Friday, September 14, 2007


Terry Ryan's resignation as general manager of the Minnesota Twins came as shock to the people closest to him in New Britain.

Ryan, 52, perhaps the epitome of hands-on general managers, has visited New Britain at least twice a year in the 12 years the Twins have been locally affiliated. He has always been readily accessible to media and fans alike whenever he's been in town.

Thankfully, Ryan's visits will continue. He will serve as a senior adviser to new GM Bill Smith, whose parents live in Ledyard, with an emphasis on player evaluation. As a former scout, evaluation is what Ryan has always done best and enjoys. The parts of the job he didn't enjoy -- dealing with agents and putting out, as he calls it, administrative brush fires -- he will leave behind.

Ryan's tenure as general manager featured the revitalization of a franchise that became moribund in the mid-1990s. In the face of large-market domination and the specter of losing players to free agency, Ryan and his loyal staff restocked the Twins the old-fashioned way -- through scouting, development and some productive trades.

We in New Britain enjoyed the fruits of his labor -- Doug Mientkiewicz, David Ortiz, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Francisco Liriano and Jason Bartlett to name a few. There were also many who weren't fortunate enough to bask in the limelight of the major leagues but contributed so much to the city's sports culture, like Jeff Smith, Brent Stentz and Steve Hacker.

We should all be very thankful that Terry Ryan has passed this way so often, and we're very fortunate that he'll be passing this way again.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Leave it to Riccardo Ingram’s enigmatic Rock Cats to be playing their best ball of the season by far when the curtain comes down.

The Portland Sea Dogs, the Rock Cats’ spring training partners because their complexes are across town in Fort Myers, Fla., came into the five-game series needing a win or two to secure a playoff spot that they seemed to have wrapped up weeks ago.

So what happens? The Rock Cats, whose playoff mathematics stopped mattering after they lost three of four in Binghamton last week, sweep the series and wind up just a half-game out of a playoff spot.

Portland and New Hampshire finished the regular season 70-72 and will stage a one-game winner-take-all game Tuesday. The Rock Cats ended at 69-72 after a season-best seven-game winning streak.

“The guys just came to play,” Ingram said, after Monday’s crowd-pleasing 11-7 thrashing of the Sea Dogs. “I think a lot of it was all the stuff we went through as a team. We had to keep battling. We were younger than everybody else. This last series they finally started to understand what you have to do to compete here.”

The reason for 141 games played instead of the prescribed 142: a rainout on getaway day in Erie August 9 couldn’t be made up. The logistics of travel made it difficult to envision. The priorities of the major league clubs and their perspective on minor league playoffs make such a thing unthinkable. League rules made it impossible.

The slightest of shortcomings had Ingram thinking of all the games the Rock Cats should have won. His players learned a valuable lesson the hard way on playing every game to the hilt. If just one of those late-game leads could have been protected. Ingram heads back to Georgia with a duffel bag full of ifs and a strong belief in a productive future.

“I feel good about a lot of things,” he said. “We went from 14 under (.500, 64-78 last year) to the record we have this year and a mindset to build on next year. Next year we have to definitely be over .500. Anything else will be unacceptable.”

The prevailing sentiment is that many of these Cats should repeat. Ryan Mullins, Oswaldo Sosa and Yohan Pino should form a nucleus of a solid starting rotation. Jose Mijares, Eduardo Morlan and Armando Gabino have the stuff to alleviate the horrible bullpen woes that are at the heart of 2007 failures.

Who will be back among the position players would be rampant speculation at this point but it should start with shortstop Trevor Plouffe, center fielder Brandon Roberts, with Class A grads Dustin Martin and Florida State League All-Star Erik Lis among the newcomers.

Perhaps slugging first baseman Brock Peterson will repeat if Garrett Jones is still ahead of him. What is to become of Matt Moses is anybody’s guess.

Nonetheless, we’ll all look back on 2007 wondering what might have been. We’ll look ahead to 2008 confident about what can be.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


I’m known as a pretty opinionated guy among my readers but here’s an issue in which I find it hard to take a side.

