As the San Francisco Giants celebrated their second world championship in three years after sweeping the Detroit Tigers four games to none in the 2012 World Series, several key members have ties to the Connecticut sports scene. Dodd Stadium in Norwich was home base for two Class AA Eastern League teams—the Norwich Navigators and the Connecticut Defenders—from 1995-2009.
Class AA is widely accepted as the level offering the most true major league prospects to fans. Many players are weaned out of the system in Rookie League and Class A ball. The AAA level, on the other hand, does prepare prospects for the next level (i.e. major league ball) on a short-term basis, but also features many more veteran players either rehabbing, or hoping (usually against hope) for their last shot at the Big Dance. Triple-A leagues are often compared in terms of talent and level of play to the independent Atlantic League, the home of the Bridgeport Bluefish.
The franchise began as an affiliate of the New York Yankees, who moved their AA team to the Rose City and the brand-spanking-new Dodd Stadium from Albany in 1995 and branded the team as the Navigators. As an affiliate of the Yankees, many future major league stars cut their professional chops in Norwich, including Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Nick Johnson, Alphonso Soriano and Juan Rivera. In addition, the likes of David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Roger Clemens did rehab assignments in a Norwich uniform.
In 2003, the Yankees moved their AA affiliate to Trenton, NJ, as the Thunder, where they remain today.
The San Francisco Giants saw an opportunity and moved into Norwich where they remained for six years—first as the Navigators; then from 2006-09 as the re-branded Defenders. And, just like the aforementioned products of the Yankees’ system, several key members on the current Giants’ roster used Connecticut as a springboard to major league stardom.
World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval—coined “The Panda” by teammate Barry Zito because of Sandoval’s pudgy appearance—got the Giants off to a powerful start by hitting three homers in the opener against the Tigers, becoming the fourth player to accomplish that feat in a World Series game. Sandoval played in Norwich in 2008 with the Defenders where, as a 21-year-old prodigy in 2008, he hit .337 with 8 homers and 37 RBIs. Perhaps the best indicator of Sandoval’s future stardom is his On-base plus slugging percentage (OBPS)—accepted by baseball scholars as the best overall offensive measure. Sandoval’s .913 OBPS in 2008 roughly translates into one run produced (scored or driven in) by Sandoval in every game he played that year.
Matt Cain, the starting pitcher in Game 4 one of the favorites to win the Cy Young Award, pitched in Norwich with the Navigators in 2004 when, at the tender age of 19, he chalked up a 6-4 record and 3.35 ERA in 15 appearances. The pitching equivalent of OBPS is called the WHIP (Walks plus Hits divided by Innings Pitched). The statistic—a favorite of the Theo Epstein stat-geeks of the world—has become a favorite of fantasy league players because of its ability to measure a pitcher’s overall effectiveness. The excellence bar is set at 1.000. Anything below is considered an outstanding WHIP. Cain’s WHIP with the Navs was a solid 1.314—giving Connecticut baseball fans a snapshot of his potential for future success. While in Norwich, Cain, who authored the 22ndd perfect game in major league history on June 13 against the Houston Astros, allowed less than a hit per inning, averaging 7.6 hits per nine innings pitched.
And let us not forget Madison Bumgarner. In 2009, at the age of 19, Bumgarner appeared in 20 games for the Defenders (starting 19 of them) and posted a prolific 9-1 record with a 1.93 ERA. His 1.028 WHIP in 107 innings was out of this world. In addition, the southpaw allowed just 6.7 hits per nine innings.
Interestingly enough, even after the Giants pulled out of Norwich and relocated their Eastern League franchise to a much larger market in Richmond, Va., the city fathers scrambled and were successful in recruiting a Class A short-season New York-Penn League team to play at The Dodd. And, as fate would have it, that team’s parent is none other than the “other” World Series team—the Detroit Tigers.
In 2010, the Tigers agreed to move their NYP team from Oneonta, NY, to Norwich where they have played for the past three seasons as the Connecticut Tigers. And this coming summer, The Dodd will host the 2013 NY-Penn League All-Star Game on Aug. 13.