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Award Winning Sports Writer Owen Canfield Likes Hartford Stadium. Weekly Column by Dan Lovallo.

POSTED June 12, 2014
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney

Award winning sports writer Owen Canfield likes the idea of a new ballpark in downtown Hartford for the transplanted New Britain Rock Cats, but he does not think it's a big fat pitch down the middle of the plate. The seven-time winner of the "Connecticut Sportswriter of the Year" award does have some reservations about the endeavor.

"60 million dollars?" Canfield asked about the ballpark's price tag. "Is it going to swell to $120 million?  There are many things to worry about, if you are a worrier. Building it with taxpayers' money is hard for me to justify."

That said, Canfield, who has written about sports for the Hartford Courant since 1965 - including two years as the paper's sports editor - also sees many benefits to a Hartford ballpark for the Eastern League's Rock Cats.

"Minor league baseball is pretty much flourishing. This is the time to strike, while the iron is hot," he said. "It would be wonderful if Hartford had a ballpark. When you have a good park, oh what it does for a town."

These days, Canfield, 80, writes a monthly column for the Courant, but also writes weekly for his hometown Torrington-based Register Citizen newspaper. However, baseball in Hartford has always been near-and-dear to his heart. In fact, Canfield was in the vanguard of a movement to bring professional baseball back to Hartford nearly 30 years ago.

In 1987, with New Britain home to the same franchise that is now being proposed for Hartford, Canfield and Mike Peters put the capital city smack dab in the middle of the region's pro baseball conversation with the tacit cooperation of New Britain, the city which now believes is being scorned.

Yes, that Mike Peters, who would eventually become mayor of Hartford, but at the time was a civic-minded firefighter.

"I wrote a column that what this town (Hartford) needed was a baseball team," Canfield said. "I liked the concept of each state's capital city having a ballpark and a baseball team. I saw Dillion Stadium near the highway not being used and thought a new ballpark on that site would be good for the community.

"Mike called me - he was all Hartford - and he started snooping around."

A committee was even formed and a study completed touting the benefits of pro baseball in Hartford.

Meanwhile, Canfield's newspaper, the Courant, championed the baseball cause. Larry Bloom, editor of the Sunday Courant's supplement, "Northeast," assigned Canfield the cover story promoting Hartford's baseball venture. The June 21, 1987 edition was headlined "Play Ball! Bring baseball home to Hartford."

Not only was it predicted that Hartford would get a ballpark and franchise, Canfield had interviewed several heavyweights who were on board with the idea, including Eastern League President Charles Eshbach. "I think Hartford has been ready for a team for a long time," Eshbach was quoted in the story.  He and then New Britain Red Sox owner Joe Buzas envisioned both cities co-existing, with EL teams essentially sharing the same region. 

The ultimate goal was for Hartford to eventually land a AAA baseball franchise, while New Britain remained at the AA level. But all agreed the Eastern League was the first step for Hartford.   

Radio icons Bob Steele and Arnold Dean, along with heavyweight politicians Thurman L. Milner, Mayor of Hartford, U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly, Lt. Gov. Joseph Fauliso, Hartford Atheneum Associate Director Christopher Cox and renowned jeweler Bill Savitt were all on board for Hartford's return to pro ball.  (For years Hartford had a pro baseball team, until 1952, when the Hartford Chiefs left.)

Alas, Hartford's pro baseball flirtation never made it to first base. The concept dragged along with plenty of talk but no real commitments.

 "Had they done it right, put the right people in charge, like William Dowling (the previous Rock Cats owner who made the franchise a smash hit), it would have worked," Canfield said.

Fast forward to 2014 and Hartford's current attempt to land a pro club. Although it is not a done deal, Hartford is much farther along in the process than it was in those halcyon days. There is a concept for a ballpark, real interest by city fathers, and a commitment from a franchise's owner, if a stadium is built.  Canfield even likes the stadium's location at Main and Trumbull Streets.

"They will have to deal with all the problems that go with putting it there, like transportation and parking, but certainly we have the brain power to figure out how to make it work," Canfield said.

He may be gung-ho on Hartford's latest pro baseball pitch, but Canfield fully understands this attempt is at New Britain's expense, and he is not happy about that. After all, this is a baseball enthusiast who once visited and wrote about all the Eastern League franchises in 1980. 

"I feel bad for New Britain, You're going to have two empty ballparks side-by-side. What are you going to do with them?" Canfield asked. 

That said, he hopes all the fans who attended games in New Britain will go to the games in the new Hartford ballpark. "It would be such a good thing for Hartford. It would have a positive influence," Canfield said.

Of course, they will have to build the ballpark first. And in reality, although Hartford has never been closer to being back in the pro baseball business, in many respects it is also two outs in the bottom-of-the-ninth for the city's Field of Dreams, whose seed Canfield helped plant 27 years ago. 

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