The bottom line is that this Red Sox Nation phenomenon, born when bleeding-heart fans of the underdog leaped on the bandwagon after a team that soiled its night shorts for 86 straight years finally broke through, has created a culture that supersedes the sport itself.

Ironically, Red Sox rookie right-hander Clay Buchholz was at the center of the controversy. Here’s the “poop.”

Back on June 25 in Manchester, N.H., Buchholz, pitching for the Portland Red Sox, threw 6 1/3 innings, allowed a run on four hits and struck out 11. He received a rousing standing ovation for his part in beating the hometown New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a state of affairs that didn’t sit well with outspoken N.H. manager Bill Masse.

“I think it’s sad,” Masse said, in the heat of the moment to the Manchester Union-Leader. “We’re not playing the Boston Red Sox. We’re playing the Portland Sea Dogs. Unless you’re from that area, you root for your hometown team. This is New Hampshire’s team, Manchester’s team, and to see Clay Buchholz get a standing ovation was absolutely disgraceful.”

After having time to think it over for a day, Masse added, “When I came to the dugout after that standing ovation, players were not happy. I just think it rubbed my team, and especially myself, the wrong way. These guys are out there competing every night and giving the fans some awesome games, and they came away feeling like they were the visiting team.”

Fast-forward to Saturday night’s game at New Britain Stadium, Portland vs. New Britain.
With Buchholz closing in on his no-hitter in Boston, Rock Cats staffers felt obliged to keep the fans informed of the developments, while the Rock Cats and Sea Dogs were in the midst of their game.

Several Rock Cats players climbed the steps of the dugout and indicated their contempt.
The night before, Minnesota Twins right-hander Scott Baker – a former Rock Cats pitcher – was working on a perfect game heading into the ninth inning. The Rock Cats’ press box crew did inform the fans of Baker’s bid, although not as ardently as the Sox fans within portrayed Buchholz’ bid.

After the game, a self-appointed spokesman who requested anonymity said the following: “This comes from the entire Rock Cat baseball team. It’s a little weird that when a Red Sox player is pitching a no-hitter, it’s announced, which is fine. But when Scott Baker had a perfect game going in the ninth, there was no word of it. A little weird, just a little weird.”

When Rock Cats outfielder Garrett Guzman heard that the aforementioned player preferred anonymity, he offered to go on the record.

“It was definitely bush. ... (Baker) pitched here in New Britain a few years ago and they announce Clay Buchholz and show his highlight (on the scoreboard video display). I think it’s bush. It’s terrible of the front office,” he said.

Here’s my take.

I feel the players’ frustration, and I’m strongly in their corner philosophically that this is the home of the Rock Cats, affiliates of the Minnesota Twins, and the borders of Red Sox Nation stop at the Willow Brook property line since former owner Joe Buzas booted Boston after the 1994 season.

However, the Rock Cats front office is on a mission to provide fans with the kind of atmosphere that will bring them back often, something Bill Dowling and Company have done diligently and effectively since they’ve been in charge here.

Again, in fairness to the front office and press box workers, they did keep fans abreast of Baker’s effort, if not quite as zealously as they projected Buchholz’ achievement. Here’s one issue where it’s hard to define a right and wrong.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Several fans and New Britain Stadium press box people have been chiding me about my writing that the Rock Cats’ late-season bid for the Eastern League playoffs was likely to come up short.

I’ve had a surge or two of optimism that I would be wrong since I wrote it several weeks ago, and believe me I’m still hoping that some miracle will happen, but I’ve witnessed so many pennant races over the years and I just don’t see any spark or leadership that could alter the 2007 Rock Cats’ fate.

When the team hit .500 at 47-47 with a doubleheader sweep of division-leading Trenton on a magical July 20, I sensed that maybe the Cats had turned the corner. They pounded Yankees phenom Joba Chamberlain, who is now baffling American League hitters. Enthusiasm filled the clubhouse. The stereo boomed music and there were smiles all around.

But New Britain lost the next two to Trenton, were beaten twice by the Connecticut Defenders in Norwich and lost two more to New Hampshire. The six-game losing streak erased all the good feelings, and in my mind sentenced the Rock Cats to also-ran status.

