Friday, January 29, 2010

Rays To Connecticut? Not A Chance

Good morning Fackers. As I've mentioned here a few times before, I'm a Connecticut guy, born and bred. The sporting landscape here in Connecticut is an odd one. The entirety of the state is within two hours of either New York or Boston; much of the state is virtually equidistant from the two cities. As such, there's this weird sort of sporting identity here in the Nutmeg State. Baseball fans are every bit as passionate as they are in New York or Boston, but things are far less homogeneous. The state is pretty well divided between Yankee and Red Sox fans, with a small and unfortunate minority pledging their allegiance to the Mets.

But it's slim pickings when comes to teams to call our own. We temporarily hosted the Giants while Yankee Stadium was being renovated and Giants Stadium was being built. The NHL's Hartford Whalers skipped town in April of 1997. The following year the state struck a deal to build a new stadium for the New England Patriots, only to see Robert Kraft use it as leverage to secure a new stadium in Foxboro. We've hosted AA teams for both the Yankees and Red Sox. Currently the state is home to two AHL minor league hockey franchises in Bridgeport and Hartford, and independent Atlantic League ballclub in Bridgeport, the Twins' AA affiliate in New Britain, and as of yesterday, the Tigers' short-season A club in Norwich. None of those squads register much in the consciousness of the locals, who by and large spend their summers following the Yanks, Sox, or Mets, and their winters obsessing over both the men's and women's UConn basketball teams.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that the unique sporting culture of the state is its lack of an identity to call its own. As much as it galls many of the locals, when it comes to professional sports Connecticut is nothing more than a suburb to the two neighboring metropolises. And there's nothing wrong with that; it's just the way it is. The population of the entire state is just 3.5 million, one million less than the Boston metropolitan area, and less than one fifth the size of the New York City metropolitan area. There is neither the city, nor the people to support a major sports franchise, particularly one located so closely to three of the biggest teams in the game.

So it was with great surprise yesterday that I saw an article from NESN, riffing on a piece from Peter Gammons, speculating that if the Tampa Bay Rays should fail to secure a new stadium, southern Connecticut could be a potential landing spot. We're a few weeks into the dead period of the baseball off season, so it's getting to be slim pickings for news. As such, stories like this will inevitably crop up. And really, this is just an extension of the hypothetical pondering last month of whether New York could support a third team.

But, since this is a slow time of year and since it involves my home state, I'm going to put on my debunking cap and pick this one apart. Here's a look at the cities in southern Connecticut, starting in the east and heading west, and here's why they can't support a Major League team:
  • Norwich / New London: The least likely of any southern Connecticut city to host a team. This is one of the most sparsely populated areas of the state; there simply aren't enough people here to support a team, and one certainly wouldn't be enough to draw Red Sox fans from nearby Rhode Island. The Yankees had their AA club in Norwich from 1995 through 2002, before switching affiliations to Trenton in order to have the squad closer to the parent club. Norwich picked up the Giants' AA squad, which left town after last season. Just yesterday the city announced that the Tigers' NY-Penn League club would move from Oneonta for the 2009 season (interestingly enough the Yankees had their NY-Penn club in Oneonta from 1967 until the creation of the Staten Island Yankees in 1999). On the plus side, these cities are located close to the two gigantic casinos in the state, so if Pete Rose is ever reinstated this would be a good spot for him to revive his managerial career.
  • New Haven: Another failed minor league city, the last 35 years have seen the New York Giants, two different AHL clubs, a AA Eastern League club, and an independent Can-Am League club leave town. Location wise, the Elm City may be the best location for a club. Centrally located at the junction of Interstates 91 and 95, New Haven is relatively accessible from the state's most populous areas of metro Hartford and Fairfield County.
  • Bridgeport: The state's biggest city, Bridgeport has the state's most up to date sports venues in the Arena at Harbor Yard and the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, home to the AHL's Sound Tigers and the Atlantic League's Bluefish respectively. The Ballpark was the site of Jose Offerman's first on field assault. It's also just down the road from Shelton, home of Whiffle Ball. On the negative side, Bridgeport is located in metro NYC, placing it firmly in the Mets' and Yankees' territory. It's not easily accessible from metro Hartford, and it would be an extremely tough sell to get one of the state's poorest cities to build a Major League ballpark a mere decade after the construction of the Habor Yard complex.
  • Stamford: The most financially healthy city on the Connecticut shoreline, Stamford is located in the heart of affluent Fairfield County and is home to several financial firms and the YES Network's studios. Unlike the other cities on the list, its best days are not behind it, and there is enough business and industry present to have something resembling a bustling downtown. On the negative side, Stamford is a stone's throw from NYC, making it an unrealistic possibility. Besides, it couldn't even support a Dunder Mifflin branch; how could it support a Major League franchise?
Even if something could be worked out to convince the Yankees, Mets, and/or Red Sox to relinquish territorial rights - an unlikely scenario - there just isn't a city or the people to support in team in southern Connecticut or anywhere else in the state. Even if there were, a Connecticut club would be facing an uphill battle. Part of the reason the Whalers failed was that too many Connecticut hockey fans were loyal to the Rangers or Bruins. That problem would be infinitely greater for a baseball team, as the loyalties to the Yankees, Red Sox, and even the Mets are stronger and have been forged over generations. The Rays, or any other team, would have very little chance of succeeding here. And in the end, I'm sure the Rays will get their new stadium in either Tampa, St. Petersburg, or Orlando.


  1. As a Fairfield native (who later lived in Groton for years before moving to Philly), I never minded not having my own team from the state (though it did hurt when the Whale left...). I was always less than an hour from Gotham and my allegiance was cast before I was born.

    I'd love to hear form the Hartford area sports fans and how they would feel about a pro team. I can't picture it happening, but I can't help but feel that they would have a vastly different perspective than a New York suburbanite like myself.

  2. I'm closer to Hartford than I am to Fairfield County. They could put an MLB team in my back yard for all I care, it's not going to make me any less of a Yankee fan. I think any ownership group that would try would stand to lose a significant amount of money. One of the bidders for the Expos proposed moving the team to central CT.

    Like you Jimmy, I have no problem not having a team of our own. I miss the Whale, and I'd love to see another NHL team in Hartford. But it's not going to happen without a new arena, and it's not going to happen as long as Gary Bettman is running the league. But the NHL is a completely different animal than MLB, the NFL, or the NBA. Outside of hockey, which still would be a bit dicey, I don't think a major pro sports team could survive here.

  3. I'm from Springfield, MA and lived for years in Farmington, CT (though at the moment I'm living in the Bronx), so I 100% consider myself part of that Hartford area. I'm a lifelong Yanks fan, but when the Expos to CT move was rumored, I was thrilled. I said then that if MLB moved a team to CT, I'd be a season ticket holder. I would be right on board with the NL east. Now, if it's an AL east team, I'd probably still be a season ticket holder, and I bet a lot of people would for the same reason: to see the Sox and the Yanks. I think there'd be 19-20 sell outs when they came around, and a lot of potential apathy after that.

  4. Hartford! Hartford! Hartford! Right between the Yankees and Sox. Fans of those teams will still remain fans and will get more opportunities to see their team. The Connecticut Rays will gain new fans and will not have problems selling tickets.

  5. Bring them to Hartford and name them the Connecticut Whalers, since hockey won't return...let's keep the whale alive!