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Rock Cats Have Helped Launch Many Successful Major League Careers

Many successful major league careers were launched from New Britain

For nearly three years, Torii Hunter had a pregame ritual at New Britain Stadium.

"Big Sid," Hunter says. "He'd sit there in right field and I'd come running in before the game and it was 6:40 before a 7 p.m. game and I'd go talk to him, give him a handshake and give a hug and he was like, 'Go get 'em big fella.' That's one guy I'll never forget, Sid, he was awesome."

Big Sid was Sid De Boer, an everyday Rock Cats fan in the 1990s. One day, he saw a dejected look on Hunter's face and asked what was wrong, and Hunter said, 'I don't know, I just can't hit.'"

De Boer told him, "There's never been a time in your life when you couldn't hit."

Hunter, a first-round draft pick of the Twins in 1993, was trying to make that pivotal step for a young professional baseball player, the jump from Class A to Double A. Many never get over that hump, but a remarkable number of future stars turned the professional corner in New Britain, some quickly, some, like Hunter, painstakingly.

Hunter arrived in 1996 and hit a modest .263 with seven home runs in 99 games. The next season, he was struggling throughout the summer, in the low .200s.

"At one point, I almost gave up in New Britain," Hunter said. "I almost went home [to Arkansas], went back to college to be with my family."

But Hunter had a support system. There was Big Sid, and a teammate soon to be known as Big Papi, David Ortiz.

"I remember staying at the Hawthorne," Hunter said, before a recent Twins game. "I remember all these little things. The Berlin Turnpike. Me and David Ortiz lived right next to each other, every game we'd go there and sit in the lobby, the whole team, we'd sit and talk."

Ortiz, like Hunter, is still a major league star. He smiled and nodded at the mention of those days.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, before the Mets-Red Sox game on Friday. "The Hawthorne. … It was so long ago, man."

New Britain has been a critical stop along the way for aspiring major leaguers since 1983, five of whom, Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn, Jeff Bagwell, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, have gone on to win MVP awards. Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young winner, pitched a few games there in 1983, before joining the Red Sox the following year.

Other future Red Sox included Ellis Burks and Mo Vaughn and Jeff Bagwell, who was traded to Houston after hitting .333 in New Britain in 1990, are among the early New Britain players. More recently, Mauer, Morneau, (who both played in 2003 but not together), Migel Sano and Byron Buxton have been among the top Minnesota Twins prospects to spend time in New Britain. That is the legacy to be left there, as affiliated minor league baseball leaves for Hartford, to play as the Yard Goats, next season.

"You have your best prospects in Double A and they're starting to figure out how to play," Mauer said. "There are probably three big jumps in this game — one is getting to pro ball, that one from A ball to Double A, and obviously to the big leagues. So it was a big step for me, and a lot of guys go right to the big leagues from Double A; it's a tough level."

Hunter, a five-time All-Star, remained in touch with "Big Sid" until De Boer passed away in 2003.

"We kept in contact all my years in the big leagues until he passed away. He would always send me T-shirts, old Negro League T-shirts, and we kept in contact and when he died it was very hurtful because he was a good man."

Hunter said his outlook changed when the Twins, hit with injuries, called him up for a few games in August 1997. He went back to New Britain with a taste of the major leagues and a new confidence. In 1998, Hunter was hitting .282 in midseason when he left New Britain for good. At 40, he has returned to the Twins this season, after stints with the Angels and Tigers, a 19-year career known for hitting home runs (349), and stealing them with spectacular outfield play.

"That's where I turned the corner," Hunter said. "That's where I learned how to really play the game, in New Britain. Really learned how to hit. It all started there. I was 21, and it changed for me. My experience there will never be forgotten because of the turnaround."

Mauer, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft, arrived in New Britain in the middle of the '03 season, with as much hype as any player ever has had. He lived up to it, hitting .341 in 73 games, and was in the big leagues a year later.

"It was a great place to play," said Mauer, who won the AL batting title in 2006, 2008 and 2009, "and I had a lot of fun. It was an exciting team. We were playing well, moving toward the playoffs. Double A is the big jump in the minor leagues, and it was a fun stop for me."

When the Twins first became the major league affiliate in New Britain in 1995, they were a last-place team on the major league level, but developed the nucleus of the team that made the playoffs perennially in the 2000s.

"Back then, you pretty much stayed at the level the whole year," said Michael Cuddyer, now with the Mets, who played at New Britain in 2000 and 2001, and is still remembered for his willingness to make appearances in the community whenever asked. "You didn't get promoted too many times during the season. And they left a lot of us there the whole second year, too."

