My first time playing at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the home of the Hartford Yardgoats, was May 18th, 2017 with UConn. It was a beautiful Friday night in Connecticut as the Huskies prepared for game one of our final regular-season series of the spring against East Carolina. I remember that night like it was yesterday for many reasons. For starters, Hook C baseball fans came out in droves and the energy was electric. Hartford was buzzing. That park would be referred to by our teammates as “The House that Frenchy Built” when our senior catcher, Alex Leferve, hit his first career Home Run. That was easily one of the most electric moments of the season. Tim Cate the Robot went out there and effortlessly twirled a complete game shutout, one of the best games I ever saw out of him during the two years I played with him in Storrs. Finally, on a personal note, it was the day I collected my 200th career knock with UConn across my chest. Needless to say, my first time at the Dunk was one of the more special days of my baseball career to that point.
It took me just over two years to earn another chance to play at that gorgeous ballpark. The day was June 19th, 2019, one day after I had the honor of representing the Frederick Keys in the Carolina League All-Star game. The day before the All-Star Game, I was informed that I was getting called up to Double-A and headed to Hartford. I rode with my parents on the 19th from Maryland to Hartford after staying up until 3 AM packing and preparing to move out of my host family’s house, the Witt’s. That was a sad moment but wee all knew only good things were to come.
At long last, I was allowed to enter the bowels of the ballpark, after seeing just the playing surface and the dugouts of Dunkin’ Donuts Park back in ‘17. I’ll tell you what, they were not messing around when they made that facility. Their indoor hitting area was impressive. It had two massive hitting tunnels and giant glass windows separating reporters and scouts from hitters while still allowing a close look. The guest locker room was massive, with a few tables and couches on which to play cards, eat, lounge, etc. I was so fired up when I saw a PS4 in the locker room that I’m having trouble recalling if there was one or two consoles in there. Either way some of my new teammates were ripping the video game FIFA before batting practice. The locker room kitchen had a Keurig with all the Dunkin’ K-cups we could drink. I got settled into a locker and said hi to the players and coaches I knew while introducing myself to those I did not. Then, our manager Buck Britton posted that night’s line-up. There was YAHN, penciled in the six-hole. My Double-A debut was going to happen in front of friends and family in the heart of my home state.
I do not remember much from running out there for the bottom of the first. I was so hyper-focused on making sure I was successful in my first Double-A fielding chance, the packed ballpark might as well have been empty. The top of the second came along and the six-spot was due up. My adrenaline was pumping hard and I tried my best to slow myself down. ‘Don’t think, just take a hack at the first good one you see’, I thought to myself. After I took a borderline first-pitch strike, I got a fastball up and in but inside the strike zone, and I took my first Double-A hack. I kept my hands in and got the barrel to the ball and turned on that puppy. I did not think I got it as well as I did off the bat, and to this day no one really knows whether or not that ball was a Home Run or just a double or even a foul ball. The Yardgoat’s manager came out to argue it was a foul ball and after the fact, our skipper, Buck, told me “I would have gotten tossed if they called that foul!”
As the argument continued, I took a chance to remove the in-game blinders and I started looking into the crowd. I found my parents, many friends from the Northwest Corner and UConn among others. The joy I felt was overwhelming as I tried my best to act like I had been there before, Lord knows I hadn’t. I was excited to record my first extra-base hit and first RBI in Double-A, but to be able to do it in Hartford with so many people I knew and loved in attendance made it feel like a dream. It was another moment at that ballpark I would remember forever. The Baysox would play six total games at Dunkin’ Donuts Park that summer, of which I made the start in three of those contests.
I know, I know, I may have covered some of this before. But all of that combined with the fact that the first game in Great Falls Gator’s history was going to be at that beautiful ballpark felt like another dream. A more confusing one, with the roller coaster of emotions that 2020 provided, yet an exciting start for a franchise that did not exist just over two weeks prior. It was June 25, 2020. I rolled up with Coach Stew and Prez Shawn bumping “We Will Rock You” by Queen on full blast. We shlepped the team equipment to the dugout and there we were, on the field, back in that beautiful cathedral for Connecticut baseball.
Once I put all the equipment down, I laid down and started doing ‘snow angels’ in the grass in shallow right field. I needed it. Just over a year after making my Double-A debut, after the pandemic sent us packing from Spring Training and canceled Minor League Baseball in 2020, just being there for a game felt like therapy. Once I had finally written a line-up and warmed up, it was time to face-off against a really high quality opponent for this level of baseball, the Terryville Blacksox.
