Rise and Fall of Pro Baseball in New Britain, Part 4: Bees take over New Britain Stadium, but fans don't follow, ultimately leading to sad end of pro baseball in city after 36 years

Published on Monday, 18 November 2019 09:33
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 4, the Bees take over New Britain Stadium, but fans don’t follow, ultimately leading to a sad end of pro baseball in the city. Part 1 can be read herePart 2 can be read herePart 3 can be read here.

When Michael Pfaff and Frank Boulton formed the ownership group of the New Britain Bees, the two were left with less than four months to usher in a new era of baseball in the city, as opposed to almost nine under typical circumstances. A pivotal time to grab back the fans that were still shocked and angry over the Rock Cats’ departure to Hartford following the 2015 season was already running short.

With construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park in its early stages, the newly named Hartford Yard Goats kept their offices at New Britain Stadium through the final day of their lease with the city, meaning Pfaff and Boulton were unable to fully begin their operation until Jan. 4, when they picked up the keys to the stadium.

“It's really important to get out ahead of that stuff so you can start focusing on selling tickets for the next season,” Pfaff said. “When you think about having your window cut by more than 50 percent ...”

The Bees were introduced to the city in November, 2015, and the following month, the staff began to come together. During that time, while the Yard Goats occupied the offices at New Britain Stadium and prepared for their move, Pfaff and Boulton were left on the ground floor of the city’s mayoral offices, setting up temporary shop and trying to sell as many season tickets they could. What they saw as an unenviable task from the start, others saw as a missed chance to win back the fans who felt betrayed by Josh Solomon and the Rock Cats’ departure to Hartford, where his Yard Goats team didn’t have a place to call home by the time the Bees opened their doors for Opening Day on Apr. 21, 2016.

 

MISSED OPPORTUNITY?

 

“I think it was one heck of an opportunity that they missed that first year,” former Rock Cats general manager Gerry Berthiaume said of Pfaff and Boulton. “That was a rogue team in Hartford, and they just didn’t take advantage of it. They didn’t market it the way they should have.”

Marketing a team in a short amount of time was easier said than done, according to Pfaff. Those involved in the day-to-day operations saw a market that had already been claimed by a team that didn’t have a home yet.

“When you’re the Rock Cats, and you’ve been in a stadium for 20 years, you have a database of customers,” Pfaff said. “They had 20 years of data on their customers, and for a year and a half they were telling their customers they were leaving. That was the message in the market, and they took their book of business to Hartford.”

Despite the uphill climb, Pfaff and Boulton put together a staff, a roster and filled 75 percent of the outfield wall at New Britain Stadium with ads from team sponsors. It wasn’t affiliated baseball, but in just a few short months, the group was able to keep professional baseball going uninterrupted since it began at Beehive Stadium in 1983.

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“That was something we were very proud of, taking a team in a 90 to 120 day window from concept to on the field for a successful opening,” Pfaff said. “It was quite an arduous task, but we had great support from the city and it helped get us to where we needed to be.”

The Bees had support from New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart and the city, but baseball fans didn’t follow suit. After reporting a total of 214,635 fans for their inaugural season (an average of 3,302 fans per game, good for sixth out of the eight teams in the league), the team brought on Berthiaume in hopes his local ties from the Rock Cats days could help increase sponsorship numbers and bring fans back to a once regularly filled ballpark.

Berthiaume increased sponsorship numbers on the wall by nearly 30 percent in 2017, but he could tell quickly bringing in fans and building overall interest in the team would be a tough assignment.

“It was the day-to-day operation that got me,” Berthiaume said. “People called us saying we have a $30 picnic and the Yard Goats have one for $25, and the Yard Goats are an affiliated team. I kept calling Long Island (Pfaff and Boulton) and saying we had to make a change … but we had no flexibility whatsoever. They were trying to be a Long Island team in a market that was totally different and not established. You have to get the people in the ballpark first. You have me come in, and now you’re cutting my marketing budget? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

The fans also expressed a frustration with pricing.

“You’re charging five bucks a car to park, and it’s the Atlantic League,” said New Britain native Jennifer Kieon, who now lives in Rhode Island but still made a handful of trips to Bees games during the summer. “It's not even Double-A. A lot of people didn’t like that at all.”

Anthony Iacavone was brought on board in the spring of 2017 as part of the ownership group, and Berthiaume, hoping to win over frustrated fans like Kieon, saw the move as a potential way of bringing the team’s day-to-day operations to New Britain, rather than being controlled from afar in Long Island, where the Ducks were averaging more than 5,000 fans a night. The situation didn’t change to Berthiaume’s liking, prompting him to leave the team in October after just one season.

“Me and Brad Smith (future general manager), with 35 years of experience, wanted just one year to do things ourselves,” Berthiaume said. “We knew we could make it work. But Anthony said he couldn’t do it. (Boulton and Pfaff) have a wonderful situation in Long Island, and I got along so well with Anthony, but I told him if he couldn’t bring it all to New Britain and let us run it for one year, I couldn’t do it.”

 

‘WHERE IS EVERYBODY?’

 

The Bees reported less than 200,000 total fans in 2017, while the Yard Goats, with their new stadium finally finished, brought in 395,000, the second-highest mark in the Eastern League. The Bees’ attendance figures were the second lowest in the Atlantic League (behind only the soon-to-be defunct Bridgeport Bluefish) and would continue to drop through the 2019 season. But even those attendance figures seemed generous to those who did keep their fan allegiances in New Britain, at least compared to what they saw in the ballpark.

