New Britain City Journal

New Britain's Weekly Online Newspaper

The Sports Journal

Sturdy Batting Cage Vital to City Ballplayers

The New Britain Rock Cats and Minnesota Twins have enjoyed an exemplary relationship ever since the departure of the Boston Red Sox as the local affiliate in 1994.

The switch may not have been popular with nearly 50 percent of the fan base in the Britsox/Rock Cats circulation area, but the Twins have worked hard to be good partners after the Red Sox hierarchy of the mid-1990s threatened to end New Britain’s minor league run by moving the franchise to Springfield.

The only sticking point I can recall surfacing publicly was the need for a batting cage. The Rock Cats, working with the City of New Britain, responded with temporary structures adjacent to the right field wall just a stone’s throw from Willow Brook. As you’re no doubt well aware, the batting cage went up in flames last week.

A suitable batting cage is vital to an organization doing its best to train hitters for major-league competition, and the tracks of history that lead through Willow Brook Park attest that the Twins have done a darned good job. I won’t bore you by bringing up the statistics posted and awards won by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and David Ortiz.

When the Rock Cats arrive here for the start of the 2013 Eastern League campaign, they’ll be leaving their incredibly equipped baseball heaven in Fort Myers, Fla. Fort Myers, where the sun shone every day during the 11 or so visits I made there, where the tropical weather is conducive for ironing the kinks out of a slugger’s swing.

They get off the plane at Bradley and walk into the chill of a New England afternoon, which to us feels like spring’s dawning day but to them feels like the North Pole.

But the overriding factor in the need for a more permanent batting cage is that springtime brings rain, and without a proper indoor facility, hitters sit around unable to refine that muscle memory that a daily regimen builds.

The Twins are not the type to address family issues in the media, so I never heard any impassioned complaints about the batting cage situation during the years when New Britain Stadium became my spring and summer residence. There was some under-the-breath grumbling, yes, but gentlemen like general manager Terry Ryan and former minor league director Jim Rantz were far too civil to make it public debate.

If the Twins won’t speak out, I will.

It isn’t etched in stone but it is possible that if something isn’t done about a batting cage here in due course, it could affect the future of professional baseball in New Britain. Even in Norwich, which is hanging on to its New York-Penn (Rookie) League club, the Connecticut Tigers, a fine brick structure was added on to Dodd Stadium about 10 years ago to accommodate the major league team.

Perhaps the Norwich people found a creative way to raise money for its construction. In New Britain, the answer was a tent-like, half-moon shaped facility directly in the brook’s flood plain where the most appropriate footwear was mukluks rather than baseball cleats, particularly in the spring.

But given the financial restrictions of our day and age, the City of New Britain cannot be held accountable when so many programs are crying out for funding. If the lack of a batting cage did cause the Twins to seek another Double-A locale, and New Britain Stadium, now 17-years-old, becomes the black hole of Eastern League sites, the economic impact on the city would be staggering.

Studies show that dollars spent in a city turn over about five times before they leave town. The Rock Cats offer entertainment that helps stoke the economic furnace and provide numerous jobs for city residents. Problems between the team and city should be addressed tactfully, and knowing the people in those positions, I’m sure things are as cordial as can be expected between the parties.

But that brings us back to the batting cage. What can be done?

A batting cage could be used by local teams – the high school, American Legion, Twilight League and TD Bank North League. It could also be rented out to others. Add a little concession stand and it could also make a great spot for birthday parties.

Some of the people who fortify the city baseball scene, like NBHS coach Roberto Mercado, Farmington Bank/Vantis Life League proponents Randy Brochu, Matt Schofield, the Jakubowski’s and Justin Dorsey, New Britain Stingers founder Mike Torrez, Alderman David DeFronzo and progressive Little League president Matt Cannata could get together and figure something out.

Bring in a Rock Cats representative and you have a committee that cuts across the lines of politics, city workers, the young and the young at heart. We need some creativity to make good things happen. We need to make sure the Twins and Rock Cats have what they need to extend one of the city’s main attractions well into the future.