Yet the positive forces that have been at work during the Rock Cats’ better days resurfaced in mid-August. They won three straight in Portland, but lost the first game in a three-game set in New Hampshire August 20. Anthony Swarzak pitched a gem the next night and if the rubber game in the series had gone New Britain’s way, the Rock Cats would have been in business.

But the 12-0 pasting delivered by the Fisher Cats in the getaway game reinforced my original gut feeling that 2007 was not going to be the year that New Britain would return to the playoffs. Still, the optimists hold out hope. As Rock Cats voice Jeff Dooley looked forward, he saw a five-game home series with the last-place Defenders. If the Rock Cats could win four of five ...

Going into the final game of the set, the Defenders have won three of four and now only a miracle could save the season. Portland and New Hampshire are tied for second place – the last playoff slot – and lead New Britain by 4 ½ games. The Rock Cats have 12 to play, but have to go through two teams. If New Hampshire were to falter, the Cats have a five-game series with Portland to end the year, but the veteran-laden Fisher Cats are playing the best ball of the three.

On Saturday, the Rock Cats had a 5-1 lead after one inning. Eight innings later, the Defenders left the field with a 7-6 victory. Playoff-bound teams don’t blow games like that. They had two chances to rally against the Defenders bullpen but their at-bats disappeared without a threat.

I’m sorry, eternal optimists, but New Britain will have to wait until next year to try and break what will be a four-year postseason drought.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


The nuances of minor league baseball are part of its charm, if you can get past judging it by comparison with the majors.

From the major league perspective, administrators obviously prefer that their affiliates win. With championships come organizational pride. Impressionable young players who are part of championship teams gain confidence and momentum for future achievement.

But what fans must never forget is that the minor leagues exist at the behest of Major League Baseball. Development is the name of the game, so the fact that the Minnesota Twins’ roster is dotted with the likes of former Rock Cats like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Jason Bartlett, et al is of much greater value to Twins general manager Terry Ryan than a collection of rings for his minor league affiliates.

The most difficult facet that fans have to wrestle with in terms of development is that great players won’t be around for long. Mauer, for instance, spent little more than half a season (2003) with the Rock Cats and never stopped at Triple-A Rochester at all.

With every Mauer that moves up, another exceptional athlete takes his place. That’s not to say the next Class A catcher is going to be of the same quality, which of course would be ridiculous, but the youngster making his way to New Britain from Fort Myers is still among the finest baseball players in the land.

Monitoring development can be fun if you know what to look for and watch carefully. Take the first game of Friday night’s doubleheader, for example.

The Rock Cats scored six runs in the first inning. Starting pitcher Ryan Mullins, 23, eluded difficulty in the top of the first when versatile hustle machine Luke Hughes threw a strike to catcher Kyle Geiger from right field to keep the Connecticut Defenders scoreless.

Given a six-run pad, the youngster convinced himself to stay aggressive and wasn’t mixing his pitches well. The Defenders were creeping back. With the score 6-3 in the fifth inning, the first two Defenders lashed doubles. Slugger Randy Ruiz was coming up carrying the tying run, a devastating thought to a team still vying for a playoff slot.

Rock Cats pitching coach Gary Lucas made his second visit to the mound.

“He had trouble with his curveball early and on my second trip I said, ‘Let’s try to get that back in the mix,’” Lucas said. “He had a couple good results with it.”

Indeed. With a man on second, no outs and the tying run at the plate, Mullins blew up Ruiz's rhythm and struck him out swinging. He got Tyler Von Schell thinking and punched him out looking at an offspeed delivery. Simon Klink grounded to short to end the threat.

Mullins left the game and reliever Armando Gabino, as he has done consistently since joining the Rock Cats Aug. 8, shut down the oppostion and paved the way for victory.

Whatever Lucas said struck a chord with Mullins, and the result may be a huge part in the development of a young left-hander with promise.

“I tried to give him some pointers on focus and concentration,” said Lucas, accentuating the importance of the mental toughness complimenting physical ability. “He was struggling with fastball command. We were trying to attack with fastballs but I thought there was a point where we attacked with too many fastballs and we missed too many locations that we had to go back to something else.”

