The 2015 season is coming to an end for the minor leagues, and that means changes are coming for players and teams alike. However, there is one minor league team that is facing the end of the line. Brandon Magee went to the final game for the New Britain Rock Cats to cover their farewell.
Minor league baseball has been a reality of New Britain, Connecticut summers since 1983, when the Bristol Red Sox moved ten miles east, trading historic Muzzy Field for Beehive Field. For 33 seasons, New Britain has hosted an Eastern League franchise and saw the future stars of Major League Baseball. Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling pitched there. Jeff Bagwell, Mo Vaughn, Joe Mauer, David Ortiz, Justin Morneau and even Sam Horn slugged there. But movement of franchises is as ubiquitous in the minor leagues as the movement of players. On August 30, the curtains came down on New Britain as the last act was played.
Watching the final game of any season is difficult. The end of the season brings change, especially in minor league ball. The players that have been followed all season may be promoted, traded or out of baseball the following season. But, there is always next season. A spring awakening, new players to follow and the dream of the playoffs or a championship begins anew. Watching the end of a franchise is different. There is no next season. There are no players that will be back when the cold New England winter changes to the raw spring of hope. Melancholy is the word of the day. Interviews about the last game in New Britain are given. Stories of the best games in New Britain’s history are told and embellished.
The Rock Cats organization attempted to make the day special. Ferguson Jenkins and Rollie Fingers, Baseball Hall of Famers, were both in the house. So were Rick Cerone, Jim Leyritz, George Foster and Darrell Evans. They would all be part of a celebrity softball game immediately after the final baseball game in New Britain Stadium. The game benefited a fine charity, the Greatest Save, but the tone was off. These former major league players have no history with New Britain. And shouldn’t the final game be a baseball game, a final ode to the sport that has been a fabric of this town for three decades?
Of course, the ownership may not have realized that shifting the franchise another ten miles north to Hartford leaves a sting. Leaving a stadium that was built only two decades ago for the new Coolatta of the month leaves some fans bitter. Hartford Yard Goats merchandise was being sold in one part of the stadium while the official gift shop was selling the last of the remaining Rock Cats merchandise. The “Thank You Fans” messages given over the scoreboard from the team officials always made sure to mention to see the team next season in Dunkin Donuts Stadium in Hartford. A final poke at an open wound.
But, baseball heals wounds. A meaningless game between the Portland Sea Dogs and the New Britain Rock Cats, two teams eliminated from playoff contention, ended the run of baseball in the Hardware City with a classic that had twists and turns and an ending that was pitch perfect. The affiliates of the Red Sox, the original hosts in New Britain, and the Rockies played over four hours of baseball to nearly seven thousand fans and gave the city one last amazing memory.
Unlike the Rock Cats ownership, the Colorado Rockies seemed to understand the historic nature of this ending. Why else would Justin Morneau have been asked to do his minor league rehab in Connecticut instead of up the road in Colorado Springs where the Rockies AAA affiliate was playing? Morneau spent the entire 2002 season playing for the Rock Cats when they were part of the Minnesota Twins system, batting .298/.356/.474 with 16 home runs. He would slug one more over the fences of New Britain on Saturday night and ended his rehab with a 2-for-4 day, hitting a double and driving in three. The 2006 American League MVP was long gone, however, when the game hit its final crescendo.
The game itself was a rollicking affair, befitting two teams lying in the cellar of the Eastern League Eastern Division. The Sea Dogs picked up a run in the second, but the Rock Cats used an error, a sacrifice bunt (the go to move for the Rock Cats who successfully dropped four in the game), a balk and a Morneau double to tie the game back up in the third. A walk and a double, sandwiched around an unsuccessful sacrifice bunt attempt, in the fifth set-up Morneau, who singled in two runs as the Rock Cats picked up their first lead of the game. Portland immediately tied it with a Tzu-Wei Lin single followed by a Sam Travis blast, but despite being gifted a second and third with no outs, the Sea Dogs could not push across another in the sixth.
