New Britain City Journal

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The Sports Journal

Rock Cats Well-Represented at World Baseball Classic

The World Baseball Classic hasn’t exactly captivated local fans.

Some smiled when the middle of February passed and pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, thinking that spring must be just around the next bend. Others look up for a second and think warm thoughts when they hear the Red Sox or Yankees mentioned.

The majority of New England baseball fans remain in hibernation. Central Connecticut’s primary media outlets hardly gave the WBC a sentence despite a World Series atmosphere further stirred by some intense nationalism.

As the late, great New Britain sportsman Bart Fisher always noted with delight, his beloved city can wheedle its way into virtually any sports discussion, and when it comes to the WBC, he would have had a diamond of a field day.

With the city’s Double-A Eastern League entry on the threshold of its 30th season in Willow Brook Park, the New Britain Rock Cats have been well-represented among the nations that qualified for the third WBC celebration of baseball’s rapidly growing international presence.

Even the most devout Rock Cats fans will start scratching their heads. The first former Cat that always comes to mind is the great catcher Joe Mauer. No batter ever stepped to the plate in the City of New Britain (or is home plate actually in Berlin) with more raw ability than Mauer, and the Minnesota Twins’ franchise player has been in midseason form playing for the United States.

First baseman Justin Morneau, striving to return to All-Star form after the devastating concussion he sustained in 2010, has been slugging away for his native Canada. If Mauer ranks first on the Rock Cats’ alumni list, Morneau would no doubt be second.

Two ex-Rock Cats? Hey, that’s not bad, but if you guessed that they were the only two, you’d be way off. No fewer than 21 former New Britain players graced WBC rosters, and several played prominent roles.

Morneau, emerging as one of the game’s top players before a concussion disrupted his career, showed signs of regaining his former posture by going 7-for-11 in three games. Mauer batted.429 in six games for Team USA.

The best human interest tidbit coming out the WBC from a Rock Cats perspective was the work of first baseman Chris Colabello.

Colabello, 29, a native of Framingham, Mass., was rescued from the independent leagues – the scrapheap of professional baseball – by the Rock Cats’ parent club, the Minnesota Twins, prior to last season. He spent the entire season in New Britain, smacking 19 home runs, batting.284 and earning a spot on the Eastern League All-Star team.

Because of his Italian heritage, Colabello qualified for WBC play with Team Italy, which recruited a team full of Italian-Americans. He proceeded to hit.333 with two homers in five games. In Italy’s upset of Canada March 8, he had four hits and drove in four runs.

Colabello was invited to big league spring training this year with an opportunity to back up Morneau, but has since been sent to minor league camp and is expected to play first base for the Twins’ Triple-A team, the Rochester Red Wings.

J.C. Romero was a brash, erratic, hard-throwing left-hander when he made his Rock Cats’ debut in 1998. Now 36, he still throws hard. He completed his 14th big-league campaign with the Baltimore Orioles last fall and was granted free agency.

If his time with Puerto Rico was an audition, he should be pitching somewhere soon. Romero has been called upon often to get left-handed hitters out. Through five games, he posted a 3.86 ERA.

Loek Van Mil was hard to miss when the 2009 Rock Cats arrived at New Britain Stadium four years ago. The Dutch right-hander stands 7-foot-1. Van Mil won a game for the Netherlands, striking out three in 1 2/3 innings without yielding a run.

Drew Butera learned to drive in the New Britain Stadium parking lot when his father Sal managed the Rock Cats in 1995. He went on to catch for the Cats in 2007 and 2008 en route to a spot in Minnesota providing exceptional defense behind Mauer. Butera caught in five games for Italy and battled.188 (3-for-16).

When fans recall the 2013 WBC, they’ll quickly refer to the brawl in the ninth inning of the March 10 game between Canada and Mexico.

The Canadians were ahead by six runs, but with run differential playing a major tiebreaking role in how teams advance, they were looking for more.

When Chris Robinson started the ninth with a bunt single, Mexico third baseman Luis Cruz took exception and could be seen gesturing toward pitcher Arnold Leon to hit the next batter. That batter was former Rock Cats outfielder Rene Tosoni.

Tosoni, an Eastern League All-Star for the Rock Cats and the MVP in the annual Futures Game in 2009, charged the mound after Leon struck him in the back. Benches emptied and fights erupted in clusters. When the dust cleared, Tosoni was among those ejected. So was Andrew Albers, a Canadian right-hander who logged pitching time for the Rock Cats last year.

Standing adjacent to the misguided Cruz in the Mexican infield was another ex-Rock Cat, one who saw time with the Boston Red Sox. Gil Velasquez.

The Rock Cats were represented on 10 different national teams. Ray Chang, a New Britain outfielder in 2011, played for China. Rafael Alvarez played outfield for the Cats in 1997 and again in 2000. At 37, he was tabbed to play for Spain.

Australia went to battle with five former Cats. Italy and Canada rosters contained three each.

In addition to all the former Rock Cats, rosters were dotted by others whose minor league careers rolled through New Britain at one time or another.

Outfielder Alex Rios, a Rock Cats scourge for the New Haven Ravens in 2003 prior to the start of a fruitful big-league career, blasted a big homer for Puerto Rico March 17 in the win over defending champion Japan. A former Trenton second baseman who Yankee fans will recognize – Robinson Cano – had a torrid tournament for the Dominican Republic.

One-time Binghamton Met third sacker David Wright drove in 10 runs for the US and was promptly christened, Captain America.

Center fielder Chris Denorfia, a Southington product, batted.381 for Italy. And as noted by Rock Cats historian Larry Michaels, a significant contributor to this column, Italy pitcher and former Los Angeles Angels farmhand Nick Pugliese, 27, is a native of Plainville.