“That first season, I sat at a game with a friend, and we counted 66 people in the stands,” said former Rock Cats usher and New Britain native Christian Sawyer. “That was the first year when there was no competition for the Yard Goats, and I’m talking the middle of the summer on a nice night, and there are 66 people there. That’s a problem.”

It was also a problem for Berthiaume, who struggled to make sense of the attendance numbers being reported during his one-year tenure.

“That was one of the most difficult things for me to have to participate in,” Berthiaume said. “I had difficulty reporting, because I knew from my own eyes what I was seeing. The most difficult part for me was coming up with an answer when someone came up to me and said, ‘you didn’t have 2,500 people there tonight.’”

Pfaff didn’t have an in-person view of the nightly crowds at the stadium, but maintained the accuracy of the attendance reports, which are based on tickets distributed and not the amount of fans that actually walk through the turnstiles.

“The operators on the ground announce the attendance on a nightly basis, and they do so using the same process all pro teams do,” Pfaff explained. “[That is to] report the total amount of tickets distributed on a nightly basis.”

In 2019, the final season for the Bees as part of the Atlantic League, the team reported a league-low 133,141 fans, an average of 2,080 fans per night.

“It’s hard not to hear a conversation in the eighth row back when there’s a couple hundred people in the stands,” said Mauro Gozzo, manager of the Bees during the 2019 season. “It makes you realize, ‘wow, we’re in a tunnel here.’”

Those fans in the eighth row looked around and shared Gozzo’s sentiment.

“I went to a game this past summer for my nephew’s birthday and I just thought, ‘where is everybody?’” Kieon said. “There was nobody there. It was kind of embarrassing. I felt bad. But when it’s not players you can potentially see grow within the organization, people are turned off by that.”

 

END OF AN ERA

 

Another summer of quiet ballparks would end up being the close of a long, uninterrupted run of professional baseball in New Britain. The Bees announced their departure from the Atlantic League on Oct. 28, leaving for the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, which will begin its new season in May.

The Bees took the place of the Bristol Blues, who moved to a bigger summer league in the NECBL, with more teams (13) than the Futures League (7). The Bees will host the FCBL All-Star Game this summer, but home openings at New Britain Stadium will drop from 70 to 29, meaning less baseball but potentially a more focused opportunity to fill seats when the team is in town.

The end of the Bees as an Atlantic League team, a final chapter that many in the area seemed to glance over, marks an official conclusion to professional baseball in the city, which many believe will never make a return, at least not as long as the Yard Goats own territorial rights in the area.

“I talk to friends I grew up with that are baseball people and I would tell them to come to a (Bees) game, and they would say, ‘yeah, we’re gonna try and make it out,’ but they went to like seven Yard Goats games,” Gozzo said. “They're going to a new stadium and a new thing. I don’t understand it, but the casual fan is spending their money in Hartford right now.”

With Hartford thriving, New Britain fans that refuse to see what became of their hometown team will stick with the Bees in their new era of baseball, though it’s hard to take in a game and not be brought back to when the place truly had a buzz permeating through the crowd.

“It’s sad because I had a lot of good times there in the summer and made a lot of friends,” Kieon said. “It was sad (the Bees) aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. I like how they revamped the stadium to look like a hive. That was really cute. But getting people out to the games once they lost their affiliate, that was really hard to pull people back in.”

The glory days of New Britain baseball are gone, disappeared like a home run sailing into the black of the night. Out of the darkness that now surrounds New Britain Stadium, locals and former Rock Cats fans turn to the memories that keep the city’s baseball heart beating, even if it’s running on past glory.

“To me, (New Britain) was always a baseball city because of the decades of history there,” said Tim Healey, author of “Hometown Hardball” and a frequent attendee of Rock Cats games during his childhood as a Danbury native. “Over time you build that history and look back on the incredible names that have come through. It’s a baseball city because baseball has been there for so long. It’s ingrained in the lives of the people who grew up there and have been living there.”

The Bees will try to keep their baseball city alive as a member of the Futures League, but they still don’t see their Atlantic League tenure as a failure. Facing a difficult task of standing its ground aside from an affiliated team with a new facility, the team lasted for four full seasons, and will carry on at a lower level and still offer locals a chance to soak in some summer sun and a quality baseball game.

“That was the challenge, creating new fans and making something different,” Pfaff said. “Our concern was just trying to be the best version of the Bees we could be, and bring Atlantic League baseball to New Britain. But ultimately, fans vote with their feet … now we’re just looking forward.”

Some might have seen New Britain as just another minor league town, but even outsiders who had experienced minor league ball in cities all over the country saw the Hardware City as uniquely engaged, which only enhanced the collective sadness when affiliated ball left the city.

“I had a great time in New Britain,” former Rock Cats pitcher Ryan O’Rourke said. “New Britain always had a good amount of fans when I was there. I remember weekend games where we had about 7 or 8,000 fans a night. They were certainly passionate about the team. We’d hear them, whether we were good or bad.”

The collective cheers from those thousands of fans have been muffled since 2015. Some have taken those cheers to Hartford, but despite a new stadium and a successful franchise, some New Britain natives can’t immerse themselves in the experience like they used to. Having a team in their home city carried more meaning, and while the Rock Cats’ move was a mere 13 miles, professional baseball somehow seems worlds away.

“Yard Goats games aren’t the same,” Sawyer said. “I’ve never experienced what we had in New Britain. I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again. I fear we’ve seen 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 .

 

SERIES BREAKDOWN



Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain Bees, New Britain, New Britain on Monday, 18 November 2019 09:33. Updated: Monday, 18 November 2019 09:37.