Cold Won’t Bother Rock Cats’ State Native
When the Opening Day edition of the New Britain Rock Cats arrives each spring at Bradley International, the culture shock can be distressing.
The players are three hours removed from the sun-drenched fantasy world of the Minnesota Twins’ spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., where 75 and sunny is the daily forecast. When they walk out of the airport to board the bus, they’re greeted by snappy chill of the early New England spring, and this spring was substantially worse than most.
Consider that four of the 2013 Rock Cats are from Caribbean islands, four are from Venezuela, one from Colombia, two from California, two from Texas, one each from Alabama and Tennessee. Consider also that the oldest among them is 29 and most range from 23-26. It’s quite possible that numb fingers, thermal underwear and seeing their breath are totally foreign to them.
But for one left-handed pitcher, deplaning at Bradley was the beginning of a homecoming celebration that he hopes will resonate with timely results and another step toward his major-league dream.
Pat Dean of Naugatuck, one of the few state natives to wear the Rock Cats’ brand, was not climatically challenged.
Another left-hander – 6’8 ex-UConn hurler Mike Tarsi of Danbury – pitched for the 2011 Cats. Plainville’s T.R. Marcinczyk, who slugged one out of Beehive Field when he played for St. Thomas Aquinas back in the day, was a DH for the Rock Cats in 2000-01.
Killingworth’s Jeff Bagwell is surely the most famous Nutmegger to wear EL finery at Willow Brook Park while playing for the New Britain Red Sox. His Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Houston Astros began when he was traded from the Sox while preparing for the 1990 EL playoffs.
A pair of Norwalk boys who made the big-time – left-handed pitcher Kevin Morton (1990) and first baseman Mo Vaughn (1989) – used Seton Hall University as a springboard to baseball’s pinnacle.
Perhaps Dean will get his chance. Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith intends to have him in the starting rotation.
“The one thing that I like that I’d seen out of Pat in spring training is that he’s a strike-thrower,” Smith said. “He looks like he’s going to have the ability to going to get the guys off the field quickly.”
That will make him popular with New Britain’s Venezuelan catcher Josmil Pinto and Colombian infielder Reynaldo Rodriguez. They aren’t going to be too happy when they discover just how frigid April evenings in central Connecticut can be.
Dean, soon to be 24, pitched for New Britain once before. He came up at the tail end of the 2001 campaign, allowed three runs in six innings and suffered the loss. He spent the 2012 season with the Advanced Class A Fort Myers Miracle of the Florida State League, where he compiled a 10-8 record with a 3.99 ERA, yielding just 33 walks in over 150 innings.
“I had a little taste of [Double-A ball] two years ago, and I was hoping to get the chance last year. For whatever reason it didn’t work out but this year I’m really excited to be up here and hoping to prove myself,” he said.
As they say in the industry, players in Double-A are just a “heartbeat away” from a big league indoctrination, and the Twins have always provided smooth sailing to those they drafted, unlike the free agent-minded Yankees and Red Sox.
He said his family, mostly from Naugatuck, Waterbury and Wolcott, will be frequent visitors to New Britain Stadium. The 2007 Naugatuck High grad and former Boston College hurler is anxious to learn. With a fastball that averages a sliver under 90, he has to develop the finesse to retire professional hitters, eschewing the desire to try and blow them away like he was able to do at lower levels.
“Hitters get better the older they get,” he said. “I can’t just throw fastballs by people anymore. I’m starting to learn how to really pitch, working both sides of the plate, changing speeds, changing eye-levels. I’m really learning how to approach hitters.”
Yet when he pays homage to those who have taught him the most about the art of pitching, he knows who butters his bread.
“First of all its my dad [Greg], working with me from day one as a kid,” he said. “He was always yelling at me to go in the backyard and practice. There were definitely days I’d rather have been playing video games or hanging out with my friends, but he would get me in the backyard throwing bullpen. He was definitely the biggest influence I had.”
He also credits former Boston College coach Mik Aoki (now at Notre Dame), and Twins minor league coach Gary Lucas and minor league pitching coordinator Eric Rasmussen with helping him along. He worked out this winter with former Rock Cats fire-throwing right-hander Rob Delaney, now in the Orioles’ chain. Both live in northern New Jersey.
“There are a lot of different philosophies out there, too, about what you’ve got to do and how you’ve got to do things, but it’s about finding what works for you,” he said.