Hartford Yard Goats
The Yard Goats are a reincarnation of the Eastern League's New Britain Rock Cats, whom the Minnesota Twins cut ties with after the 2015 season. The Cats' franchise then inked a deal with the Rockies to become their AA affiliate, and they'll make the 11-mile move to downtown Hartford and into their new 6,000-seat venue dubbed Dunkin' Donuts Park - but they'll be moving in later than expected.
The Goats have perhaps had the most fanfare of all off-season movers & shakers, as the capital city hasn't housed an organized baseball team since the 1952 Hartford Chiefs of the Eastern League. The nickname is a nod to Hartford's old railroad history, as "yard goat" is a slang term for a locomotive.
But the team took a literal approach to the name when it came to uniform design, with an actual goat being depicted on each of the clubs' five jerseys. Though that choice may have been a gamble in hindsight, the result was a stunning array of digs that should have Goats' players feeling like Belles of the Ballgame. A classic Royal Blue/Kelly Green/silver color scheme is an homage to the old Hartford Whalers of the NHL's Adams Division (who left town in 1997) and the gorgeous font is inspired by the cities' old railroad logo.
For all the enthusiasm that comes with an expansion franchise, a new ballpark, and a team twitter account that's equal parts humorous, engaging, and weird, the Goats' grand plan has hit a bit of an off-season snag.
A funding gap of over $10 million for the new stadium was revealed in January, stalling construction until a plan was hatched that sees the developer, city, and ownership shoulder the remainder of the bill. The lost time will push back Opening Day at DD Park until May 31st, forcing a schedule change that will see the Yard Goats play their first two months' worth of home games at opposing teams' venues.
Losing 40% of your home dates in an inaugural season is obviously not ideal for building a clubs' brand, but Hartford only has to look at last years' Biloxi Shuckers debut campaign for inspiration. Biloxi, the Brewers' AA affiliate, was forced to play on the road until June 6th while waiting for their new park to open, but still put together a sizzling 43-25 first-half record to clinch a playoff spot. The team made it all the way to the Southern League finals where, after bowing out in a five-game series to Chattanooga, five Shuckers were promoted to Milwaukee to make their MLB debuts (plus Tyler Wagner).
The community has a lot riding on the new ballclub, as the stadium is just the first step in a $350 million downtown redevelopment plan that also includes a Hard Rock Hotel, a brewery, and an influx of new jobs along with it. But it's reasonable to wonder if the political static that's hindered the ballpark deal is an ominous sign for a city with such big hopes. It seems likely that the Yard Goats' success - both in the standings and in their bottom line - will go a long way in showing just how viable a business can be in downtown Hartford.
Talent-wise, the Rockies look to be sending a lot of exciting prospects through the Connecticut capital in the near future. Infielders Brendan Rodgers and Ryan McMahon, outfielders David Dahl and Raimel Tapia, and pitchers Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez are just a few of the impact names that should soon be ready for the all-important jump to AA. The organization also has enviable depth in the minor league ranks, especially in the 18-22 age range that will soon be navigating and graduating from A-ball.
All of this points to the Rox' new affiliate in Hartford boasting a sizable amount of young talent in the coming years. The question for the city is not "Will they come?" but instead, "Can we build it?"
Roughly 800 miles south of Hartford, another capital city wrangled its' own minor league franchise as Columbia, South Carolina becomes the new home of the New York Mets' single-A Sally League affiliate. The team takes the place of the Savannah Sand Gnats in the league's Southern Division, and will be known as the Columbia Fireflies.
The nickname, chosen from over 2,000 fan-submitted entries, is a reference to a specific type of firefly (Photinus frontalis) that inhabits nearby Congaree National Park. The bugs are known for a synchronous flashing display that lasts for two weeks every May, and South Carolina's National Natural Landmark is one of the few places in the country to witness such an event.
While the insects light up the night sky just one town over, the ballteam looks to do the same in their fresh ensembles that will feature glow-in-the-dark hats. Somewhere, Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley share a toast.
The uniforms are aesthetically sharp, and perhaps that's unsurprising as several of the latest MiLB re-brands/expansion outfits have put forward very strong efforts when it comes to logo and jersey design: the Hillsboro Hops, Lexington Legends, and Yard Goats come to mind as teams that dress to impress.
Thirty years ago, branding and merchandising may not have been key areas of focus for a startup minor league squad, but these are different times. Every component of a new franchise is so much more visible in the digital age that teams are seeking out high-end design teams to ensure they knock their new threads out of the park - and it appears the Fireflies have done just that.
Compared to the budget crisis and lagging construction on Hartford's ballpark, news surrounding Columbia's new venue has remained drama-free and on target for an April 14th Opening Day - partly on account of the park being hidden from public view behind mature redwoods and a brick wall.
In a common theme among recent minor league expansion, the 8,000-seat Spirit Communications Park is seen as the first step in a massive revamp of downtown Columbia. The multi-use stadium will also host concerts, weddings, and other private events. When all is said and done, the new ballyard is expected to be the centerpiece of a 414,000 square foot development that is anticipated to generate $2 billion annually in economic impact.
It will be interesting to follow the grandiose business plans the two newest MiLB 'expanchises' have laid, as each cities' downtown vision seems to be tied closely to their arriving club and shiny new facilities. In both cases, the narrative seems to be less about the actual baseball product and instead a tale of how each market is banking on heavy community involvement to plant roots for their team and spur growth in other areas.
If successful, it's a business plan that will continue to be adopted by mid-sized metropolae that seek to revitalize their surroundings and give the people a club to call their own. With the promise of new jobs and more vibrant neighborhoods on the line, it's clear that for Columbia and Hartford, baseball is now more than just a game.
Quick Hitters: Independent & lesser leagues
Savannah will retain a team after losing the highly-competitive Sand Gnats franchise that clinched three successive playoff berths and won a SAL league title. The Savannah Bananas will compete in the Coastal Plains League which boasts some of the countries' top college players.
The Bananas are a sensible nickname choice when considering 'Party Animals' was one of the five finalists.
"We're going to do a lot with bananas", team owner Jesse Cole recently opined. These developments are probably worthy of their own blog space throughout the summer, to ensure Banana brass stays true to their word.
New Britain Bees
Following the Rock Cats' exodus to Hartford, the town of 73,000 is buzzing about their newest team.
The New Britain Bees will take the place of the now-defunct Camden Riversharks of the Atlantic League. While this will be a step down in baseball quality compared to the burgeoning talent of the AA Eastern League, the Atlantic League is perhaps the most high-profile independent circuit - if such a thing exists.
Topeka Train Robbers
Professional baseball returns to the capital of Kansas for the first time since 1961, as the Pecos League outfit makes the move from the bright lights of Las Vegas to rural Topeka.
Per Wiki, the name Topeka is a translation of a Kansa-Osage term that means "place where we dug potatoes".
It's unclear why team officials would deprive citizens a chance to support a franchise called the Topeka Taters, and it is plausible that baseball won't be taken seriously by the locals until this hypothetical match is made and Topeka's players are wearing spuds on their duds.
As it stands, the Train Robbers share the distinction (along with the Frontier League's Joliet Slammers) of being the only minor league teams whose nicknames are a reference to committing a felonious act.