The city of Waterbury, Connecticut had a Class AA Eastern League minor league baseball team for 21 years from 1966 to 1986. The ball club changed affiliations with Major League Baseball with extraordinary frequency – no parent club ever stayed more than four seasons. The California Angels had one of the briefest flings in Waterbury, sponsoring the club for the summer of 1984 only.
The Waterbury Angels finished 70-70 under field manager Winston Llenas and produced six players who would eventually play Major League Baseball. The most notable was 22-year old first baseman Wally Joyner, who led the club in homers (12) and RBIs (72) while batting .317. Joyner debuted with California two years later and was voted the starting first baseman in the 1986 MLB All-Star Game as a rookie.
The Angels pulled out of Waterbury at the end of the 1984 season and the team became a Cleveland Indians farm club in 1985.
The Pittsfield Cubs were the Class AA farm club of the Chicago Cubs for four seasons between 1985 and 1988. The arrival of the Cubs marked the return of pro baseball to Pittsfield’s historic Wahconah Park after an eight-year absence.
Although the team only served the Cubs for four seasons, the Berkshires city saw a procession of future Major League stars including Joe Girardi, Mark Grace, Jamie Moyer and Rafael Palmeiro.
After the 1988 season, during which Pittsfield sold the fewest tickets in the eight-team Eastern League, majority owner Stuart Revo announced his ball club would relocate to Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the 1989 season. Pittsfield immediately received a New York Mets farm club to replace the Cubs, though the Pittsfield Mets (1989-2002) would compete at a much lower competitive standard in the short season Class-A New York-Penn League.
The Pittsfield Cubs marked an early minor league investment for New York Yankees limited partner Marv Goldklang. Goldklang went on to operate and advise numerous long-running minor league clubs during the 1990’s and 2000’s and was one of the key figures in the revival of independent professional baseball during the early-mid 1990’s.
The Sherbrooke Pirates were the Class AA farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates for two seasons in the early 1970’s. Pittsburgh shifted their Eastern League farm club to Sherbrooke from Waterbury, Connecticut in November 1971, which was part of a larger Eastern League push into the province of Quebec during the era. The league added clubs in Quebec City and Trois-Rivieres in 1971 and by 1972 three of the circuit’s eight clubs were located in French Canada.
The Pirates had a strong farm system at the time, with future Major League All-Stars Tony Armas and Kent Tekulve spending time in Sherbrooke on their way to The Show.
Oddly, the team moved 65 miles north to the small asbestos mining community of Thetford Mines after the 1973 season. Attendance collapsed from 70,000 during the Pirates final season in Sherbooke to only 22,000 in Thetford Mines in 1974. Consequently, the Pirates abandoned French Canada and the Eastern League in 1975 and transferred their Class AA operation to Shreveport, Louisiana in the Texas League.
Sherbrooke has not had professional baseball since the Pirates left town after the summer of 1973. Amedee Roy Stadium still stands, however, and is used periodically for amateur baseball leagues and tournaments.
Pitcher Juan Jimenez (1973), who later played briefly with Pittsburgh in 1974, died October 12, 2008 at age 59.
Bristol, Rhode Island was the Class AA farm club of the Boston Red Sox in the Eastern League for ten seasons from 1973 to 1982. It was a Golden Age for the Red Sox farm system and a parade of future Major League stars came through ancient Muzzy Field on their way to Fenway Park, including future Hall-of-Famers Jim Rice (1973) and Wade Boggs (1978 and 1979).
The owner of the Bristol Red Sox was legendary minor league operator Joe Buzas. Buzas, who played a single season with the New York Yankees in 1945, bought into his first minor league club in 1957 and reportedly owned as many as 82 different teams during a five-decade career. Buzas brought the team to town from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he’d owned the club from 1970 to 1972. In 1973, the Red Sox shifted their Class AAA farm club from Louisville, Kentucky to Pawtucket, which meant Buzas needed to find a new home for his lower-level Eastern League team. Buzas chose Bristol’s Muzzy Field, which last hosted pro baseball in 1950 when the short-lived Bristol Owls (1949-1950) of the Colonial League went out of business.
The Bristol Red Sox had winning seasons in nine of their ten summers in Bristol, including Eastern League crowns in 1975, 1978 and 1981. Attendance was never strong at Muzzy. In their best season at the box office in 1981, Bristol drew 77,066 fans, or just over 1,000 per game. The worst year at the gates was 1976 when only 38,637 showed up for nearly 70 openings.
In October 1982, Buzas signed an agreement to move the ball club to New Britain, Connecticut after that blue collar city agreed to build Beehive Field for the team. Pro baseball has not returned to Bristol, Connecticut since the Red Sox left in 1982.
Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd
Owner Joe Buzas passed away on March 19, 2003 at age 83.
Minor league baseball returned to Norwich, Connecticut in 1995, thanks in part to the restrictive territorial rules of Major League Baseball and its affiliated Minor League governing body, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Four of the six partners of Class AA Eastern League’s Albany-Colonie Yankees (1985-1994) lived on Long Island in the early 1990’s. The Yankees played in an outdated ballpark in the Albany suburbs and the team partners wanted to move the team to new digs on Long Island. But the New York Mets exercised their territorial privilege to block the move and the partners were forced to look elsewhere.
Norwich, Connecticut patched together financing for a brand new $9.8 million ballpark to lure the ball club from Albany. Senator Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium would be ready for the 1995 season. The move to Norwich was made official in June of 1994. The relocated team was to be known as the Norwich Navigators and, best of all, the Yankees affiliation came along with the club, which was a terrific bonus for the many Yankees fans in Eastern Connecticut. During the Yankees eight-year run in Norwich, rising prospects such as Mike Lowell and Alfonso Soriano spent time there and established superstars such as Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry made cameo rehab appearances.
During the Yankees final season as Norwich’s parent club in 2002, the Navigators won their first and only Eastern League championship.
The Yankees pulled out in 2003, switching their Class AA farm club to the Eastern League’s Trenton Thunder franchise. The San Francisco Giants became the Navigators parent club in 2003. Attendance peaked in the Navs’ inaugural season of 1995 at 281,473 per game. The novelty of the Navs and the new ballpark slowly eroded over the next seven seasons and then nose-dived when the Giants replaced the Yankees in 2003. Attendance plummeted 30% in 2003 and by 2004, Norwich had the worst attendance in the Eastern League.
On the eve of the 2005 season, after nearly a year of discussions, boxing promoter and former HBO Sports executiveLou DiBellapurchased the Navigators from original partners Hank Smith and Barry Gordon for an estimated $9 million. DiBella frequently expressed his unhappiness with the Navigators identity and the team’s often-mocked alligator-with-a-spyglass logo. Shortly after the 1995 season ended, DiBella re-branded the club as the Connecticut Defenders. The Defenders lasted four seasons (2006-2009), but DiBella couldn’t resuscitate Norwich’s flagging attendance which continued to rank at the bottom of the Eastern League.
The former Navigators/Defenders franchise was packed off to Virginia prior to the 2010 season, where it is now known as the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Dodd Stadium still has minor league baseball though – the Connecticut Tigers of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League moved in 2010 and began their fourth season of play this June.