New Britain City Journal

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The Sports Journal

All About the Rock Cats

A shroud of grey covered New Britain Stadium for the recent three-game series between the Portland Sea Dogs and our hometown Rock Cats, but the weather couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.

It was homecoming for me. I covered the Rock Cats virtually every home game and a significant number of road games from 1997 through the 2010 season. Roughly speaking, that’s about 1,000 Eastern League games and probably 1,500 stories. That, my friends, is a substantial portion of a professional career.

In some ways it was like I never left.

New Britain native Larry Michaels has had a multi-faceted career covering the city’s EL teams. The incalculable number of games he’s viewed makes mine pale by comparison.

Larry, a retired teacher in the Berlin public school system, has been running the informational portion of the scoreboard since the new stadium opened in 1996. Prior to that, he did some public address work while dialing up runs, hits and errors at adjacent Beehive Field.

Ed Smith, retired New Britain High teacher and wrestling coach, remains at his official scorers’ post even in the face of soaring grandchild statistics. Talk about optimists, Ed’s the kind of guy who can take a sip of a warm, flat beer and explain that it’s the most refreshing beverage he’s ever had.

Rock Cats radio announcer/media mogul Jeff Dooley joins Eddie on the eternal optimists list. He may be a native of Lincoln, R.I., but Dools is as hard-hittin’ as any New Britain guy you’ve ever met. After three days in the press box, I can’t tell you too much about how Jeff is doing. He dashes from one end of the press box to the other like a sparrow making his rounds, trying to conduct friendly conversations in transit.

The Rock Cats were 13-7 after the series against the Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Believe me, Dools will take it after some of the losing teams he’s covered. He put the wraps on his post-game show (WPOP-1410 AM) and sped past me. In a few hours he would be toastmaster at the World Series Club’s annual Rock Cats party.

The common bond that flows through these three gentlemen is dedication to the phenomena that encompasses Willow Brook Park every spring and summer. They’re a big part of the reason it is a phenomena.

THE BIGGEST MYTH: I can’t tell you how many people have told me they don’t attend Rock Cats games because they aren’t interested in a minor league team stocked by the distant Minnesota Twins. “Now bring in the Red Sox or the Yankees and that would be a different story,” the cynics say.

Yet the ballpark was far from overflowing for any of these games. Was there a Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis or Jon Lester among the bunch? All three of those beloved Boston idols and many more were once visitors to the very same ballpark on the very same early season stage. But here’s the kicker! David Ortiz frequented New Britain Stadium more than the three of them put together because he was once with the Minnesota Twins. Goes to show you never can tell when it comes to minor league dreams evolving into big league reality.

This year’s Sea Dogs team is not equal to the ones from last decade that produced the heart and soul of New England’s darlings, but you might keep the name Derrik Gibson in mind. He played a nifty shortstop and hit well during the series that saw struggling Portland take two of three games.

EVEN BIGGER IRONY: And how’s this for irony of ironies! The best starting pitcher I saw over the three games was Bill Buckner. How incredible is it that a promising young Boston hurler would possess the same name as the Hall of Fame quality first baseman that permitted the hopes and dreams of millions trickle away from him in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series against the Mets?

Buckner the pitcher, 28, played in the Kansas City and Arizona minor league systems before signing with Boston as a free agent in February. He struck out 11 Rock Cats in the April 24 game.

If that’s not enough, the starting second baseman for Portland was Dent.

No, this one didn’t have the first name Bucky or a middle name that begins with ‘F.’ Ryan Dent was Boston’s second pick in the 2007 draft, and although the media guide lists him as a shortstop, he does not appear to be related to the infamous ex-Yankee whose game-winning homer over the Fenway’s Green Monster in a do-or-die 1978 playoff game ranks right up there in tragic Beantown lore with the trading of Babe Ruth and a financial evaluation of “The Big Dig.”

Sox fans, if you should happen to encounter either of these guys, and you certainly can make that happen if you come over and see the Sea Dogs when they return in May, be nice.

TWINS ALL IN: During the Portland series, the Twins’ administration was amply represented by Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, minor league director Jim Rantz, minor league field coordinator Joel Lepel and minor league pitching coordinator Eric Rasmussen. Later this season, general manager Terry Ryan will be making the rounds.

Molitor would have city parks named after him if he had played in New York or Boston. All he did was garner 3,319 hits during a 21-year playing career with the Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays and Twins. It’s not often New Britain has a Hall of Famer in its midst. He serves the Twins as minor league base running and infield coordinator.

Rasmussen, the Rock Cats’ pitching coach in 1998, won 50 games in the majors for the Cardinals, Padres and Royals from 1975-83. He makes the rounds of the Twins minor league system, which besides Double-A New Britain includes teams in Rochester, N.Y. (Triple-A), Fort Myers, Fla. (High Class A and Rookie), Beloit, Wisc. (Low Class A) and Elizabethton, Tenn. (Rookie).