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Yard Goats Can Finally Graze In Home Field

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HARTFORD--Kyle Calhoon has worked his craft at Super Bowls, World Series and countless games in sold-out major league venues.

But on April 13, he was more anxious than ever. The ballpark he came to Hartford to create from scratch was at last to be unveiled.

"I've been very lucky to work some big events throughout my career," said Calhoon, 30, who has worked on the grounds for the Browns, 49ers, Yankees, Giants and Jets. "To think five years ago that a Double-A opening at a new ballpark would be the biggest one, I would have said, 'You're crazy.' But to get where we are, after almost two years now, to see somebody out here playing on the field with fans in the seats, it's going to be surreal."

Calhoon, who became the Hartford Yard Goats' sports turf manager in August 2015, had Dunkin' Donuts Park ready for baseball in 2016, but the stadium around him was not, plagued by construction delays and political and legal wrangling.

With that over, Calhoon's field was perfect and, when Hartford righthander Yency Almonte delivered the first pitch low and away to New Hampshire's Tim Lopes at 7:14 p.m., professional baseball had returned to Connecticut's state capital 65 years after the demise of the Hartford Chiefs.

The move of the Eastern League's New Britain franchise the 12 miles to Hartford was announced in the summer of 2015. The eventual cost of the new stadium is placed at $71 million, and now that it is completed, it is state of the art, more a mini-major league park than a large minor league facility.

But before the Yard Goats--the Rockies' Double-A affiliate--could move in, they had to play the entire 2016 season on the road, except for a handful of "home" games at Norwich's Dodd Stadium.

"It's a complete 180," Hartford third baseman Ryan McMahon said, "to go from having nothing to this place that's state of the art and has everything you could ever dream of. We're just excited to be here and get to work."

The opening ceremony included 13 first pitches. The stands were filled, and hundreds who bought standing-room tickets milled around the wide concourses.

"It was a long and rocky road getting here," said Hartford mayor Luke Bronin, who took office after the decision to build was made, "but at the end of the day, no matter what you thought about the original decision to build a ballpark, we have one of the most beautiful minor league ballparks in the country, and this is the time to rally around it.

"Leaving the financial concerns aside, of course, it's a great thing to have thousands of people coming down to the center of your city for 70 games a year."

The visiting team was not in a mood to join the party. New Hampshire routed Hartford 7-2. An errant pickoff throw by reliever Konner Wade led to the tie-breaking runs in the seventh inning, and the Fisher Cats' Gunnar Heidt hit the ballpark's first home run, in the eighth, to help break the game open. At least there were no bad hops.

The Hartford park is asymmetrical. It's shorter down the right-field line, where a screen is set up so that a higher wall must be cleared. The city skyline can be seen beyond the outfield, and the signage emphasizes Hartford's history as "The Insurance City."

"Just to have as many fans in the seats as there were tonight," Yard Goats DH Ashley Graeter said, "and see how excited they were, it makes you a little more excited. And for me and some of the guys who are returning, we waited a year to be able to play in this park, there's a little added anxiety."

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-- Dom Amore is a 20-year BBWAA member who writes for the Hartford Courant

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