That’s development, folks, and it’s something to remember if Mullins can absorb his lessons and fine-tune them for his shot at fame and fortune. It's something to have fun with as you return to New Britain Stadium and monitor the Eastern League.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


As most of you know, I don't get to see the Rock Cats much when they're on the road. I make most of the games over in Norwich, and did get to Manchester, N.H., for a rather snowy opening day, but road games are spent listening to Jeff Dooley on the radio.

The radio waves have never been too kind where I live. Like I tell Dooley, I would have bought a house north and east of Bloomfield (home of Rock Cats flagship station WDRC) instead of south and west if I had only known.

WDRC comes in loud and clear all day, including that dynamic 3-to-6 drive time when Dooley's home-game partner Dan Lovallo reigns supreme on his fabulous talk show. But when the sun sets in the west, WDRC sets in the east. By 8:30 or so, I'm listening to gospel music from someplace in New Jersey where DRC used to be.

Sometimes, Dooley comes in loud and clear on DRC's Buckley Radio Network affiliate out of Torrington, WSNG-610. But when the sky is clear and the AM waves don't bounce, it's a choice of either a muffled Dooley or Dooley and his choir chanting,"The Lord is my Shepherd."

But technology is marvelous. Dooley is always loud and clear on the internet through So here I am, with my laptop on my knee and the Twins on TV with the volume turned down. (Tonight I'm shifting back and forth between the Twins and Turner Classic Movies. It's Gary Cooper night and The Westerner is one of my faves.)

I always tell my wife that as soon as I turn Dooley on, I can tell if the Cats are winning or losing by his tone. Most of the Rhode Island accent he brought with him to central Connecticut 10 years ago is gone. It comes through now and then when he gets excited, especially when somebody hits a grand slam.

When the Cats are up, Dooley's voice lilts. When they're losing, you wish you could send him a cold beer via email to make him feel better. I heard that lilt tonight and sure enough, the Cats are winning 2-0 and Anthony Swarzak is mowing down the Fisher Cats.

On TV, the Twins are losing by the same score. Dooley says Twins GM Terry Ryan is in attendance in Manchester. Gotta feel for TR. The door to the playoffs in the AL Central is open but the Twins don't seem to have the sparkle they had last year when they burst through on the season's final day. What they need is another power guy. Why can't TR finagle Mike Piazza from Oakland? Oh, well. Perhaps he'll tell me why when he comes to New Britain Thursday.

Back to the Cats, Dooley says they can make the playoffs. But Dooley sees a full glass of beer in front of him when all that's left is foam. I keep saying and writing that it's too late. When they got back to .500 at 47-47 then lost five straight, that was a killer. If they're in fourth place, 4 games out with 5 to play, Dooley will figure it's a piece of cake. Gotta love him.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


PORTLAND, Me. – The New Britain Rock Cats just love to work overtime.

The Rock Cats kept their faint playoff hopes flickering by sweeping their seventh doubleheader of the season Saturday by whipping the Portland Sea Dogs, 8-1 and 6-3, before 7,368 at Hadlock Field.

The Rock Cats (58-63) remain in fourth place, five games out of the Northern Division’s last playoff spot currently held by second-place Portland (64-59). The teams still have six games remaining including the series finale Sunday at 1 p.m.

Minnesota Twins left-hander Glen Perkins made a rehab start in the first game and gave up a run in 2 1/3 innings. Felix Molina drew New Britain even in the second inning with an RBI single.

The Rock Cats took the lead for good in the fourth inning. David Winfree singled and took second on a walk to Rashad Eldridge. Molina sacrificed the runners forward, Brandon Roberts lifted a sacrifice fly and Trevor Plouffe lashed an RBI single.

Drew Butera drilled a two-run triple in the sixth. The Rock Cats added three in the seventh on an RBI single by Molina and consecutive bases-loaded walks. Portland manager Arnie Beyeler was ejected in the inning.

Tristan Crawford (7-5) pitched 2 1/3 innings to gain the win. Jose Mijares tossed the final 2 1/3 frames.

