We have a history. Oh, do we have a baseball history.
The only Civil War veteran inducted by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown brought professional baseball to Hartford in 1874. Not only was Morgan G. Bulkeley a team owner, he helped make the Dark Blues one of the eight charter members of the National League in 1876 and, at age 29, he even became the first president of the National League.
Bulkeley later became Hartford mayor, Connecticut governor, U.S. Senator, 43-year Aetna president and, in death, a city high school, a baseball stadium and a bridge across the Connecticut River. It's worth talking about the Bulkeley Bridge today, because it is part of I-84, and, as we all know, I-84 is the asphalt moat — the logistical nightmare — that chopped one of New England's great cities in half, dividing the downtown from the North End.
If this move by the Rock Cats from New Britain to Hartford does come to pass, it does not strike one mighty blow for Hartford. If "tentative agreement" means a final stepping-stone before permanent agreement and isn't some kind of leveraging maneuver to improve a deal to remain in New Britain, it strikes two mighty blows. The baseball fan and the city planner should be well pleased.
Professional baseball, which dates back 140 years in Hartford, will be back where it belongs, in a town where it hasn't been in 62 years. The Boston Braves pulled the Chiefs, their minor league team, out of since-demolished Bulkeley Stadium in the South End in 1952, and we have waited since for baseball's return.
Initially playing as a ringer from Columbia under the surname Lewis, Lou Gehrig played for the Hartford Senators in the early 1920s. A 51-year-old Babe Ruth appeared in his last recorded box score, a Bulkeley Stadium exhibition in 1945. Warren Spahn was demoted by the Braves to Hartford in 1942. Told he lacked guts by Casey Stengel, Spahn not only became one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time, he won the Bronze Star for his actions at the Battle of the Bulge.
Oh, yeah, we have a baseball history. Now we have to learn the specifics of our baseball future.
There was a time when there were three Double A affiliates in the Connecticut, and New Britain was considered the worst of the three. Well, New Haven is long gone. Norwich has a Single A team. With people like Bill Dowling, New Britain became a model minor league franchise. This past weekend, in fact, the Rock Cats set a franchise three-game series record for attendance of 22,813.
The Rock Cats' lease runs out in 2015. There has been talk that Josh Solomon and his siblings, who bought the franchise from Dowling and Coleman Levy in 2012, are looking to move the club to Springfield. So Hartford could serve two purposes: keeping the team in Connecticut and giving the franchise a spiffy new downtown location.
Hey, maybe this thing is essentially done. Maybe Hartford stepping up is the only thing that kept the team from moving out of state. Maybe we're a little too jittery. Still, there is said to have been a tax issue between the club and New Britain and a few other matters with New Britain Stadium that the Solomons aren't happy with. That's why I want to be careful about last-minute negotiating tactics with New Britain, with another city, anybody.
The Patriots appeared and disappeared almost overnight, remember? The Dark Blues became the first major league team ever to abandon a city and the tradition continued a century later with the Whalers, so, always, always we wait for the ink to dry before yelling, "Huzzah!"
After she was contacted by The Courant, New Britain Mayor Erin E. Stewart tweeted, "SPOILER ALERT: The Rock Cats aren't leaving New Britain." Hartford has been Charlie Brown before and had the football pulled away at the last second. Maybe Mayor Stewart is Lucy. Or maybe she's deluding herself. So call this piece a tentative huzzah!
It's interesting that there would be an announcement in the next couple of days just as the summer attendance season is heating up. Could it cost a chunk of fans initially? It could. The folks in New Britain aren't going to be happy — I feel for them — and how that emotion is tempered will be interesting to watch unfold.
The distance between Rock Cats Stadium and the proposed Lot 12B site at the corner of Main and Trumbull is only 13.7 miles, but in the intense, tight world of 169 petty fiefdoms, those 13.7 miles could be filled with potholes of anger. There will be complaints about downtown traffic. There will be complaints that the parking will cost more. I do not want to minimize those complaints, but if the tradeoff is a more vibrant downtown on summer nights — count me in.
Talk about baseball returning to Hartford has gone on for decades, but the news of this move Monday arrived faster than a line drive at the pitcher's head. Are firm plans to finance a stadium in place? Is an architectural blueprint in place? Has the Eastern League given some kind of permission? Have significant sponsors been lined up?
This is a huge undertaking. And in what figures to be a tight election year, it struck me that it would be especially risky for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to be involved in moving a source of New Britain pride to the capital city. It turns out, I was told, the state is not involved in the financing. It's city business. It'll have to be approved by the City Council.
At any rate, I'm not running for governor or mayor. I only plan to run from the parking lot in time for the first pitch when the stadium is tentatively supposed to open in 2016. Hey, I've expanded on my dreams more than once in the past. I dreamed of Louisville. I dreamed of a Triple A park on the Connecticut River. I dreamed of the park being surrounded by restaurants and bars. I dreamed of 75 beautiful nights on the town for folks.
Having said that, developing that parcel of land known as 12B has real potential to undo some of the damage done by I-84 a half century ago. Yes, the North End has had its share of problems. The North End is also a prideful, important part of our city. To stretch something new and important north of I-84 could be a beautiful bridge over that moat — another Bulkeley Bridge to link the North End to downtown.
It'll depend on the number of seats and how many bells and whistles you want, but a minor eague stadium like this might cost, oh, $40 million to $60 million. Given the — let me be polite here — iffy economic status of Hartford, it'll be interesting to see how the city makes it happen. The $40 million overall price tag isn't what is scary. It's the annual payoff on the debt service and how that will work in conjunction with the team that's the rub.
This would appear to take the 12B site out of the running as a site for a new arena to replace the aging XL Center. The plans right now are either to refurbish the XL Center or use the Church Street garage site as additional space for a new building. That determination is expected by the end of the year.
Again, we will have to wait and see on the baseball park, because this has come down the pike fast, but it would be great to see if the corporate bigwigs lined up to help in this. More than great, it will be necessary. We all complain about the young brain drain to Boston and New York. A beautiful new park and a livelier downtown in the warm weather months can be an antidote.
It's time for Hartford to play ball! Again.