The Sea Dogs would pick up the lead, 4-3, in the top of the seventh as Jordan Weems tripled down the right field line to begin the frame and was knocked in with a two-out single by Travis. The final Justin Morneau at bat came in the bottom of the frame, a strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play – well executed by pitcher Mike Augliera, catcher Weems and shortstop Lin. After a 1-2-3 top of the eight, New Britain would tie the score in the bottom of the inning. Williams Jerez walked Jan Vazquez, the first batter he faced, and after a sacrifice bunt and a strikeout, Tyler Massey singled him in. After a Massey steal, the Rock Cats made the attempt to get the lead, but testing the arm of right fielder Aneury Tavarez on a Noel Cuevas single failed and the final out of the inning was made at home plate.
Portland would go down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning, but another lead-off walk for the Rock Cats in the 9th set themselves up for the dramatic walk-off. Alas, the sacrifice bunt-strikeout strategy did not work as well in this frame, as Jordan Patterson grounded out to Sam Travis who tossed to the covering Jerez to end the inning. The final game in New Britain would go to extras. Baseball would not leave quietly.
Portland went down 1-2-3 in the tenth as well, and again the Rock Cats would threaten in the bottom half against new pitcher Heri Quevedo. Another lead-off walk and another sacrifice bunt would lead to a one-out single by Juan Ciriaco. Burned in the 8th at home, the Rock Cats would not test the arm of left fielder Keury de la Cruz. They would also not score, as a pop out and a ground out ended the inning. With one out in the 11th, de la Cruz would end the Sea Dogs out streak at eleven consecutive, rocketing a ball over the right field wall and giving Portland the 5-4 lead. New Britain would get another leadoff runner on base with a Pat Valaika double, but another two quick outs left them in a desperate situation. One out from ending the final home game with a loss, Jordan Patterson kept the game alive with a double to tie it back up at 5. Vazquez would end the inning with a strikeout.
The game would continue on into the 12th, where both teams went down 1-2-3. The Sea Dogs would go down in order in the 13th as well, setting up more dramatics in the bottom of the frame. Valaika would again double, this time with one out, and the Sea Dogs intentionally walked Mike Tauchman to set up a double play. Instead, Will Swanner singled through the hole between first and second, and the Rock Cats would once again test the arm of Aneury Tavarez. And once again, they would fail as Valaika was tagged out at the plate. Patterson had another chance to be a hero, but grounded out to Travis at first base.
Portland would get a single by Dustin Lawley in the top of the 14th, but was quickly erased on a double play. As the second seventh inning stretch commenced, a pitching change was being made on the field. An historic game would become even more memorable as infielder Oscar Tejeda took the mound for the Sea Dogs. Tejeda would get the first man he faced to ground out before hitting the next batter. A fly out would put a second out on the board, but the Rock Cats would load the bases with a double to left and another hit by pitch, leading to Valaika who had reached in his last four plate appearances. Surely this would be the walk-off win the crowd had been waiting for. It was not to be. Tejeda improbably did what pitchers Danny Rosenbaum, Mike Augliera, Williams Jerez and Heri Quevedo could not do, he struck out Pat Valaika.
The Portland offense was able to eek out a single in the 15th, but no runs. Tejeda started his second inning of relief by giving up a single to Mike Tauchman. New Britain would go back to their toolbox for their favorite play, the sacrifice bunt, but this time the gambit failed as Tejeda was able to force Tauchman out with the Sea Dogs nearly pulling off the double play. Jordan Patterson would once again have the chance to end the game. And on the 20th pitch by Tejeda, the fairy tale ending was completed. Patterson drove the ball to deep left and the ball sailed out of the park, a walk-off home run. The Rock Cats win.
The Rock Cats have another week of baseball to play until they officially become the Yard Goats. But they are no longer New Britain’s team. They are just the Rock Cats as they end the season with games in Trenton, New Jersey and Portland, Maine. The three decade ride of baseball in New Britain has come to a close. But, what a legendary way to end. 15 innings of glorious baseball, a former MVP rehabbing, future MLB stars hitting home runs, two critical outs at the plate, an infielder pitching and, of course, a walk-off homerun. An entire history of baseball in New Britain distilled into one legendary final game.