The Rock Cats also trailed by a run early in the nightcap when a double by Kyle Geiger, bunt single by Roberts and RBI hit by Plouffe tied it up. A home run by Molina – his eighth of the season – gave New Britain the lead the next inning.

New Britain put it away against former Cat outfielder John Barnes, who is back in Double A with Portland as a knuckleball pitcher.

Brock Peterson, who went 5-for-8 in the twinbill, ignited the two-run rally with a single. Matt Moses had an RBI single. Barnes’ knuckleball led to two passed balls that allowed runs to score.
Armando Gabino (2-0) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Josh Hill. Gabino has not allowed a run in three appearances (5 innings) since his promotion from Class A.

Peterson is now 15-for-34 (.441) since coming back from a shoulder injury Aug. 8.
Barnes (1-1) took the loss for Portland.

Perkins is slated to get another rehab start at home Thursday against the Connecticut Defenders.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


New Britain's 12-5 victory over the New Hampshire Fisher Cats on Tuesday proved that the team has no intention of yielding no matter how long the odds of making the postseason.

Manager Riccardo Ingram had a heart-to-heart with his youthful legions upon their arrival home from a 2-4 road trip to remind them that the season isn’t over and every game can have its rewards.

“We said it’s gonna take a lot for us to have a shot at getting to the playoffs,” Ingram said. “The only thing we can do is take care of what we need to take care of.”

The Rock Cats entered Wednesday’s game in fourth place, 2 ½ games behind New Hampshire and six in back of the Portland Sea Dogs, who currently hold the second of the Northern Division’s two playoff spots behind the Trenton Thunder.

“These are the last 30 games and these are the last impressions you’re going to leave in the staff’s eyes and all the evaluators who are going to come through,” Ingram said. “We’ve got to play all nine innings, not give away at-bats and I think we showed that (Tuesday).”

Ingram stressed that a player can make or break his season in the final 30 games. A hot streak can jump .280 to .300. Laxity can reduce prospects to suspects.

“There’s a lot left to this season and we’ve got to keep playing hard,” he said. “Don’t let these games, at-bats and innings get away. It can cause your season to be a bad one, or if you’re having a mediocre season you can have a good one. Don’t let it get down to the last week and think about how you gave away at-bats or innings.”

Left fielder Garrett Guzman, for example, used a 3-for-5 night to catapult his season average to .305. Combine that with his 13 home runs and team-best 71 RBI and there will be little doubt that he belongs in Triple-A next season. With the advent of a late-season slump comes questions.

Among pitchers with plenty at stake is Anthony Swarzak. His season eroded by a 50-game suspension, The 6’3, 195-pound right-hander from Fort Lauderdale, has raised eyebrows by going 3-2 with a 2.94 ERA since returning to New Britain in late June.

Closer Tim Lahey has come a long way in his transitioning from catcher to pitcher. Through May 6, he was 0-0 with one save and a 6.00 ERA. Since July 1, the native of Worcester, Mass., has eight saves in 10 chances and a sparkling 0.82 ERA.

Most will agree that he has what it takes to compete in the major leagues and he’ll want to reduce that ERA (3.06) a bit to further such thought.

Ingram reminded them that they all have something to play for. If Tuesday was any indication, they’re listening.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


The sun was shining so brightly and not a cloud was in sight so I couldn't resist spending a few innings of Sunday's game in the grandstands.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of my open-air approach was not having the distraction of this very computer in front of me. It's always so enticing to be researching statistics, checking the scoreboard and conversing via e-mail that sometimes the nuances of the game escape me. You know, like studying the pitcher's release point, picking up body language and getting a better look at pitch location.

Jake Dittler was pitching for the Akron Aeros. He's got a pretty good pedigree according to what I've read, but he was up with his pitches and the Rock Cats hitters were having their way with him.

Rock Cats pitcher Jesse Floyd has been struggling most of the year and Sunday was no different. He was falling behind the hitters, getting hurt and falling into his usual methodical routine that tends to put defenders back on their heels.

The New Britain Stadium ticket-holder is a very fortunate fan. I haven't yet found a bad seat and you're so close to the action. You can really appreciate the power that professional arms can generate and the incredible power that the hitters wield with their bats. These kind of get lost when you sit in the press box, watch games on television and view games from the distance that most major league seats afford.

