The new ballpark’s finally opening next week, only a year late and millions of dollars over budget. Great! Let’s never do that again.
I drive by Dunkin Donuts Park pretty much every day, and I’ve watched it turn from a parking lot to a muddy field to a skeletal steel structure and, finally, to a half-completed mess that just stood there for months, waiting for the insurance company to bring in new contractors. It’s surreal to think that it’s actually done.
This baseball stadium was supposed to be a morale booster. It was supposed to be something that would do a little bit to knit the region together, located as it is at the focal point where two interstates cross. Instead, it turned into a hulking symbol of the dysfunction, incompetence, and rotten luck that haunts everything Hartford and Connecticut in general tries to do.
I’m kind of surprised they’re just going to use it for baseball. They could sell tickets to poets, economists, philosophers, and politicians to come in to the state’s most expensive metaphor to sit and mope about where it all went wrong. Maybe we can we move the legislature there; they can meet out in left field.
So what have we learned from this whole miserable experience of moving a minor league baseball team 15 miles down the road?
I’m frankly not sure we learned anything. There’s talk about pumping an eye-popping $250 million of nonexistent state money into the XL Center in the hope of luring the most gullible NHL hockey team we can think of to Hartford. I guess right now that’s the hapless Islanders, who play in a basketball arena with rotten views far from their actual fans. But anyone who thinks the Islanders are leaving the biggest media market in the country to come … here … is not thinking straight.
We don’t think straight about sports, I guess. Maybe that’s something we’ve learned.
I feel like we should have learned a hard lesson about rich men and developers coming by and promising us a beautiful future in exchange for just a little bit of public money. Remember when the stadium was going to be surrounded by a whole neighborhood? Remember when Hooker Brewery was going to be moved in right across the street? It felt like this could finally be the spark that got the pilot lit again, after all these decades of bitter cold.
Instead, the “Downtown North” area went from a sea of ugly parking lots to a sea of ugly parking lots with a stadium plunked awkwardly in the middle of them. Oops.
We’re suckers. Maybe that’s another thing we learned.
There’s more to learn about politics, and about desperation. Hartford was already a political basket case before the stadium, but the whole sordid affair peeled back the layers to expose how bad it really was to everyone.
The bungled handling of the stadium arguably brought down the well-meaning but hapless Mayor Pedro Segarra, and has been the albatross around Mayor Luke Bronin ever since his first day in office. The city has spent money it never really had trying to finish the stadium, making its already awful financial problems all but insurmountable. Worse, perhaps, the very brief burst of positivity and civic pride some people felt last year, before we all realized how bad things were, has soured into an even more fierce pessimism and cynicism. Hartford is, once again, a joke where nothing ever goes right.
We learned that if we play stupid games, such as the game of sports franchises and new stadiums, we’ll win some very stupid prizes.
And yet maybe there are subtler lessons to learn. I drove by the stadium the other night, and the floodlights were on. I did a double-take. It looked like something out of a mirage. Baseball is finally coming to downtown Hartford. Nothing’s ever easy here, but it’s happening at last.
The Yard Goats spent the whole of last season on the road, busing from one Eastern League city to another. Now they have a home.
Opening Day is sold out. Corporate interest in the stadium is apparently high. The ballpark itself looks gorgeous. It’s not magic, it’s not the solution to all our problems, but it’s here. I plan on taking in a few games. Maybe you are, too. I think it’ll feel strangely nice.
Maybe the last lesson we learned is that we’re cynical about the region we live in, but we still, underneath that harsh and cranky New England exterior, have a stubborn optimistic streak.
The stadium’s done. The future awaits. Play ball.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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