Minor Miracles

Minor Miracles

As a kid, the first day of baseball assumed a mythic quality. When that long-awaited game ended after my bedtime, the first thing I asked my mom the next morning was whether the Yankees had won or lost. Opening Day crystallizes springtime and heralds summer; hope wafts all around, smelling like smoky hot dogs and unnaturally green grass.

I was sure the feeling had yellowed as I got older. Yet there it was, unmistakably, as I settled into Dunkin’ Donuts Park for the Hartford Yard Goats’ minor league season opener last Friday night. The choreography of pre-game warm-ups still captivated, the thrack of bat meeting ball still thrilled. The Yard Goats are the AA affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies, and going in, I had no attachment to either. I didn’t know the name of a single player. Yet the atmosphere was as absorbing as it would have been when I was seven, as if it were just a little too good—or perhaps, more than two years into this pandemic, too “normal”—to be true.

And this was before I stumbled onto the baby goats. Tucked in a pen beyond the right-field fence, three newborn fluffballs cowered under a colorful plastic table and nuzzled into their mothers’ bellies. (The strange sights and sounds of the ballpark seemed to create a stressful environment for the poor kids. Rest assured, they spend their off-days at a farm in East Hampton.) If Opening Day weren’t symbolic enough of spring’s arrival, these impossibly small, three-week-old goats bleated the point home.

Yes, I was charmed. Taking in a Yard Goats game provides the quintessential minor league baseball experience: an intimate stadium in which one can sit just about anywhere one chooses, no press pass necessary; hokey mid-inning, on-field entertainment; fried food and draft beer aplenty; and a game that, at least in short bursts, still holds interest.

For most of the sellout crowd of 6,542, the game was secondary to the experience. Spectators stayed fairly quiet, offering polite applause when the Yard Goats closed out an inning and a tepid smattering of jeers when a call didn’t go their way. Fans cheered loudest for the T-shirt toss.

It was a good thing, too, because the home team quickly deflated Opening Day-sized expectations. Yard Goats starter Mitch Kilkenny conceded a home run in the top of the first, and all came asunder in the fourth inning, when the Binghamton Rumble Ponies exploded for six runs. The Yard Goats, baffled by a pitcher who never seemed to throw faster than 85 miles per hour, struck out eight times in the first four innings. They avoided a shutout when Michael Toglia lifted a two-run home run in the eighth inning, softening an eventual 8–2 loss.

Still, it was worth the trip, which started with a glorious, sun-soaked walk to State Street Station in New Haven. From there, I took CTrail to Hartford, a comfortable 47-minute ride for $8 one way. The walk from Hartford’s Union Station to the park was a quick 10 minutes, though it required traversing the pedestrian-unfriendly tangle of interstates that run through the city.

Bring a wallet if you’re coming hungry or thirsty. You won’t find a beer cheaper than $9, but you will have options. I opted for a Back East ale to pair with a soft pretzel, which was, regrettably, soft in name only. On the whole, though, the Yard Goats seemed to offer fans both quality and quantity, beyond the typical fare. New Haveners may flock to what appeared to be the most popular vendor, Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ, located in the left-field concourse, if they haven’t made it to that outfit on James Street recently. And if early spring feels more like late winter on any given day, a Dunkin’ Donuts sells warm beverages in its namesake park.

Opening Day is gone, of course, but there’s no shortage of upcoming themed nights and promotions that might lure you to Hartford. “Bark in the Park” has already passed ($5 tickets for your canine companion), but the next month will feature a fireworks show, a kids jersey giveaway and Star Wars Night. June will bring ’80s Night, a pajama party and a scavenger hunt. And the goats will be there for all of it. For relatively little bread—single-game tickets range from $13 to $29—you can get plenty of circus and, if your childhood was like mine, three hours of priceless nostalgia.

Hartford Yard Goats
Dunkin’ Donuts Park – 1214 Main St, Hartford (map)
Next Home Stretch: April 19-24, 2022
Website | Schedule | Tickets

Written and photographed by Steven Rome.

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