Then there's president/owner Bill Dowling. Bill is a true "people" person. He enjoys interacting with the fans at his usual spot behind home plate and in front of the portal to the concourse below.

Through Dowling's leadership, his people don't miss a trick. What impressed me the most was the man who circulated with a broom and dust pan. When a child dropped his pretzel, the man was right on top of it. The stadium's thoroughfares are kept that way.

The game was moving forward. I was caught without my sunscreen, my neck had that burning feeling and I felt the need to start writing my story so I left for my usual spot in the press box.

Someday, hopefully more than just a few years from now, I will walk away from the job I've now had and relished for 11 years. And while it's more than likely I won't witness the 80 or so ballgames that I do as an Eastern League beat writer, I assure you of this. I am looking forward to attending Rock Cats games at New Britain Stadium when I can buy an ice cold beer, root for the home team and soak up all the advantages of being a baseball fan in central Connecticut.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Twins general manager Terry Ryan has been vilified by fans and media for making the deadline trade that sent his steady second baseman Luis Castillo to the New York Mets for minor league catcher Drew Butera and outfielder Dustin Martin.

On the surface, it appears Ryan’s actions indicate that he has lost all hope of the team making another late-season dash to the postseason. Naturally, he claims that isn’t true. He says he has the ultimate faith in Castillo’s replacement – Alexi Casilla – which Rock Cats fans learned last year is well-deserved. Perhaps he’ll be right.

The bloggers are bashing away. Franchise cornerstone Johan Santana, probably speaking out of anger because he’s lost a friend in Castillo, says he doesn’t belong on a team that is unwilling to upgrade itself for a postseason run. Every fan in Major Market City is having an orgasmic vision of Santana in their uniform, like they do with every superstar that Small Market-ville can’t afford to sign.

Well, we don’t know what the future holds, and most bloggers can’t even make an educated guess, but there are other things we don’t know.

For instance, what kind of financial line does Ryan have to toe when he charts the Twins’ future with the Pohlad family and team president David St. Peter? I don’t know, and never will unless I can become that proverbial fly on the wall. Santana isn’t apt to know. Bloggers surely don’t know, so what sense does it make to belittle Ryan?

What we do know is that Ryan’s track record has gained him respect throughout the industry. Peers regard him as an administrator who has treated Twin Cities faithful to a competitive team without the blank-check mentality that some owners can enlist.

Here’s what else we should know before we disparage.

Let’s assume Ryan didn’t push the button and retained Castillo for the remainder of the season. If Castillo ranks as a Type A free agent, the Twins would receive a first-round pick in the June 2008 draft from the team that ultimately signs him. They would also receive a supplemental first-round choice – or sandwich pick – after the completion of the first round.

Ponder this. If the Twins cannot, or would not, come up with the cash to keep Castillo, will they be able to sign an extra high-priced first-round pick (for a Type B free agent), or possibly two?

Getting two prospects for a lame-duck player, no matter how good he is, benefits the Twins more than unmanageable draft-day expense, or coming away with nothing.

Getting to the two ex-Mets, Butera is a catcher who fulfills the Twins’ need in high Class A. Caleb Moore, a catcher with the Fort Myers Miracle, reportedly has expressed interest in becoming a pitcher. That left Fort Myers short at that vital position, so Butera’s arrival in New Britain and the demotion of Korey Feiner to the Miracle fills the slot.

Martin ranks as a decent outfield prospect. The left-handed hitter was a New York-Penn League All-Star for the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2006, when he batted .312 with two homers and 35 RBI in 72 games. He was hitting .287-5-52 for the high-A St. Lucie Mets prior to the trade.

Will either Butera or Martin be major leaguers? Will Santana still be bitter and shun the Twins when he qualifies for free agency after the 2008 season? Those are two of the many questions that can only be answered over time. What we do know in the here and now is that Terry Ryan is one of the best general managers in baseball, and Twins fans should trust him for doing the best he can with what he has.

If they want something to blame, they should blame the system. A system that provides advantages to the affluent and shuns the grassroots deserves their scorn.