New Britain City Journal

New Britain's Weekly Online Newspaper

The Sports Journal

Rock Cats, City Harmonize as New Era Begins

Anybody who’s ever been a tenant or landlord knows how tempestuous the relationship can be.

Imagine when the rent goes into six figures and the bottom line affects city elections, contentious budget line items and tax rates, particularly during challenging economic times.

New Britain Stadium is owned by the city. The New Britain Rock Cats as prime tenants require the playing field to be impeccable to satisfy their Major League Baseball partners in Minnesota and the public portion of the facility to be clean and comfortable for the viewing pleasure of patrons.

The tenuous economy no doubt amplified debates between the principals – New Britain Parks and Recreation Department director Bill DeMaio and Rock Cats CEO Bill Dowling – but with the recent change in ownership, both sides appear ready to move forward in harmony.

Most of the Parks and Recreation Commission chaired by Angelo D’Alfonso was in attendance when Dowling passed the baton to Josh Solomon, who along with his sister and brother formed New Britain Double Play, LLC to administer of the team.

“We’re here to do anything we can for you,” D’Alfonso said in a brief public address during the recent press conference at the Rock Cats’ Stadium Club. “We have a wonderful facility second to none in all the minor leagues.”

But New Britain Stadium was built in 1996. Under the constant assault of New England’s diverse climatic elements, the infrastructure shows wear and tear. Meanwhile, Canada’s capital city Ottawa claims that Eastern League baseball is headed there a year from now and will use the $8 million renovation of its stadium to entice an existing franchise. One report says Binghamton’s the one, but the team vehemently denies it.

Worry not central Connecticut baseball fans. It’s not likely to be the Rock Cats.

John Willi, who replaces his former boss Dowling as Rock Cats president and general manager, said that the subject is solely a league matter. The lease agreement between team and city is in place until 2015 with ensuing five-year options that ostensibly would keep the EL here through 2025. Dowling was adamant that the team be sold to a group committed to staying.

Everybody’s saying all the right things. The changing of the guard appears to forecast sunny days, exciting baseball and affordable family fun for years to come.

“When we decided to sell the team we obviously were concerned we would find the right buyers to not only keep the team in New Britain but also continue with the family-friendly entertainment that the Rock Cats have become known for over the years,” Dowling said in his opening monolog.

City crews were hard at work during the press conference, preparing the field and refreshing the concourse where approximately 370,000 visitors from April to early September will get their first impressions of a ballpark that has come to be known as the Emerald of the Eastern League.

“We maintain the stadium constantly,” DeMaio said. “Tens of thousands of dollars every year go into it minimum, just for general maintenance.”

State grants provided by the Local Capital Improvement Program (LoCIP) have helped.

“We used some LoCIP money every year for the last 12 years almost to the tune of a couple hundred thousand to a quarter of a million dollars to keep the infrastructure in good shape,” DeMaio said. “We’re doing a lot of concrete work right now. We’ve got some painting done, we’re doing some railings, minor repairs to the bathrooms, repairs with the fire suppression system.

“I think we do a pretty good job with what we have. We’ve always done that.”

“It’s a great partnership,” Demaio said. “Bill Dowling and his crew did a wonderful job. John Willi and I go back as many years as he’s been here so the relationship has already been established, which is nice.”

The Rock Cats have also put their own money into the facility. The party patio tucked in the right field corner beyond the grandstands is an example.

“Some of the things [Solomon] said from day one is to make sure we’re tweaking where we can,” Willi said. “We’re doing some ballpark refreshing. We’ve done an upgrade on the suites – a fresh coat of paint, cleaning and being diligent. I think it’s in great shape, and I think it’s a matter of us taking that on.

“I’ve been back only a couple weeks but I think the Parks and Rec Department has been incredibly helpful. I worked with them about what could and needed to be done before opening day and so far so good.”

In addition to the rent the Rock Cats pay, Willi indicated how the city reaps intangible benefits from hosting professional baseball.

“What I’ve seen a team mean to the community, whether it’s been here or elsewhere, is to make [the ballpark] the community center where people can gather, get to know each other and see the folks in the neighborhood,” he said.

“I think it celebrates great things, whether sports or schools, and also as a gathering place for support [in times] of tragedy. I’ve seen that, too. I’m very passionate about what it means.”

The meaning has intensified since Willi’s first glimpse in 2000.

“It’s the awareness and the impression [people get from] New Britain,” he said. “The Mayor’s office and Parks and Recreation have done an amazing job backing that up and supporting it.

“When I got here as a young salesperson and started making calls, there wasn’t the recognition of what it was or the awareness of how great it could be. As we started getting people through the door, it blew them away. New Britain. The Rock Cats. Stanley Black & Decker. CCSU. Some of the great institutions started getting lumped together, making sure people knew what a great place New Britain is.”