New Britain baseball is ending the way it started, by moving about 10 miles down the road. In 1983, the Bristol Red Sox moved to New Britain; in 2016, the New Britain Rock Cats will likely be Hartford-bound.
Will it be worth it? That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer.
I was maybe eight when my dad took me to a baseball game for the first time. I remember the crunch of gravel outside New Britain’s Beehive Field, the uncomfortable metal stands, and the greenness of the field. It was thrilling. One time a player broke his bat; someone from the team came into the stands to give it to me. I still have it, nearly 30 years later.
By 1994, pricey new stadiums were being built all over, and Beehive Field seemed like a worn-out relic. The Britsox announced they’d be moving to Springfield by 1996. Some friends and I went to a game in 1994, and I remember two girls trooping dejectedly by with a hand-painted sign saying: “STAY TEAM STAY.” But this was New Britain; good things just didn’t happen here. We knew it was the end.
Astonishingly, it wasn’t. Owner Joe Buzas couldn’t turn his back on a city that had been good to him, and struck a deal with then-mayor Linda Blogoslawski. A new stadium was built for the 1996 season, the team was renamed the Rock Cats, and the Twins became their new major league affiliate.
I worked locally for a summer between college semesters in 1997, and I spent a lot of my money on baseball tickets. On a Monday night, the stadium was probably about 5/6ths empty. It was too bad: that team was amazing. That summer David Ortiz came through town, as did Torii Hunter and Doug Mientkiewicz.
I didn’t get to as many games after that, because I moved to Enfield, but everyone else did. Attendance started rising, making New Britain one of Connecticut’s few professional sports success stories.
So why move them? Does that make sense?
It may not matter. Yes, this is the usual Connecticut story of one town thoughtlessly poaching from another, but the owners have made it clear that they’d move out of state if they couldn’t move to Hartford. It still may not happen; Hartford has an awful track record at making big plans stick. Remember the Patriots fiasco?
For now, though, we should assume the move is on. Mayor Erin Stewart, who seemed utterly blindsided by the move, likely won’t be able to strike the same sort of personal deal Blogoslawski did. Joe Buzas, who died in 2003, was one of the last of a vanishing breed. He stayed and risked losing money because for him, New Britain baseball was worth it.
So what about Hartford baseball? Politically, spending public money on big entertainment projects is always dangerous, especially in tight times. Republican gubernatorial candidates John McKinney and Mark Boughton are already panning the idea. However, it’s actually a lot worse to lose something like this than it is to land it. If the Rock Cats had left for Springfield, the finger-pointing would have been much, much worse.
That said, there’s a lot to be hesitant about. For example, how is already cash-strapped Hartford going to pay for this?
It won’t pay for itself. Ballparks aren’t really a winner economically — cities usually end up spending more to build and maintain them than they generate — so a strong case could be made that the money that would be better spent elsewhere. There’s always the danger that this will fail in the way Hartford professional sports often do, and in a couple of years all we’ll have left is an empty ballpark.
There’s also the usual doom and gloom we feel about any new venture in Hartford to overcome, as well as white suburbanites’ continuing hesitation about coming into the city. The ballpark site north of I-84 is convenient to the highways, but it’s in a particularly barren, bleak part of downtown.
And yet… there’s something about the memories and sense of place a team and a ballpark can make. In 1983, New Britain lured a team away from Bristol, and in 1996 they built them a new stadium to keep them around. Was it worth it, those three decades of baseball?
Sure it was.
If we do this right, we’re building not just something for now, but something for the future. In 30 years, maybe we’ll be able to go downtown, sit back in the seats as the players come out onto the field, and say, yes. It was worth it all along.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.