Ortiz, 39, who began the 1997 season in New Britain, just passed through, hitting .322 with 14 homers and 56 RBI in 69 games. "I was just there two months," he says, "but, yeah, it was good." He finished that season in the majors, and, with the Red Sox, where he has been a World Series MVP and is soon to join the 500 home run club.

Cuddyer played two full seasons, hitting .263 with six homers in 2000, and then .301 in 2001, when he hit 30 home runs, including a walk-off homer in the playoffs.

"I got to know New Britain quite well," he said. "The first year didn't do as well as I had hoped; as a team we stunk. Then the second year we had a real good team and I had a good season. Every level's got its challenges."

Cuddyer, 36, won the NL batting title in 2013.

Late in the 2001 season, Cuddyer was joined in New Britain by Morneau, who would play parts of three seasons. Now with the Rockies, the current parent of the New Britain team, Morneau is back on a rehab assignment this weekend, so he will be in the lineup for the final Rock Cats game on Sunday.

"My favorite memory is the playoffs in '01 when I came up the last week," Morneau said Saturday, after taking early batting practice in the empty ballpark. "The only homer I remember here is those playoffs, being a part of a very good team, and seeing what it took to be a winning team. Then coming back for the whole year [in 2001], and really learning what it's like to be a professional, to grind through, put the work in. It was a growing experience.

"This is kind of the separator. I was pretty young for the [Eastern] League, and it's the first time you start facing guys with experience, guys 23, 24 who have been around a little bit and know how to recognize what a young hitter is trying to do, the first time they have the ability to attack that weakness. You really learn a lot about yourself when things are going bad. It's those hard times when you figure out what adjustments you need to make and how much work you need to put in."

Morneau hit .298 with 16 homers and 80 RBI in 2002, then after hitting .329 over the first 20 games in '03, he was on his way up and in the majors by the end of that season.

"I saw a lot of the same fans [this weekend] I saw when I was here a few years ago," said Morneau, 34, who won NL batting title in 2014. "It's a loyal fan base. It's a place where you have your division of Red Sox and Yankee fans and you have very knowledgeable baseball fans. It's sort of just about the baseball here."

Brian Dozier, 28, a slugging second baseman who played in the All-Star game in July, hit .318 in 78 games in New Britain, but some of his memories are painful.

"I got hit in the face," he said, "broke my sinus bone, cheek bone. I've always got pictures to remind me of that. Pretty funny now, not at the time. It was very personable in New Britain. Everybody loved coming there, because you've got so many fans. In the minor leagues that's not the case in a lot of places. … They were really involved in the community."

Buxton, rated the top prospect in baseball, played only a few innings at New Britain in 2014 before an outfield collision ended his season. Sano, who is hitting historically long home runs for the Twins now, was hitting them in New Britain in 2013, when the producers of a documentary were following him.

"It is a little different in New Britain," says Twins reliever Ryan O'Rourke, who was a Rock Cat in 2013 and 14. "I can't really put my thumb on why it's different, but you get more of a family feel, more of a personal feel as a player there."

In the early days, players usually stayed with host families. Later, it was more common for them to share housing. Trevor Plouffe, an infielder with the Twins, remembers sharing a house "on the outskirts of town" with teammates Dustin Martin, Drew Butera and Anthony Swarzak in 2008. In Double A, teammates learn to lean on each other for support, the way Hunter and Ortiz did a decade earlier.

"They're a good fan base," Plouffe said, "and you get to know them through the year."

For Hunter, "Big Sid" wasn't the only long-term contact he made in the right-field seats at New Britain Stadium. In spring training a couple of years ago, when he was with the Tigers, Hunter was approached by Astros manager Bo Porter.

"He came to me and said, 'There's a kid named George Springer, and he knows you, he really wants to talk to you again,'" Hunter said. "I thought for a minute and said, 'Hey, I remember that kid.'" Then [Springer] came up and said, 'Hey, I was a kid in the stands in New Britain and I used to play catch with you, talk to you all the time.' I couldn't believe it. I get chills thinking about it."

"It's amazing he's in the big leagues," Hunter said. "I'm pretty sure he watched my game and picked up some things, because he plays hard all the time, runs into walls like I did. We're both crazy."

It's all part of the cycle of baseball, of players growing up, passing the game on. Hartford takes New Britain's place in the cycle next season, and will do well if it builds the same kind of history.

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