Lively Tales About Dead Teams

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1995-2005 Norwich Navigators

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Eastern League (1995-2005)

Born: June 1994 – The Albany-Colonie Yankees relocate to Norwich, CT.
Died: October 2005 – The Navigators are re-branded as the Connecticut Defenders.

Stadium: Dodd Stadium

Team Colors:

Owners: Barry Gordon, Hank Smith et al.

 

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Eastern League’s Albany-Colonie Yankees (1985-1994) lived on Long Island in the early 1990’s.  The Yankees played in an outdated ballpark in the Albany suburbs and the team partners wanted to move the team to new digs on Long Island.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.

 

==YouTube==

1995 Norwich Navigators TV commercial

 

1995 Navigators vs. New Haven Ravens game footage

 

==Links==

Eastern League Media Guides

Eastern League Programs

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Written by AC

July 2nd, 2013 at 2:17 am

July 11, 2007 – Eastern League All-Star Game @ Norwich, CT

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2007 Eastern League All-Star Game
July 11, 2007
Dodd Stadium (Norwich, CT)
Attendance:

Eastern League Programs
18 pages

 

It’s only appropriate that a minor league farm club of the San Francisco Giants would suffer a “fog out”, even if that team happened to be located 3,000 miles away in Norwich, Connecticut.  Unfortunately for the Connecticut Defenders (2006-2009), the fog rolled in on the night of the 2007 Eastern League All-Star Game, the league’s showcase event and a boon for the sagging box office fortunes of the Norwich nine.

Minor league baseball came to Norwich in 1995 with the construction of 6,270-seat Dodd Stadium in 1995 and the arrival of the New York Yankees double-A farm club in the Eastern League.  Originally known as the Norwich Navigators, the club drew annual crowds in the 250,000 range during the Yankees era from 1995 to 2002.  But after the Yankees withdrew the affiliation and the Giants came in for the summer of 2003, Navigators ticket sales dropped 30% to an all-time low of .  Boxing promoter Lou DiBella bought the ball club in April 2005 and announced  re-branding campaign, resulting in the new military-themed Connecticut Defenders identity in 2006.  Norwich attendance continued to bring up the rear in the Eastern League, however, ranking dead last in the 12-team circuit in 2006 and again in 2007.

Five years removed from the Yankees departure, Norwich had a relevant baseball event again when the All-Star Game came to town in July 2007.  The Defenders responded with a near sell-out for the day long festivities, including a pre-game Home Run Derby.  The fog began to roll in about two hours before game time.  Just as the home run derby was about to begin, a concession stand fire alarm went off, requiring an evacuation of the stadium.  Sergio Santos of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats allegedly won the Derby, sending balls deep into the fog banks now hanging over the outfield and (one presumes) over the walls beyond.

The All-Stars fumbled through most of three innings, but officials called the game at 2-2 after a routine fly ball descended from the mists and nearly plonked Defenders outfielder and All-Star John Bowker.

“What next, locusts?” asked Defenders chief Lou DiBella in comments published by The Reading (PA) Eagle.  “The plague? We held off the rain, but who would have thought the fog would be so thick we’d have to separate it with our hands?”

What was next for DiBella, inevitably, was to move the team.  The Defenders lasted two more money-losing summers in Norwich before departing for Richmond, Virginia in 2010, still under DiBella’s ownership.  The Richmond Flying Squirrels assembled a front office dream team lead by long-time Reading Phillies exec Chuck Domino and former Altoona Curve GM Todd Parnell.  The Flying Squirrels led the Eastern League in attendance during their 2010 inaugural season with announced totals of 463,842.

With the departure of the Defenders and the Eastern League, Dodd Stadium got a new tenant in 2010 with the arrival of the Connecticut Tigers of the New York-Penn League.  The NY-Penn League is short season A-ball, with only half as many home games (36) as the Eastern League and the expectation is that this amount of baseball is more appropriate for a modest-sized city like Norwich.

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