On the Road: It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye in New Britain

To see all posts from my August 30, 2015 visit to the New Britain Rock Cats (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my August/September 2015 trip through New England, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!

Part One of this post covered all that went on as fans awaited the final game in New Britain Rock Cats history. This post, sensibly referred to as Part Two, will what went on during the game itself. Let’s start with the obvious:

It was a beautiful day for baseball.

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032This was not to be a typical “Ben’s Biz” day at the ballpark. I didn’t participate in any between-inning contests or throw t-shirts into the crowd or anything like that. I didn’t even have a designated eater; the guy who had signed up cancelled, and I decided not to find a replacement. I was simply on hand to take in the final game atmosphere, and to talk to people regarding their thoughts on the imminent demise of the Rock Cats. (And the imminent rise of the Hartford Yard Goats.)

One of the most important people I talked to was 88-year-old Al Nelson. Pretty much everyone in the ballpark seemed to know him.

033An excerpt from my MiLB.com story on the Rock Cats, which prominently featured Nelson:

Al Nelson, an 88-year-old World War II veteran and retired firefighter, has been there through it all. He lives two miles from the ballpark and Sunday as always, rode his bike to the afternoon contest. (He won’t ride at night, he explained, because “you can’t find the potholes.”) Nelson, who has his name engraved on his first-row bleacher seat, is the unofficial mayor of the ballpark.

Hartford is only 12 miles from New Britain, but Nelson and fans like him have no interest in transferring their loyalties to the Hartford Yard Goats.

“I’m not going over there,” he said. “For one thing, they don’t have a parking lot. You’re gonna park in a garage or something? It’s not gonna be good. I’m not walking around Hartford at 10:00 at night. I’m not gonna feel safe. I’m not going to have any wheels when I get back. Where the hell’s my tires?”

In addition to talking to people, I wandered around a lot. It is always hard for me to sit still when visiting ballparks, and my afternoon in New Britain was no exception.

035

The pickins in the team store were, by this point, slimmer than a mass produced beef-stick.

037An interview conducted on this outdoor party porch allowed me to take in a second-level vantage point. No women allowed, apparently.

039And how about a round of applause for these two kids, hanging out in the parking lot while waiting for a foul ball to fly their way.

041The Rock Cats had a full roster of mascots wandering the ballpark. I’m not sure how many of them will be making the trip to Hartford.

Here, we have a Walrus who goes by the name of “Blooper.” I never did see Eggman, his purported sidekick.045This is Rookie, nephew of primary mascot Rocky.

046

Rookie’s favorite player is Rocky, whose favorite movie is Rocky. Rookie’s favorite movie is The Rookie, while his favorite food is Rocky Road ice cream. You’d think that Rocky Road ice cream would be Rocky’s favorite food, but Rocky simply prefers “ballpark hot dogs.” Way to deviate from the theme, Rocky. You’re like the Rocky V of mascots in that regard.

Reading the above paragraph was probably a deflating experience, akin to seeing Fun Zone attractions closed down for the final time.

047

Yes, the Rock Cats era at New Britain Stadium was rapidly coming to an end. Or at least it appeared so at the time. Midway through the seventh inning, the Portland Sea Dogs held a 4-3 lead over the home team.

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, one last time.

The Rock Cats tied the game at 4-4 in the bottom of the 8th. Jan Vazquez walked, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on Tyler Massey’s two-out single. Massey then stole second base and tried to score the go-ahead run on Noel Cuevas’ single to right field. But…no dice. Sea Dogs right fielder Aneury Tavarez gunned him down at the plate.

Tie score in the ninth inning? Hey, no problem. It’s never too late to get your picture taken with the mascot.

048The Sea Dogs went quietly in the top of the ninth, and in the bottom of the frame the Rock Cats again put themselves on the brink of victory. With two outs and a runner on second, Jordan Patterson came to the plate.

And…no dice.

Okay, so the Rock Cats era at New Britain Stadium wasn’t quite ready to end. Free baseball! The Sea Dogs again went quietly in the 10th; in my notebook I wondered if the at-bat music played for Tim Roberson (“Mrs. Robinson”) that inning would be “the last ‘mocking the visitor’ walk-up song in team history.” I immediately forgot to continue to keep track of this quirky detail, but it probably wasn’t. There was still more baseball to be played.

