Before getting into the return of Columbia, let’s start in the Nutmeg State with the biggest controversy this offseason. The Rock Cats of the Eastern League made their home in New Britain for the last few decades, quietly humming along as an average franchise doing fine. Surprisingly, news broke a couple years ago of the team looking to move 12 miles north to Hartford after their lease expired. The wheels turned and the state capitol got the team and a new ballpark emerged with a ridiculously high price tag for future development. The city (and taxpayers) ended up bearing the brunt of it and that’s probably not a good thing given Hartford’s history in this category. Construction and financing became delayed and Dunkin’ Donuts (yup) Park is opening late as the Yard Goats (yup again) will start much of the season on the road. Maybe the park will be great and do nice things for the city, but since the start, I haven’t been a fan of this project. The worst part…Check out the Mayor’s proposed budget….Ummm, probably not a good idea then for a $56 million ballpark! On a much more minor, personal level, this ballpark means that I no longer have completed the Eastern League Ballpark circuit, so expect me to firm that up next year with a trip to Hartford. As for New Britain Stadium, they will become home to an independent franchise as the Bees join the Atlantic League. Glad to see that happen. The Bees replace the Camden RiverSharks, who sadly leave the beautiful view at Campbell’s Field and no professional franchise will be there this summer. It’s too bad as that struggling city spent a money on a new ballpark and aquarium in the 90s to bring people into the city, now one of them is vacant. Take note cities that spend all this money on a facility to ‘revitalize’ the city. For every Fort Wayne, there is a Camden.
Elsewhere, affiliated baseball returns to Columbia, SC for the first time since 2004. Spirit Communications Park opened to an overflow crowd a few weeks ago as the Columbia Fireflies took the field, continuing the trend of funky baseball nicknames. I like this one and the glow-in-the-dark uniforms are a cool touch as well. Columbia replaces Savannah in the South Atlantic League, which is unfortunate as the league loses Historic Grayson Stadium. Thankfully, baseball will still be played as Savannah joins the summer-collegiate, Coastal Plain League. In Florida, the Lakeland Flying Tigers will play the year at tiny Henley Field as Joker Marchant Stadium experiences a significant renovation. These ballpark changes are not necessarily for the single-A team, but instead for Spring Training season when Detroit takes up shop in Lakeland for a month. It will be an interesting year for the Flying Tigers as Henley Field (still located within Lakeland) is an old-school park. Out in the Midwest, Lansing’s 20 year-old ballpark got a fresh (and pricey) makeover. Folks heading to Cooley Law School Stadium (man, these names get worse and worse) will find new seats, a wraparound concourse, a new scoreboard, new food and a fresh coat of paint this year.
In college baseball, perhaps the biggest news is down in Alabama, where the Crimson Tide returned to Sewell-Thomas Stadium after a complete makeover. The $42 million renovation turned the park into a modern facility with all of the amenities one would expect. At Clemson, Doug Kingsmore Stadium has received a nice facelift, which includes a museum, showcasing the Tigers baseball program. Wake Forest moved into Ernie Shore Field after the Dash moved to a new downtown facility and the Demon Deacons continue to do some work on the venerable facility. It has been renamed David F. Couch Ballpark after the former player made a significant contribution to create a new facility, which will lower capacity but greatly benefit the program. In a similar renovation/rename, Northwestern baseball re-opened Rocky and Bernice Miller Park and this ballpark is certainly a small jewel for a school not known for nice athletic facilities.