Remembering the 2016 Hartford Yard Goats, Road Warriors

In the archives of the Hartford Yard Goats’ website sits an announcement from June 10, 2015 proclaiming the team would play “71 home games at Dunkin’ Donuts Park beginning in 2016.” Due to circumstances resulting in an unfinished stadium, this statement proved false.

For the entirety of the 2016 season, the Yard Goats played zero games at their $72 million ballpark in Hartford, Connecticut. Every third or fourth day the team packed up and hit the road, traveling to another ballpark where nothing more than the scoreboard indicated on occasion that they were the home team. It created logistical complications and made the dreaded minor league life even more miserable.

As current Colorado Rockies outfielder David Dahl remembers, “It sucked.”

Concerns the park would not be completed for Opening Day started in December 2015, just six months after the team announced Dunkin’ Donuts would be the exclusive naming rights partner of the park. Some indications reported by The Hartford Courant suggested the issues started even earlier. The Yard Goats pushed their home opener to May before December even ended, citing cost overruns and an aggressive construction schedule. “We were aware that we had an aggressive construction schedule,” a member of the park’s stadium authority told The Hartford Courant in January 2016. Months later, even the projected May opening date became a pipe dream.

The ballpark was not completed as of May 17, weeks before the revised opener date. As a result, the Yard Goats fired DoNo LLC and Centerplan Construction, ceasing construction progress as the team traveled the east coast with a partially complete stadium at home. As current Rockies infielder Ryan McMahon remembers, the team came into the season expecting to hit the May opener date. Around June 4, he remembers management telling the team the stadium would likely not be ready until the following season.

“Our honest reactions were a lot of cussing probably,” McMahon says with a laugh. “We were obviously disappointed, we all wanted to play in there and have a home.”

Throughout the season, logistics became difficult for the team’s players. The lack of a home base complicated simple luxuries like packages being delivered to an address or transportation when the family of a player came out for a series. Players also ate take-out food nearly every day, a consequence of not having a place to consistently cook during a home stand.

“I remember ordering a lot of Dominos,” McMahon says.

The New York Times reported in August 2016 that the team raised the player per diem from $25 to $29 due to the circumstances. Difficulties even extended to the team’s preparation. During nearly every series, batting cage times were inconsistent. At times the team would have a home team cage time followed the next day by a road team cage time, or no cage time at all.

“You couldn’t get into a routine,” McMahon says now.

The unknown timetable for completion of the park meant last-minute coordination to find suitable ballparks. In situations where the Yard Goats’ opponent could not host the series due to scheduling conflicts, alternate parks came into play. For 19 games during the months of May and June, the team played in a short-season ballpark in Norwich, Connecticut, called Dodd Stadium (still home to the Connecticut Tigers). The team’s hotel, however, was nearly an hour from the stadium in Norwich, creating substantially larger travel times than the average team has commuting to any ballpark on a daily basis.

And perhaps even more important to the hitters on the team, Dodd Stadium played as a pitcher’s park and has for the last three seasons. “That park was crazy,” Dahl says. According to the website StatCorner, which calculates minor league park factors, Dodd Stadium sat in the bottom 10 percent of the league for home runs from both left- and right-handed hitters in 2016. McMahon remembers he hadn’t hit a ball hard for weeks, but finally turned on a fastball in Norwich only for the ball to hang up at the warning track.

“I threw my helmet,” McMahon says. “I said a lot of bad things at that place.”

Dodd Stadium has been a home run-suppressing stadium every season since.

As McMahon struggled during the Yard Goats homeless year, hitting only .242 with a 30 percent strikeout rate, Dahl excelled, posting a 140 wRC+ in 73 games. Only July 4, the Rockies promoted him to Triple-A Albuquerque. “I was so glad to get out of there,” Dahl remembers. He left behind McMahon and another current teammate, Raimel Tapia, both of whom would finish the season in Double-A with the Yard Goats. Dahl admits he never ragged on McMahon for earning his promotion and leaving the Rockies current second baseman to continue packing every third or fourth day and traveling to a new city. McMahon admits he was in fact jealous of Dahl’s promotion.

“Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have been,” McMahon says. “But in the moment it was just like, I want to get out of here, I want to stop being at this place.”

The Yard Goats finished the 2016 season with another slew of road games and a 74-67 record, not good enough to edge either the Trenton Thunder (NYY) or Reading Fightin Phils (PHI) for one of the two playoff spots awarded to the Eastern League’s eastern division. Dunkin’ Donuts Park officially had its first game on April 13, 2017 after the Yard Goats hired a new construction company to complete the project after the construction freeze ended. McMahon started 2017 with Triple-A Albuquerque while Dahl battled injuries in 2017, playing only 19 games between High-A and Triple-A. Neither Dahl or McMahon have been back to Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

“Hopefully,” Dahl says. “I never have to.”

Photo credit: Bard Horrigan, Hartford Courant

Some information and minor details obtained from The Hartford Courant, The New York Times and Fox 61.