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 2, the tale of how New Britain became a Rock Cats city and the immense popularity that followed. Part 1 can be read here; Part 3 can be head here; Part 4 can be read here.
The initial blueprints for the new era of baseball in New Britain were carefully drawn out on a McDonalds’ napkin.
Seated together beneath the golden arches in Milford in late 1994, general manager Gerry Berthiaume met with local cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, who had created the logos for the Portland Sea Dogs and the Norwich Navigators and would go on to help with famous projects like Looney Tunes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A Hartford County native, Gilchrist walked into that McDonalds with an idea already percolating.
“I had heard stories about how all of these workers back in the 50s had laid the bedrock for I-84, and that they had gotten all of the stone out of the quarries that were around the New Britain area,” Gilchrist said. “I started thinking about rocks and the birth of rock and roll in the 50s, and all of these guys driving home from a hard day’s work and rocking out to Elvis and Deion (and the Belmonts).”
You could say the creation of the Rock Cats literally grew from the foundation of New Britain’s roadways, but Gilchrist still needed a face to go along with the idea. Fortunately, one of his favorite personal creations at the time was a character named Mudpie, a kid cat he had designed earlier in his career with shaggy gray hair dangling above his eyes and covering his hands and feet that poked out of a striped shirt and jeans. But like the city of New Britain, Mudpie needed an edge if he was to represent the city’s new identity. So, Gilchrist, doodling away at a frail napkin, gave Mudpie sunglasses, a pompadour and a leather jacket, and he became Rocky the Rock Cat.
“I feel like that one just jumped out, and it was like, ‘yeah, this has got to be it,’” Gilchrist said. “It just made sense that he would be a cool cat. It was all about rock and roll and baseball, man, just connecting those two.”
It made sense to Berthiaume and Gilchrist, but it had to make sense for Joe Buzas, owner of the team, as well.
The old-fashioned Buzas was resistant to the shift into a more modern version of minor league baseball, but he reluctantly followed Berthiaume’s lead. Of course, he still let Berthiaume know what he thought of some aspects of the franchise’s makeover. When his team was officially introduced as the Rock Cats in 1995, an unveiling was held at the local Holiday Inn, and when Berthiaume removed the sheet draped over a cardboard cutout of Rocky, Buzas let the entire city know his thoughts from the stage.
“He said, ‘what the hell is this?” Berthiaume said, laughing. “Right in front of everyone.”
FAN ENGAGEMENT BEGINS TO BLOSSOM
Buzas’ reluctance to transition to a more modern brand of minor league baseball continued through 1995, as the Rock Cats played their final season at Beehive Stadium while shovels and hammers clanged away at the surface next door at what would soon be New Britain Stadium. Berthiaume purchased a $6,000 sound system at baseball’s Winter Meetings that year, armed with sound effects that have come to be a staple in minor league baseball, a part of the in-game experience.
“Are you out of your freaking mind?” Buzas erupted on his general manager when he got to the park and heard of the investment. “Package it up and send it back.”
Berthiaume refused, and Buzas relented. For all of his resistance to changing out of the old-fashioned ballpark experience he grew up loving, he knew that mindset was going out of style. But his desire to save a buck wasn’t.
“The next Winter Meetings I see Joe and he said he bought a sound system,” Berthiaume said. “He said, ‘I only paid $4,000 for it. You should have waited a year.’ That was Joe.”
Buzas may have needed time to adjust to the changing scene around him, but he found a new wheelhouse in fan engagement, as his commitment to staying in New Britain allowed him to shed what was still left of his loner personality.
“When I was really young, I remember going with my parents and brother and we would always sit near or next to Joe when he was in town,” said New Britain resident and longtime ticket holder Scott Markiewicz, now 28. “Joe was one of the nicest people you could ever meet. He always treated us like we were family.”
Buzas warmed up to his new demeanor, and the city continued to warm up to the team. According to Buzas, the Rock Cats were profitable through every season at New Britain Stadium under his leadership, to the point where the bills were habitually paid on Dec. 31 every year, absolving the city of any concern in the year to come.
The Rock Cats weren’t exploding in popularity in the years of Buzas and Berthiaume, but Berthiaume describes that early era of the Rock Cats as a “blossoming.” Interest continued to grow around the city, as did interest from others who wanted to buy the team. Every time potential buyers checked in with Berthiaume, they got the same answer. “No way is Joe going to sell the team.” That changed prior to the new millennium when Buzas’ health began to decline. When Bill Dowling and Coleman Levy came calling after a failed attempt to purchase the Hartford Whalers, Berthiaume told them it might be their time to take over.
