HARTFORD — First base is a good place for chop it up. The runner’s usually in a good mood, the first baseman is holding him on. It’s like Forest Gump’s scenes at the bus stop.
When there’s a meeting of the minds on the bag at Dunkin’ Park, the Yard Goats’ Grant Lavigne often hears the same thing.
“Playing first base, you talk to a lot of guys,” Lavigne said. “And it’s always, ‘You guys have got such a great field’ … ‘You guys really pack it out.’ … Someone at first base, whether they get a hit or a walk, they say this is their favorite place to play.”
Seven years later, Hartford’s downtown ballpark still has it, for its residents and visitors alike.
“The cool thing for me is when a player comes in for the first time,” said Jeff Dooley, the Goats’ longtime announcer. “Or you watch other teams come in, and they’re taking selfies on the field. You don’t see that a lot in pro ball, guys don’t get blown away by things like that. I feel that, I love seeing that, it does not get old for me.”
The Yard Goats, more specifically the Yard Goats experience at Dunkin’ Park, has shown no signs of age, but what does age and fade is the summer. There’s always something melancholy about an ebbing minor-league season; a desire to grasp at summer’s escaping contrails. This Eastern League season ends next weekend, but on Sunday the Yard Goats say farewell to Hartford for the 2023 season with the final home game vs. Binghamton.
We can say that the experience has not peaked, or plateaued, it survived the pandemic and the novelty that usually wears off after a few years, has not. There are always new novelties. The Bouncing Pickles, the insanely popular Savanah Bananas, a raucous Home Run Derby X, all part of the sights and sounds of this summer.
Dunkin’ Park sold out its 6,000 seats, with overflow in the concourse, some 44 times this season, including a stretch of 21 games in a row, 41 of 50, during the middle of the season. The average attendance topped 6,200, second to Richmond in the EL, and will top 400,000 for the season despite losing three sold-out dates to rain.
“Often times, you look back and you’ve seen so many teams that were established have gone through the cycle of the minor-league baseball business,” said Tim Restall, Yard Goats president. “And they peak, and then they plateau and then they drop. We are still peaking and plateauing. Our staff does a great job of not settling for ‘okay.'”
Restall was gratified by the success of two new “brands” games played as the Bouncing Pickles, a gimmick that resurrected a 1948 story about two men arrested in Ellington for selling pickles unfit for human consumption. Officials deemed them unfit because, when dropped, they splattered instead of bounced. We’re not making this up.
On a more serious note, the team played a game in elegant white uniforms with a block H as the “Schoolboys,” to honor the legacy of Hartford’s Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor, a Negro Leagues legend denied the chance to play in the major leagues. At the end of his career, Taylor was the first African American to play for the EL’s Hartford Chiefs in 1949.
“Some things we do are kooky and funny,” Restall said. “Some things we do are genuine. Both were well received.”
On the field, the Goats had a midseason surge, but missed the playoffs and finished well south of .500, but six first-round draft picks played in Hartford, and two of their players — Hunter Goodman and Evan Justice — have already moved up to the big leagues in Colorado. Fans in Hartford had the chance to see visiting players on the fast track, such as Jasson Dominguez, who has recently made a big splash in New York.
“It shows you, when these guys get up here (to Double A), they’re pretty close,” Dooley said.
Actually, make that three in the big leagues. Dooley got the long-awaited, well-earned chance to fill in on a couple of Rockies’ broadcasts.
Apartment buildings and other developments are at last going up around the ballpark. The players now live within walking distance and there is more foot traffic in the neighborhood, things that were long envisioned.
So it was a fun, fruitful year for Hartford’s minor-league baseball team. The summer ends, but one thing won’t change: There’s always next year.
More for your Sunday Read:
UConn opening doors, but how wide?
It was a little strange, with state reporters gathered in their normal spot on one side of the Werth Center court, and UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley standing, waiting on the other. On cue, he began to walk over, by then with a mic on and a videographer trailing,
Hurley joked that he’d mic up in case he was misquoted or taken out of context. (I think he was joking.) But this will become normal, as UConn gathers content for a possible postseason video to be offered somewhere, and to post on its own platforms.
“We’ve kicked around some things,” Hurley said. “We’re considering doing one of those behind-the-scenes for after the season. It’s scary, but we’re proud of how we do things.”
Hurley may be a little antsy about exposing too much to the public, but he is a fan of such series, like Hard Knocks,or Quarterbacks, even Premier League soccer content (loves Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp).
“A lot of times during the year, especially when times get tough, you’re losing or players aren’t playing well,” Hurley said. “It comes down to people in the building, and you’re (concerned) about making that circle too big. We definitely want to put out more content for our fans. No one’s done what we’ve done in college basketball the last 25 years.
“We’re as good as anybody in college basketball at winning championships, so we just want our fans to have a better view of our program. We probably don’t get as much attention as we probably deserve. So many fans consume the product on social, TikTok, Instagram, you’ve got to have a heavy presence there. It’s important to recruits, it’s important to our fans, so we’ve beefed up our staff that way. We’ll be producing the best stuff we’ve produced this year.”
Just putting this out there: If the UConn men want to raise their profile, put their culture, personalities, fun sides on display, there’s an tried and true way to accomplish that. How about a return to open locker rooms after games and courtside seating for media?
Hey, an old-schooler, mainstreamer can dream, can’t he?
Sunday short takes
* Luisangel Acuna, the prized prospect the Mets landed in the Max Scherzer trade, didn’t homer in his first 29 games at Double A Binghamton, but broke out with a pair against the Yard Goats Wednesday. Generally, he looks as good as advertised.
* Another interesting Dunkin’ note. The Yard Goats were no-hit on consecutive Sept. 7s. This time by Binghamton’s Joander Suarez. In 2022, Somerset’s Yoendrys Gomez and Steven Jennings combined for one.
* East Haven’s Logan Charboneau, 6 feet 6, 215 pounds, one of the top baseball prospects in the Class of 2025 and a UConn commit, will be playing at Hamden Hall next season. He was at Stony Brook School on Long Island last season. Will he make it to Storrs, or go too high in the MLB draft? Talent evaluators have mentioned the word “freak” to me, in describing his two-way ability.
* As the season comes to an end, MLB games are averaging 2:39, about 25 minutes shorter than last season, so it appears the pitch clock has had its intended effect.
It was only a few years ago, 2017, we heard about and saw the last wave of “Baby Bombers,” but that group of young Yankees produced only two with durable star power, Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres. Tap the breaks on Core Four comparisons, but this new promising crop, led by the 20-year old Dominguez, who is John Sterling’s “Favorite Martian,” has provided the shot in the arm the team needed a month ago.
Question: If there wasn’t a helpful deal to be made at the deadline, why didn’t the Yankees try calling up the kids before it was too late to save the season?