HARTFORD — With season tickets behind home plate Joe Ayoub was eager for his first Yard Goats season, but that euphoria has been crushed by an ugly reality: It's tough to be a fan when there's no place to play in Hartford.
"The past month or so has been very frustrating,'' said Ayoub, 23, who has watched with dismay as the city remains mired in a dispute with the developer over completion of the $63 million Dunkin' Donuts Park. "I'm frustrated, disappointed and almost disgusted."
In a sport where Red Sox and Cubs fans long ago learned about the heartbreak of baseball, the Yard Goats are testing the mettle of a new generation.
"Sometimes when I wear my hat I get a comment like, 'Oh, the goats with no home,' and I kind of laugh it off," said Conor Geary, a manager at Ted's Montana Grill in Hartford who helped to organize an early-season bus trip to see his team play in New Hampshire.
"I'm very proud to be here," said Geary, owner of a Yard Goats foam finger and other team merchandise. "I'm very proud to see this sort of development and the creation of a new stadium, so the energy is still there. We just have to wait a little longer than I would have liked."
Longer is right. With the season now half over, it looks unlikely that any games will be played at Dunkin' Donuts Park in 2016.
"I basically don't have anything to go on anymore," said Kait Fydenkevez, a West Hartford lawyer who was inspired to tweet, "I need a new @GoYardGoats shirt to wipe my tears with," when it became apparent that the team would likely not play a home game this year.
"[People ask], 'Why did you buy the hat, why are you a fan?' and I'm like, they're coming! The stadium is being built, it's almost done," she said. "And now, there's not really anything for me to say that they're doing, so it's been getting increasingly more difficult. Just hoping that there's some baseball at some point this year is really all I have left."
There are box scores and summaries of every game in the newspaper. Games are broadcast on the radio. There's a fan newsletter and local appearances by players.
There just aren't any actual baseball games in Hartford, no lazy summer evenings in the right field bleachers holding a hot dog and a frothy cup of Nectar of the Goats, waiting for a home run.
Yard Goats general manager Tim Restall explains that it's still possible to be a dedicated fan by "going to see the team on the road, or watching, listening, following on social media and really just trying to support the team in any way possible.
"Just because they're not playing in Hartford doesn't prevent someone from following the team. And who doesn't like an underdog? We've had great support from our fans and its not easy when you don't have a stadium to watch the team play in. And it shows that when we get to Hartford how great the support is going to be."
But for now it isn't easy to root for an absentee team, said Sam Saylor, a local pastor and Hartford resident.
"It's hard to be Yard Goats fan,'' he said. "You can't be a fan if you can't participate in the game."
Faithful fan Sean Hanlon, a season-ticket holder who works in Hartford and lives in North Branford, has kept the Yard Goats flame burning by attending more than a dozen road games. He tries to make a point of waving and talking to the players.
"It's important to show the players that the fans are taking an interest," Hanlon said.
D.J. Barron started the season doing part-time work as Chompers, one of the team's mascots. Now out of work, he follows the team on social media.
"I went out and I got a hat and a jersey … I was really excited to be a part of it," he said. "I thought up until recently that we were gonna have some games. I think in the long run it'll hopefully pay off.
"Right now it's a bummer but, I think in time, it will be a good thing that we'll look back on like, 'It's a good thing this went through.'"
Fydenkevez says her survival plan includes wearing a Goats hat and urging "everyone to buy Yard Goats gear." On vacation, she convinced her family members to pose in Yard Goats merchandise for a tweet.
"I think just having a positive attitude about them coming and not feeling like the stadium was a waste of money," Fydenkevez said. "I think there's a lot of negative energy and just trying to stay positive and knowing that when they do get here, it will be a good thing for Hartford. That's how I think I can be a fan right now."
"It always feels good to be the underdog. When they do come and it is popular, I think it will work out for the best and I will be able to say that I've been here since day one."
Ayoub, meanwhile, is hunkered down and setting his sights on opening day in 2017.
And while he has taken some grief from his boss about supporting a team that has no home, he says he's used to being teased for the teams he supports.
"Being from Philly, I'm used to being made fun of for my teams," he said.
Ayoub said he's thinking about what it will be like on the day when fans can finally go to the new ballpark and watch a game.
"It's still going to be beautiful if they get it done."