‘PROMISE ME YOU WON’T MOVE THE TEAM’
Buzas, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 84, was ready to part ways with the first franchise he ever owned (the Rock Cats started as the Allentown Red Sox in 1955, which was Buzas’ team), but he didn’t want to see his team part ways with New Britain. He and Berthiaume sat down with Levy, a New Britain native who played his little league games in Willow Brook Park, and Dowling to set up an agreement. It wouldn’t be in writing, but Buzas wanted their word the Rock Cats would stay where they were.
“It was a handshake and Joe told them they can’t take the team out of New Britain,” Berthiaume said. “He told them they’d done a lot for the team, just built a new stadium, ‘promise me you won't move the team.’ It was a gentleman’s agreement, and they kept it.”
For Dowling and Levy, it was an easy promise to keep. After hearing that Buzas might finally agree to sell the Rock Cats, Levy canvassed the surrounding area, surveying the population and all entry points to the stadium, and realized it would be hard to handpick a better location for a minor league ballpark.
“I figured if we knew how to promote it, we would get the people and we would do well,” Levy said. “If you provide the right product, you’ll get the people. If you know how to do it, it’ll happen. We knew what we were doing.”
Levy and Dowling knew they would have to fully commit to a marketing campaign that Buzas had only reluctantly tested. After spending $6.5 million to buy the team, the most amount of money on a Double-A team at the time, the two immersed themselves in transitioning the Rock Cats experience to a full family atmosphere, where the game was only part of the intrigue.
“Right around that time, minor league baseball was taking off and becoming known for its family entertainment value,” Dowling said. “If we were able to attract families to the ballpark, show them a wonderful evening, they would become our best marketers. They would tell their family and neighbors what a wonderful experience it was, and that’s what happened.”
FANS FLOCK TO NEW BRITAIN STADIUM
Dowling and Levy made Rocky the face of the franchise, created a “These Cats Rock” jingle and invested in ballpark giveaways and Friday night fireworks to maximize New Britain Stadium’s potential. Attendance increased by roughly 50,000 in 2000 (after the team drew roughly 170,000 fans in Buzas’ last year as owner), their first season at the helm, and it only went up from there.
By the end of the 2005 season, the Rock Cats brought in 337,687 fans for the year, an average of nearly 5,000 per game. In 2008, the number eclipsed 365,000, and peaked in 2010 with over 387,000 people, an average of more than 5,500 per game. Of course, it could have been more at times, but the Rock Cats had to be careful with just how many fans they reported at the game. Business was that good.
“One night I got stuck counting tickets,” New Britain native and Rock Cats usher Christian Sawyer said. “We used to count them by hand. John Willi (then Rock Cats general manager) came in and asked for a number, and I was over 7,000. I still had a bucket of tickets to go. He told me to stop, because if we went any further the fire marshal would shut us down. We used to pack that place.”
While Buzas always enjoyed a half-filled ballpark, Levy and Dowling beamed at the sight of packed houses and boisterous fanfare. Fans were gifted with bobbleheads, towels and baseballs, and more importantly to them, despite the steady climb in attendance that saw as many as 16,000 people attend a doubleheader in 2010, the ownership group wanted to be true to its original prices. According to yearly programs and pocket schedules, Dowling and Levy kept general admission prices at the same $5 they were under Buzas, and for at least the first six years of their ownership, it never changed. In fact, from 1983 to 2001, general admission tickets had risen only from $2.50 to $5.
“We made a firm decision that we would be fan friendly, and we’re not going to raise ticket prices,” Dowling said. “We kept stable prices for concessions, sodas and food. We felt our fans deserved consistency, and we weren’t looking to make a lot of money off anybody’s backs. The volume is what made us so successful.”
The volume of fans that flooded New Britain Stadium left Berthiaume looking on at the recognized potential of a city he knew had the ability to make a minor league team flourish all along. He was witnessing the peak of baseball in New Britain.
“Bill and Coleman took it to the next level,” Berthiaume said. “I envied them to the nth degree when the money started coming in and the place was hopping. That was how I envisioned it could be. I think we set the tone and had everyone involved, but they went out and got everyone else involved, and did such a great job of doing it. I loved watching that. That was something special.”
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
People outside the city and surrounding areas also caught on to the Rock Cats’ budding popularity and wondered if the team had maxed out its potential in New Britain. The stadium seated just over 6,000 people, and the Rock Cats had begun nearly maxing out the park on a nightly basis. Investors thought it might be time to sell. Attendance was at an all-time high in 2010, so when a group led by Josh Solomon, who had an extensive background in real estate as the co-founder of the DSF Group in Boston, offered to buy the team for $15.25 million, Dowling and Levy had to listen.
“The price was right,” Levy said. “And there’s no looking back.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.