The last day of the three-stop New England minor league tour started in Portland, Maine, following a game at Hadlock Field the previous night. Following breakfast in nearby Freeport, we headed for New Britain, Connecticut for an evening ball game at New Britain Stadium, home of the Rock Cats.
The weather had been spectacular across southern Maine the previous day, but as we drove south, we drew closer to a heat wave that was underway from southern New England into the Mid Atlantic states. By the time we reached New Britain in the mid afternoon, we traded temperature in the 70s in Portland for the lower 90s in Connecticut. In addition, the humidity levels were markedly higher, setting the stage for active weather later in afternoon.
Having arrived in New Britain well before game time, we decided to explore the city. However, the hot and humid conditions were hardly conducive to walking, and after a quick tour of Walnut Hill Park, we took shelter in the New Britain Museum of American Art. Established in 1903, it was the first museum in the US dedicated to American art. Much of the art displayed during our visit was impressionist, as well as post-contemporary.
After about an hour in the museum, we headed toward the ballpark. While in the museum, hazy sunshine had given way to clouds, which were yielding scattered showers and thunderstorms. Conditions improved as we reached the park, with more hazy sunshine as we arrived. There was onsite parking for $5 (for better parking) and $3 (for the rest of the lot), and we got to the stadium early enough so that parking was ample.
Though it opened in 1996, the brick facade of New Britain Stadium gave the park an older, almost throwback feel. Once inside, it was clear that the ballpark was modular. Unlike most modular ballparks, there were no aluminum grandstands; instead, there were nearly 6,000 pine green seats. A concrete concourse spanned from left field to right field, with covered picnic areas near each foul line.
Storm clouds started gathering over the park, and suddenly a thunderstorm enveloped over the stadium. Thunder, lightning and pouring rain accompanied the storm, sending fans under the stands and toward the concession areas. While we waited for the rain to slacken, we visited the team store. As might be expected, the store was busy with bored fans killing time while the storm raged. The store possessed standard fare, and I indulged in a hat, a yearbook and a Rock Cats tote.
Just as the first storm ended, another followed on its heel. At that point, I became increasingly pessimistic that we would get the game in. Fortunately, the second storm dissipated almost as quickly as it formed, leaving just some drizzle as the darkness approached. Finally, the tarp was removed, and the game started about 830 pm, almost 90 minutes after the scheduled first pitch.
For tonight’s game, the Rock Cats (the Double A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies) hosted the Binghamton Mets. In the lineup for the Mets was LF Michael Conforto. The left handed hitting Conforto had been swinging a hot bat for much of the season, though he had cooled off some heading into this series. Despite the dry spell, Conforto would make his MLB debut three days later.
Also in the lineup was CF Brandon Nimmo, a former number one draft pick, who was working his was through the Mets’ system. Finally, LJ Mazzilli started at 2B. Mazzilli, the son of former Met Lee Mazzilli, had been in the Mets system for a couple of years, trying to break through to AAA.
Our seats for the game were adjacent to the Mets’ dugout, affording us a unique view of the Mets on the bench. Some of the hijinks in the dugout was nearly as entertaining as the action on the field. We were also treated to a close up look at players we would see in the big leagues in years to come.
Apparently, the weather delay chased away all but the heartiest of baseball fans. The sparse crowd that remained made the 6,000 seat stadium seem almost empty as the first pitch was thrown. Once the rain ended, the remainder of the night was dry, but clouds remained for the balance of the game.
The B-Mets offense got going early, scoring three runs in the top of the first, featuring a run-scoring triple by Brandon Nimmo. Mets starter Gabriel Ynoa made those runs stand up, yielding a single run in his seven innings of work. Ynoa, who would eventually reach the MLB with the Mets, had possibly his best outing of the season.
Ynoa, along with two relievers, held the Rock Cats to five hits while striking out 11. The quick-paced game clocked in at two hours and 30 minutes. Toward the end of the game, the sparse crowd thinned out even more. Among the remaining fans was LJ Mazzilli’s father, Lee Mazzilli.
It seemed that only a few in the remaining crowd recognized him, but his presence was brought to our attention by murmuring fans near his seat. Mazzilli seemed gracious, but his facial expression indicated that perhaps he just wanted to watch the game. After the final out, we saw him in the concourse, but left him alone.
At the conclusion of the game, we exited quickly, with a three hour drive ahead of us. New Britain Stadium was the epitome of a modular stadium, complete with a unassuming but functional video board. The 2015 season was the last for the Rock Cats, as the would become the Hartford Yard Goats in 2016, scheduled to move into the brand new Dunkin’ Donuts Park.