New Britain Stadium looks as good as it ever has, according to Gerry Berthiaume. And he would know.
As general manager of the New Britain Red Sox and New Britain Rock Cats from 1984 to 1999, Berthiaume oversaw the construction of the ballpark and its opening in 1996.
Now in his first season as GM of the independent New Britain Bees, Berthiaume raves about the bee-colored scheme inside the park, the carousel and kids’ zone out in right field and the pristine job the city does at maintaining the field.
“The place has never looked better,” he noted.
Problem is, there’s this sparkling new, $56 million ballpark sitting about 20 minutes up the road that looks pretty good, too. Dunkin’ Donuts Park, home of the Hartford Yard Goats, opened (a year late) back in April and has created a decent buzz in downtown Hartford over its first couple of months. The Yard Goats have averaged 4,757 fans per game over their first 23 home dates, good for fourth in the 12-team Eastern League.
And while the Goats were opening their beautiful new park to a sellout crowd on April 13, the Bees were readying to kick off their second season to much less fanfare.
Through 20 home dates this season, New Britain is averaging 2,877 fans per game. That’s about the same as they were averaging at this point in last year’s inaugural season. Still, the dichotomy between the buzz of a new downtown ballpark in the capital city and an independent-league team in New Britain is hard not to notice.
“You can’t help but think about it,” Berthiaume admits. “We’re 15 miles apart. They’re doing their thing, we’re doing our thing. We have to concentrate on areas that, for the most part, are south and west of us: Plainville, Southington, Bristol, Cheshire, Wallingford.”
“We know they exist,” Berthiaume added. “And I know they know we exist. Is it competition? Of course. But we’ve got things they can’t offer.”
Indeed, the Bees offer convenient, $5 parking and cheap ticket prices. And they’ve got much more of a local flavor, with several Connecticut natives — including Torrington’s Conor Bierfeldt, who was surprisingly cut by the Orioles at the end of spring training despite a terrific 2016 season in their system, and Berlin’s Anthony Marzi — on the roster. And while the Bees might not have as many future major-leaguers, they’ve got more former ones who are trying to make it back, including Joe Beimel, who’s logged 13 seasons with six different big-league clubs as a reliever.
“I’d say this league on a given night is good Double-A baseball, some nights Triple-A,” said Stan Cliburn, the former Rock Cats manager who’s in his second season as the Bees’ skipper. “I’d take the Lancaster team I was with, with Butch Hobson (in 2015) against any team in the United States in affiliated ball, that’s how good it was.”
Of course, there is one big difference between independent teams like the Bees and affiliated clubs: Independent teams have to pay their own players. And the Atlantic League has strict guidelines about how much (or how little) they can pay. Teams must pay their players at least $600 a month, but no more than $3,000 per month. And the maximum monthly team payroll for active players cannot exceed $55,000.
“That’s the one big difference I see,” said Berthiaume. “If I could have that payroll paid by someone else, as in affiliated ball, and have that as a marketing budget, that would be great. But we don’t have that.”
Instead, the Bees are limited in what they can do in terms of marketing. Over the winter, the team only had one person working in group sales, making it difficult to get the word out about the club. Still, at the beginning of the season, the Bees had already booked more groups than they had all of last year.
There have been other issues so far this spring, of course, including the dismal weather that dominated the past month.
“It took me 10 years as an affiliated GM to realize that I can’t control the weather,” Berthiaume joked.
That has undoubtedly hurt attendance, though the team drew its biggest crowd in its brief history on April 27 when 6,501 kids packed the park for New Britain schools’ baseball and education day.
As the weather gets better and the kids get out of school, the Bees are counting on better attendance numbers. On the field, the Bees had stumbled to a 14-26 record through Thursday and sat in last place in the Atlantic League’s Liberty Division. But they’ve already sent one player, pitcher Casey Coleman, back to affiliated ball (he’s with Fresno, Triple-A affiliate of the Astros). Last year, the Bees sent six players to affiliated teams, including New Haven’s Josh Zeid.
In fact, the Atlantic League is the only independent league in the country that has an agreement with Major League Baseball that ensures the league and its teams get paid a fee whenever a player’s contract is purchased.
Either way, after being out of baseball since leaving the Rock Cats in 1999, Gerry Berthiaume is happy to be back in the sport he loves.
“When the call came (in January), I asked my wife (Jenny) and two sons (Joe, 31, and Jordan, 28),” Berthiaume recalled. “They said, ‘Give it a shot. This is what you love.’ They’ve had a chance to see dad in action as older kids and they really appreciate more so now what it takes to run a minor-league baseball club. They’re thrilled I’m back, and so is my wife.”