It was early May and it was Game 4 of the Celtics-Sixers series in the second round of the NBA playoffs. But on the spur of the moment I went to see a former football star play minor league baseball in an old hockey town. Tim Tebow ended up going 1-for-3, including a strikeout with the bases loaded and no outs. He doesn’t seem destined to be one of the great crossover stars like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, but he seems to be having fun, and so were the rest of the almost 7,000 of us who showed up to watch. The important thing is that we were all in Hartford, downtown Hartford, enjoying ourselves.
I was completely against the building of Dunkin’ Donuts Park. Back in 2014, when the idea was first coming together, it was easy to drive through Hartford and find better uses for the $71 million cost attached to the stadium. I also liked watching the Rock Cats in Hard Hittin’, and I thought it mean spirited and un-neighborly for city officials and developers to snatch New Britain’s team and rename it. That Hartford, a city that knows that pain acutely, would be the one to steal another city’s team was an irony almost too cruel to bear. Cost overruns and buffoonery on the part of the original contracting company meant that the Yard Goats played every single one of their inaugural season’s games on the road.
Two decades after the Whalers left, Yard Goats owner Josh Solomon said that he would move the team if the ballpark wasn’t finished by opening day of 2017. The field sat there empty and became something worse than the parking lot it used to be. Until 2010, at the corner of Trumbull and Main streets, sat the infamous “Butt Ugly Building,” a ruin of an earlier Hartford. And now, there was a half-finished baseball stadium, the opposite of a ruin: the yet-to-exist, a future struggling to be born.
During that time, an activist who lives and works in the North End imagined a scene to me of laid-off Hartford public school teachers and their former students breaking into the vacant stadium, and playing baseball, daring the police to arrest them in an act of civil disobedience. The image was another thing almost too much to bear.
They finished the ballpark, and baseball fans — and fans of the city of Hartford, in general — exhaled in relief. And now this summer, in the Yard Goats’ third season, and their second with a home, Dunkin’ Donuts Park is a sight to behold. Sitting in the right-field bleachers watching a beautiful sunset over the North End — just as the name “Hartford” (and the bailout it recently received from state government to protect it from insolvency) rings out angrily in the mouths of penny-pinching suburban legislators and residents alike, and again Hartford is thought of as a symbol of bad — one wonders if it was worth all the public money in the first place. It will be difficult to tell, these things being measured in decades rather than summers. Few can disagree that a ballpark is better than the Butt Ugly. New Britain got a team, the Bees, so we need not feel too guilty on that front.
The memory of the Whalers hangs over much of what it feels like to go see the Yard Goats. Their marketing and branding teams have very smartly tapped into the Whaler blue and green. Whaler alumni weekend is July 27-29. As politicians talk and talk and talk about what to do with what used to be called the Civic Center, the Whalers’ cathedral, the Yard Goats play the Brass Bonanza. It’s minor league, but in Hartford it feels pretty major. Early this season, I have seen the mysteriously famous football player field base hits in left field, seen Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — one of the top prospects in baseball — hit his first Double-A home run, and been raised to my feet and almost off them, by a chant of “Let’s go, Hartford!”
The summer can be a difficult time in Hartford. If the Yard Goats — in concert with the artists, activists, dreamers and hustlers across the city — can bring a bit of magic to summer nights in the capital city, then perhaps the ballpark will have been worth it. We’ll see. Let’s go, Hartford.