such a big part of the town, and that’s coming from someone who grew up an hour away.”

The reaction was similar, if not stronger, for the city residents that grew up with the Rock Cats.

“My reaction to them leaving was like having my heart ripped out in a sense,” Markiewicz said. “They were my childhood team. I practically grew up in New Britain Stadium.”

Stewart desperately searched for a new team to fill the vacated stadium, which was in danger of being empty for the first time since its construction. By late September, just weeks after the final Rock Cats season came to an end, the city unanimously approved the leasing of New Britain Stadium to an Atlantic League team led by Frank Boulton and Michael Pfaff, both of which had built a successful Ducks team in Long Island as part of the same league. The new franchise would pay the same lease price of $150,000 per year as the Rock Cats did, but unlike the former tenant, would keep the revenue for parking. The city also committed $500,000 to renovate the stadium, meaning there would be no gap in between New Britain’s pro baseball history. It would continue on, only with a new face.

Workers wiped away the final remnants of the Rock Cats’ existence in New Britain with strokes of yellow and black paint, which represented the colors of the New Britain Bees, the team name that was voted by citizens over the Stingers, among others. The team signed a 15-year lease with the city and began operation in 2016, as the newly named Yard Goats headed to Hartford, where they became a team without a home.

 

NO BUZZ FOR BEES

 

The first year of the Bees era was considered by many to be a crucial point for the franchise. Construction delays on Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford caused the Yard Goats to play just seven home games all season. The Rock Cats were gone, but New Britain still had the only pro baseball team in the area. But any marketing plans to win back the fans of the city wasn’t enough to seal the wounds of the Rock Cats’ unexpected and painful departure from the city the franchise called home since 1983.

“To an extent, (Boulton and Pfaff) did the best they could, but the shock of the Rock Cats leaving overshadowed a new team coming in,” said Dowling, who served as a special advisor to the Bees for the first six months of their existence, after declining to follow the Rock Cats to Hartford. “The vacuum wasn’t filled enough by the Bees.”

Instead of replanting a flag in the Hardware City, the Bees began a swift downfall of professional baseball in New Britain, with many questioning just how diligent the new franchise was in making the Atlantic League a marketable product. It was the beginning of a new era, but also the beginning of the end.

Ryan Chichester is a sports writer for the New Britain Herald. He covered several games during the New Britain Bees final season as an Atlantic League team in 2019. He can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or rchichester@newbritainherald.com.

 



Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain Bees, New Britain, New Britain on Monday, 18 November 2019 09:37. Updated: Monday, 18 November 2019 09:40.