The Blacksox combined with another team out of Waterbury to create a talented ball club, especially from a pitching standpoint. Their staff rolled out four pitchers and only one of them, a softer throwing lefty, did not touch 90 MPH on the radar gun that day.
The big Gator moment that day came from the bat of Caleb Shpur. Caleb is now a sophomore at Endicott College who had earned some playing time for the Gulls his freshman spring. He produced one of the more legendary moments of the entire season, crushing a solo shot in the Dunkin’ left-field bleachers for the first ding-dong in Gator franchise history.
That was all she wrote that day for the Gators, as we surrendered three runs in the first and couldn’t overcome the deficit. Kody Kerski, former Minor Leaguer for the Seattle Mariners, came in for the close sitting 91 and got up to 93 a few times. We could do nothing but tip our caps to the Blacksox that day, the better team won. I didn’t even get a freakin’ hit, sad! But the Gators were just getting started. I knew our team was going to make the adjustments we needed to have a great chance of beating those guys on July 12 when we played again.
Despite the hunger every Gator had to play again, we had to wait for a bad spell of rain to pass. Our second and third scheduled games were both postponed. It would not be until July 6th when we finally were able to get back onto the field in New Britain against the NB Hurricanes.
Just the day before, I had completely overcooked my body in the form of hiking and lack of sleep. Lindsey and I celebrated our one-year anniversary of dating on July 4th while in Tamworth, New Hampshire with my family. On the 5th, Lindsey and I decided we were going to make our first trip up the mighty Mount Chocorua, located in the famous White Mountains of New Hampshire and visible from the house our family has owned since 1906. The legendary mountain is 3,480 feet in elevation and over a 10-mile hike round trip. Lindsey and I crushed it, although, I wouldn’t say we properly prepared ourselves for the beating that day. We did not bring enough food and ran out of water just after reaching the beautiful summit. We risked contracting Giardia for a sip of some fresh, ice-cold water out of a creek during our trip back down the mountain (sorry if that’s TMI, but we did not get sick thank God!).
The following morning we limped to the car and hightailed it home to be able to make it back for the game. When we were an hour from the field, fatigue was really hitting me like a ton of bricks. I knew I just needed a nap and I would feel fine but that was not an option. We stopped at Dunkin’ and I got a large iced coffee with a turbo shot. Here’s the thing: when you need to study, write a paper, or something of that nature, a turbo shot is great. When your body is already reeling and all you need is water and electrolytes, a turbo shot is most definitely not great.
When I got to the field mentally I was all there, but physically I was dead as a doornail. I wrote up the line-up, went out to throw, and only got about five throws in before I had to go do the pregame coaches meeting. Not the most ideal of warm-ups the day after a 10-mile hike, but it would have to do for now.
At long last, I recorded my first career Gator knock in the top of the first inning. With Austin Patenaude reaching before me with a hit-by-pitch, we had runners on first and second. Landon Gardella stepped up and punched one into the left-center. Austin was able to score easily while I attempted to go from first to third right in the left-fielder’s face as he fielded the ball to his forehand side. I knew it would be a close play at third and without thinking, executed one of the most aggressive, Pete Rose-esque belly flop slides in my own career at any level. If I was thinking, I wouldn’t have thought to do that considering how my body felt that day. The only thing I had on my mind was getting to third base as quickly and aggressively as possible to dislodge the ball or distract the third baseman from securing the throw and applying a tag. Sure enough, the ball went off the end of the third baseman’s glove and went to the fence, but not far enough where I could not score. I came up to a knee on third base, feeling like someone threw a brick at my chest and gave me two dead legs. Honestly, the excitement of my first belly flop of 2020 was balancing out the pain and fatigue.
Luckily the Gators bats stayed hot all night, as we jumped out to an 11-1 lead by the end of the 5th. Before I ended up yacking or something embarrassing like that from being gassed, I pulled myself from the game and let some guys who hadn’t started get in there to get an at-bat or two. The last 48 hours at that point had been just crazy. From spending time in upstate New Hampshire with my family and girlfriend of one year to my first time climbing Chocorua, to the Gator’s first franchise win, things were starting to look up in 2020.
2 thoughts on “Chapter 4: A Day at the Dunk”
Keep the blogs coming Willy. After last year, my spring yearning for baseball is off the hook.
Excellent piece, Willy!