Even before the first batter takes a swing at Dunkin Donuts Park, the Hartford Yard Goats are making a strong pitch to excite and engage the city’s large and mostly Puerto Rican Latino population through various targeted outreach and employment programs, and by recognizing one of Puerto Rico’s most revered and iconic figures, Roberto Clemente.
Puerto Rico has a long affinity with baseball and has sent more than 200 players to the Major Leagues including several who have been elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. This enthusiasm was full blown during the recent World Baseball Championships when the Puerto Rico national team, noted for its bleached-blond (rubio) hair, fought its way to the final game before losing to the United States.
However, no player is more respected and revered than Clemente, who the Yard Goats will honor Aug. 18 by retiring his No. 21. The Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder wore this number during his 18-season Hall of Fame baseball career that was cut short when he died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while attempting to bring supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
The team’s ownership has declared that no Yard Goat will ever wear Clemente’s number, similar to the rule throughout professional baseball barring the use of the No. 42 . This is the number that was worn by Jackie Robinson who broke the baseball color barrier in 1949. Both numbers will be on display behind centerfield in the new stadium when the Yard Goats play their first home game April 13.
“The Latino community loves the game of baseball,” said Julio Concepcion, majority leader on the Hartford City Council and vice president of the Hartford Metro Alliance. “The Yard Goats have been doing a good job of getting the word out to the Latino community,” he added.
The Yard Goats have been one of the most aggressive minor league organizations in terms of attempting to reflect Hartford demographics throughout its operations, said Mike Abramson, assistant general manager.
“We want our ball park to feel like it’s everyone’s ball park,” Abramson said. This local interface includes recognizing the city’s diversity in everything from hiring to the refreshments sold in the stadium.
The Yard Goats food vendor is using some local suppliers and there will be a special “neighborhood” food cart that city restaurants will take their turn using and some will be serving ethnic fare, Abramson said.
The team’s first home game on Thursday, April 13 is sold out. In addition, more than 2,000 tickets have been sold for the “soft opening” of the new stadium, which will feature a game between two Connecticut college teams, the University of Hartford and Quinnipiac University.
To help with the team’s outreach, the Yard Goats also have brought in The Latino Way, a Hispanic-lead marketing and advertising agency based in Hartford. Working with Maria Lino, the team has produced and distributed schedules and posters in Spanish throughout Hartford.
It was Lino’s idea to combine a daylong Latino festival with the retiring of Clemente’s number, Abramson said. He expects that Latino Way will come up with other special activities to represent the city’s diverse population.
One way the Yard Goats will touch base with the local Hispanic community is on the radio. The team’s 70 home games will be broadcast in Spanish on 1120-AM WPRX in Hartford, with the father-son duo of Danny and Derek Rodriguez at the microphone. All 140 of the team’s Eastern League games will be carried in English on Newstalk 1410.
What could be the ultimate test of how the community perceives the Yard Goat will be its employment practices.
The city’s decision to build a baseball stadium as the showpiece of its North End development project, apparently now stalled, was controversial and the situation was exacerbated when Dunkin’ Donuts Park’s completion was delayed a year and additional funds had to be poured into projects.
Now, that the stadium exists, some local leaders want to make sure its hiring and business practices efforts are inclusive.
The Yard Goats apparently are on board with this local focus. The team’s owner, Josh Solomon, “wants our staff to look like Hartford,” Abramson said.
Moreover, this approach is in sync with a recent story on the Yard Goats on BaseballAmerica.com, in which Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner says he wants the makeup of minor league staffs to more accurately reflect their communities. “Your club has to look from the inside out like the marketplace looks at you,” the baseball executive said.
One way this effort has been underscored is in hiring seasonal personnel. The team had promised to adhere to certain requirements related to diversity, Abramson said, “and we have exceeded all those targets.”
The Yard Goats also are working to diversify their front-office staff and this has included hiring a bilingual Latina as a tickets account executive.
Another local employment initiative is the team’s ambassador program for youngsters which will be run out of the Aetna Community Center that is part of Dunkin’ Donuts Park.
The Latino Way is helping the Yard Goats recruit children from Hartford to participate in a program which focuses on providing training to help them eventually land jobs in baseball. Sessions will take place on days the team is not playing at home and the youngsters will receive a stipend and a job with the team.
Solomon said in the Baseball America article, “Not everybody can play the game like some of the superstars, but there are a whole host of careers in baseball where you don’t have to swing a bat.
Another way the Yard Goats reach out to young people is by having players visit the local schools. “We want players with a Latino background to connect with Latino students,” Lino said.
The Yard Goats will take the field April 13 with a roster that includes players from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as well as several U.S.-born players of Hispanic descent.
Most of these players will be striving to hone their skills at the AA minor league level to gain a shot at playing in the majors. The Yard Goats are affiliated with the Colorado Rockies of the National League’s west division.
If they are looking for a role model in terms of success on the field and compassion off of it, there are few if any better choices than Clemente.
The all-star outfielder was not the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues. This honor goes to Hiram Bithorn who began a five-year career in 1942. However, it was not until Robinson broke the color line that there was an influx of Latinos onto the big league rosters.
When Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh in 1955, he was one of five Puerto Ricans in the major leagues. In 1972, his last season, there were 24. Last season, a total of 27 players were born on the island with several others of Puerto Rican descent, but born in the 50 states, also active.
Clemente was the first Puerto Rican elected to the Hall of Fame, being elevated in 1973 the year after his death, a special honor because the required five-year wait was waived.
In January, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, became the fifth player with a Puerto Rican connection chosen for enshrinement in Cooperstown. In addition to Clemente, they are Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez, who was born in Cuba and came to the island at age 16 and adopted it as his home.
Clemente played his entire Major League Baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and although most Hispanics in Connecticut may root for the New York Yankees, Mets or Boston Red Sox, when asked who their favorite baseball player is, the answer typically is Clemente, even for those Latinos like Concepcion who was born a decade after the Puerto Rican hero’s death.
Retiring No. 21 is a “big, big deal,” said the city council leader.