The New Haven County Cutters were an independent baseball team in the Northeast League (2004) and Can-Am League (2005-2007). The ball club, which played at Yale Field, struggled badly at the box office throughout its existence, but managed to hang around for four seasons before succumbing to the inevitable and folding on October 30, 2007.
The Cutters were a roadworn franchise, with roots dating back to 1996, when Wall Street commodity trader Jonathan Fleisig purchased an expansion franchise in the North Atlantic League, a low-level indy circuit. Fleisig’s Massachusetts Mad Dogs played four seasons (1996-1999) at Fraser Field in Lynn, Massachusetts, but the dilapidated ballpark was in such bad shape that portions of the structure were condemned and unusable during Fleisig’s tenancy.
Fleisig pulled out of Lynn in frustration after the 1999 season and put his franchise on ice for two seasons before resuscitating the ball club in Pittsfield, Massachusetts as the Berkshire Black Bears in 2002. Like Lynn, Pittsfield had a rundown ballpark (Wahconah Park) and a depressed local economy. The Black Bears muddled along for two summers in Pittsfield but failed to draw much support. The Black Bears didn’t leave much of a mark in Pittsfield, but Fleisig did make an impression – a bad one – on Ball Four author Jim Bouton, whose own effort to obtain the lease at Wahconah in 2002 lost out to Fleisig’s proposal. Bouton retaliated with a vengeful and entertaining memoir titled Foul Ball about his rivalry with Fleisig and his bureaucratic brawls with City of Pittsfield officials and journalists. The Black Bears gave up on Pittsfield after two seasons in December 2003 and signed a new lease deal at Yale Field in New Haven.
In New Haven, the team adopted the Cutters identity, along with a pastel palette of powder blue and yellow. Former NHL All-Star and longtime New York Rangers captain Brian Leetch was introduced as one of several minority partners in the club to lend some celebrity appeal. Management made some modest upgrades to ancient Yale Field, including the installation of no frills, air-conditioned luxury suites adjacent to the press box. Fleisig and his partners also hired The Goldklang Group in an advisory role, long-time minor league baseball investors and management consultants who operated a half dozen ball clubs around the country, including one of the most successful independent teams, the St. Paul Saints, and the Cutters’ own Northeast League rivals, the Brockton Rox.
The cover illustration on this 2005 Cutters program (above) is by the late Goldklang in-house artist Andy Nelson and uses the Group’s “Fun Is Good” brand mark. In the photo at right, you can see that the Cutters’ Northeast League rivals the Brockton Rox used the same branding that summer. In this and other years, Nelson’s artwork ignored conventional imagery of ballplayers and baseball “action” in favor of mascots, fans and other imagery that reinforced the Goldklang Group’s “Fun Is Good” brand and affordable family entertainment emphasis.
Fleisig’s previous stops in Lynn and Pittsfield were marred by dilapidated ballparks. In Yale Field he had another old and outmoded ballpark (1927) and he faced a new problem as well. The Cutters were coming into Yale Field on the heels of the New Haven Ravens (1994-2003), a double-A farm club of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Ravens were the worst box office draw in the Eastern League from 2001 to 2003, with their final lame duck summer of 2003 especially poor, as it was announced prior to the season that the club was moving to Manchester, New Hampshire in 2004. There are places in America where independent baseball thrives – Long Island, St. Paul, Somerset County in New Jersey to name a few – but the common thread is communities that have been starved for baseball for decades. In cities and towns where independent clubs come right in on the heels of departing affiliated teams, the track record is one of almost 100% failure. The indy ball concept tends to suffer by comparison when local fans have grown accustomed to watching “the stars of the future” for a Major League organization. New Haven was no different.
Circumstance also dealt the Cutters a blow just before their New Haven debut in 2004. The club was scheduled to start on the road with a short three-game road trip in Allentown, Pennsylvania starting on May 31, 2004. The home opener was scheduled for Thursday, June 3rd against Brockton at Yale Field. But just three weeks prior to the season, the Allentown Ambassadors abruptly shut down, forcing the remaining Northeast League owners to replace them on the schedule with a collectively-financed road team called The Aces. All road dates at Allentown now became additional home dates against the Aces. For strong draws like Brockton and Quebec, the additional home dates were a boon to the bottom line. For New Haven, though, it was a disaster. With a winter’s worth of promotion and festivities targeted towards the Thursday, June 3rd home opener, the team suddenly had to open at home with on a Monday night during the school year. The Aces series drew only a few hundred fans, deflating the Cutters best laid plans for a grand opening. The instability on display with last minute schedule changes and teams folding also did little to promote the quality of independent baseball to an already dubious New Haven marketplace.
For the 2004 season, the Cutters drew a meager 56,982 for 52 home dates, a drop of nearly 85,000 fans from the Ravens 140,922 for 71 dates in 2003. Field Manager Jarvis Brown was let go after the club failed to make the Northeast League playoffs in 2004.
After the 2004 season, the Northeast League re-organized itself as the Can-Am League (short for Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball) as a legal maneuver in ongoing litigation with the former owner of the Allentown Ambassadors. The Cutters replaced Jarvis Brown with new Manager Mike Church and the team’s performance picked up. The Cutters made the Can-Am League playoffs in both 2005 and 2006. The club’s best season was in 2006 when the club finished 58-38 overall and lost to Brockton in the opening round of the playoffs.
Attendance ticked up slightly to 67,607 in 2005 and 62,356 in 2006, but the Cutters still languished near the bottom of the league at barely 1,000 fans per game. During the club’s fourth and final season in 2007, announced attendance improved to 1,653 per game (82,651), which ranked 8th among the Can-Am League’s 9th clubs, ahead of only the Nashua Pride. Ownership folded the club on October 30th, 2007.
2007 was a dark time for New Haven professional sports. The New Haven Coliseum – home to minor league hockey for the better part of four decades – was imploded in January. The October demise of the Cutters left New Haven without a professional sports team for the first time in 109 years in 2008.
Jonathan Fleisig finally gave up on his Lynn/Pittsfield/New Haven independent club after a decade of wandering through New England. He continues to be active in minor league hockey , where he has owned the Bakersfield (CA) Condors of the ECHL for more than 15 years, among other investments in the sport.