The bottom of the 10th unfolded very similarly to the bottom of the 8th. Vazquez walked, advanced to second on a sac bunt and then moved to third on a Juan Ciriaco single. Sensing the magnitude of the situation, one hardy fan attempting to strike up a “These Cats Rock!” chant. Only other person joined him, however. Anemic response begets anemic response, as an infield pop out was followed by a ground ball to shortstop.

No dice, so we went on to the 11th. In the top of the inning, Keury De La Cruz launched one over the wall in right center field to give the Sea Dogs a 5-4 advantage. Al Nelson, the unofficial mayor of the stadium, had seen enough. He left after the top of the 11th ended, perhaps not wanting to see the final game at New Britain Stadium end with a Rock Cats loss.

Fare thee well, Mr. Nelson. You’ve really got to respect an 88-year-old man who still rides his bike to the ballpark.

049But perhaps Mr. Nelson should have stuck it out. Pat Valaika doubled to lead off the bottom of the 11th, putting a runner in scoring position with no outs. But this was followed by a pair of infield pop-ups, little sound and less fury, signifying nothing. Patterson then came to the plate, the only thing standing in the way of a dispiriting final game defeat.

Dispiriting defeat was denied, however, as Patterson came through!

Vazquez struck out to end the inning, so on the 12th we went.

As you can see in the above video, what had been a pleasant late summer day was starting to turn ominous. Might the last home game in Rock Cats history include the last rain delay in Rock Cats history? As if the day hadn’t already gone on long enough. It is also worth noting that a celebrity softball game was scheduled to take place following the conclusion of the Rock Cats – Sea Dogs tilt. Participants included Rollie Fingers, Ferguson Jenkins, George Foster and Jim Leyritz; I was told that, while waiting for this game to end, this cadre of distinguished baseball men hung out in a cramped office within the stadium and traded war stories. What a surreal environment Minor League Baseball can be.

The 12th inning, meanwhile, was completely uneventful as both teams went down in order.

Now it was time for lucky 13. Kevin Pataky, veteran Minor League photographer, figured he may as well stay a while.

Portland, once again, went down 1-2-3 in the 13th. But the Rock Cats, as they were making a habit of doing, threatened in the bottom of the frame. Valaika doubled with one out, and after an intentional walk to Mike Tauchman Will Swanner hit a single to right field.

Valaika was waved around…

…and Valaika was thrown out.

As we careened to the 14th, I obtained a different vantage point.

051Nonetheless, the song remained the same. The Sea Dogs went down quietly in the top of the 14th, and the Rock Cats failed to score in the bottom of the frame. This despite the fact that they loaded the bases, and the guy on the mound was reserve infielder Oscar Tejeda. Yes, the last home game in Rock Cats history would now be decided with a position player pitching

I spent the bottom of the 14th inning in the press box, and the frustration in the room was palpable.

“It’s like he’s throwing batting practice out there! C’mon!” was a representative remark.

I spent the top of the 15th inning on the left field party deck. Any joy that the fans may have once had at getting to savor a few extra innings of Rock Cats baseball had now curdled into disgust.

“For the love of God, be done!” one woman screamed.

“After this game, I’m never coming back,” added a nearby gentleman.

The Sea Dogs didn’t muster anything more than a harmless single in the top of the 15th, giving the Rock Cats another crack at Tejeda — who, once again, is a position player — in the bottom of the frame. Tauchman singled to start things off, replaced by Swanner on first base bases after a botched sacrifice bunt attempt. But no matter. Patterson then came to the plate and finally, mercifully, ended the ballgame all with a two-run home run. Final score: Rock Cats 7, Sea Dogs 5.

Kevin Pataky got a great shot of the ensuing celebration.

walkoffThank You, Rock Cats fans, for 33 seasons of loyal support and, also, for sticking around for the entirety of this farcical baseball game.

052AC/DC, the original “Rock” cats, then played over the PA as the kids flooded onto the field to run the bases. From my notes:

“The emcee won’t stop yelling during run the bases. Dude, let the moment be!”

053And, yes, a celebrity softball game then broke out. Kudos to Mr. Fingers for wearing a full uniform.

054At this juncture of the day, sticking around for a celebrity softball game felt like a form of cruel and unusual punishment. I had only one thing left to do, and that one thing was to make the final Groundbreaking and Subversive Ballpark joke in New Britain Rock Cats history.

Nailed it.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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