Improvements, New Events for 2013 Rock Cat Season
New Britain Rock Cats general manager John Willi has a wide variety of promotions planned that should engage generations young and not-so-young alike at New Britain Stadium this season.
First and foremost, the Eastern League All-Star Game comes to New Britain for the third time in the franchise’s 30-year history with all its trimmings and fanfare.
“We’re very grateful to have the All-Star Game this year,” Willi said. “We’ll have more formal announcements after we get through Opening Day. … We want to make this more than just New Britain Stadium’s game. We want to get out and make it the state’s game or the region’s game.”
In addition, Willi and staff hope to motivate the younger set with creative uses of social media at the ballpark.
He’s paid close attention to fans’ opinions about what can make their Rock Cats experience better. The two vital areas he’s studied are parking lot frustration and the stadium menu.
PARKING PROBLEMS: “[The fans] wanted to see if we could improve the efficiency,” Willi said, “so we worked with the City to create a prepaid parking entrance, which will be the corner of Mill Street and John Karbonic Way. Anyone with prepaid pass can enter there.”
Prepaid customers include: full season-ticket and suite holders; group hospitality customers who choose to pre-purchase parking; fans with Willow Brook Park season parking stickers. Willi said the team will be evaluating the effectiveness of the changes through fan surveys.
The parking concession, operated by the city, has always been an issue with bottlenecks creating a line of traffic that on busy nights could snake out of the lot and well down South Main Street beyond Mill Street.
The Rock Cats do not benefit financially from parking fees. The team sought to run the lot with their own personnel and turn the proceeds over to the city, but they were rebuffed.
“We offered to take it over. We had a plan. They implemented pieces of it,” Willi said.
Willi said he was pleased that the City is allowing him to address a training session for parking lot employees about the Rock Cats’ standards of customer service.
FOOD CONCESSIONS: The team has made a commitment to healthier selections, like wraps, salads and a gluten-free menu, and is enhancing conventional ballpark fare.
The Legends Diner will include a new Burger Bar with 1/3-pound offerings named after notable alumni. The Mauer Mushroom/Swiss, Torii [Hunter] Texas Burger and Big Papi Chili Cheeseburgers are examples. The Ballpark BBQ will feature pulled pork sandwiches, sausage and peppers, brats and nachos made with freshly warm chips.
Fans will be challenged to create their own foot-long hot dog concoction with monthly winners having the recipe bear their name.
ALL-STAR GAME: The game itself is slated for July 10 and Willi has some big plans for the previous day – the All-Star Skills Competition – that aren’t quite finalized.
The event will involve local celebrities, an on-field VIP party and competitions between the players and local celebrities to augment local charity.
“We look at it as All-Star week. In addition to the 9th, we’ll have some additional events,” Willi said.
The game will be sponsored by Dunkin Donuts. The Hartford Hilton will be the host hotel.
OPENING NIGHT: The evening will be a tribute to first responders with particular attention to the December 14 tragedy in Sandy Hook.
“It’s been a tough year for all our first responders,” Willi said. “This is for the whole first-responder community around the state. We’re getting them involved in pregame ceremonies with the players and we’re hosting some of the families.
“Newtown has been a town that’s supported us through Little League and school trips to the park in the past so we want to be here [for them].”
Willi is no stranger to the city. He joined the Rock Cats’ staff in 2000 as a charter member of the Bill Dowling-Coleman Levy management team. He climbed the ladder to vice president/general manager under Dowling, but left for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2011.
He returned last year as GM for the new owners, New Britain Double Play LLC, under the auspices of real estate investor Josh Solomon, his brother Jim and sister Jennifer Goorno.
BATTING CAGE FIRE: Willi said the blaze that engulfed the temporary structure March 21 had little effect on the overall operation of the team.
“The batting cage had collapsed in the snowstorm so we were fielding quotes to replace it,” he said. “We were moving forward with or without the fire.
“While it was a great media photo, it really didn’t have any impact replacing the batting cage. Once the ground thawed and the snow left, we would have had to replace it anyway.”
He said the new cage would be comparable to the old one in that it won’t be a permanent structure. In the meantime, the Rock Cats will work out at Baseball City in Hartford, a facility owned by former EL manager, one-time New York Yankees minor leaguer and Manchester native Bill Masse.
“[Rock Cat hitters] should have a covered space in inclement weather to hit and they will again,” Willi said.
ON THE FIELD: As far as the team is concerned, two infielders (Eric Farris and Antoan Richardson) have big-league experience.
There are 13 returnees from last year.
The pitching, expected to the team’s strongpoint at the outset, features highly regarded right-handers Alex Meyer and Trevor May. Meyer came from the Nationals in a trade for former New Britain center fielder Denard Span. May came from the Phillies in exchange for another center fielder, Ben Revere.
“One think I like is our starting rotation,” manager Jeff Smith said. “We have a unique blend of some power and strike-throwers. … Anytime you go into the start of a season, you like to say that your starting pitching is a strength.”
Infielder Danny Santana is the No. 12 prospect in the Twins’ system. Catcher Josmil Pinto and right-handed hurler Mike Tonkin join May and Santana on the Twins’ 40-man major league roster.