Growing prospects and a fan base: Inside the success of the Hartford Yard Goats
Hartford Yard Goats general manager Mike Abramson still remembers going to his first baseball game in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when he was eight years old. The cherished moments he carries with him from that night help fuel his desire for everyone who watches his team play to walk away with memories that will also last a lifetime.
The Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, the Hartford Yard Goats have created a following for themselves, both in person and on social media. Last season, in the second year of Dunkin’ Donuts Park being open in downtown Hartford, the Yard Goats registered 47 sellouts and saw more than 400,000 fans come through the turnstiles, setting a new record. Abramson looks at the numbers as a success for his franchise, but there is more to it than just having people attend a game, he says.
“My job as a GM is to bring people into the ballpark, have them buy food, buy merchandise, have a good time and want to come back,” Abramson told me in an exclusive chat during the recent Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. “For me, it’s ideally selling out 70 games and having every single person at all 70 games thrilled and want to come back the next day. That would be the 100 percent goal. In reality, we want to sell as many games as we can. Customer service is huge for us. We want people to be absolutely delighted. I don’t want them to have an OK time. I want them to leave with stars in their eyes.”
Part of that goes back to his experience at minor league games as a child and what he hopes the children and families of Hartford walk away from after a night with the Yard Goats.
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“I went to my first baseball game in Pawtucket. I was eight years old. I still remember seven or eight instances of that night. I probably remember seven or eight instances of the rest of that year when I was eight,” Abramson smiled. “That’s the kind of thing we can do and these are the kind of memory imprint things that happen.”
Following through on creating those experiences are just part of the reason why Hartford was named the 2017 minor league team of the year by Ballpark Digest. Of course, everything in Hartford has not always been rosy. The team was forced to play on the road for its first season after moving from New Britain, Conn., thanks to delays in their new home park’s construction. Looking back, Abramson said that year helped build the Yard Goats brand into what it has become.
“The fact that the ballpark didn’t open for a year, I feel probably helped us at the end of the day because everybody got in so deep emotionally,” Abramson said. “It was the social media that really got everything started. That’s how we made our friends. That’s how we created a fan base. That’s how we gave the brand a voice. When we didn’t have a ballpark or team that everybody could see and meet locally. Everything was stacked in the right place. We just needed to open. When we did, we were ready to sprint. We had been waiting a long time to sprint and we sprinted and we haven’t stopped.”
Social media has provided a fantastic voice for the Yard Goats throughout the country and helped keep Rockies fans informed of what is happening with the next generation of players. Abramson says that not only has social media been critical for Hartford’s success but also the way they approach the medium has been beneficial as well.
“I have a philosophy that is a little bit different than a lot of the other minor league teams. I don’t look at social media as a way to sell tickets or bring people into the ballpark,” Abramson explained. “It’s a free medium. I look at it as a place to go and make friends as the voice of the brand. I look at it as a big room where you are with a bunch of friends. You’re showing the stuff you do and they’re showing the stuff they do. When they reach the point where they are choosing some form of entertainment, you like to think they choose you because you’re friends. That’s always been the direction for us.”
Of course, Double-A baseball is also a place where the Rockies can groom their prospects to succeed at the Major League level. Abramson said Hartford’s relationship with their parent club (the Rockies) is “fantastic” in part because everyone is on the same page.
“It seems like everyone wants the same thing, which is to have a place where we can treat the players like rock stars and the Major Leaguers we all hope they will be someday,” he said. “There are no hard asks from them or us. That’s what we want. We want to treat our players well so down the line when they’re Major League players, or even if they’re not, they want to come back and help us do things in the community.
“The Rockies want their players to play in a place that is packed every night so they feel the intensity and the nervousness they need to feel to get to where they want to go. To play on a big stage in minor league standards but also have a clubhouse where they are comfortable and hopefully like where they will get to.”
Among the Rockies who saw Major League action in 2018 and also have donned a Yard Goats uniform are Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson, David Dahl, Noel Cuevas and German Marquez. Not a bad group of players for the locals to see make the transition from the minors to playing for the Rockies. Hartford fans are enjoying seeing their former players make an impact in Denver, Abramson said.
“They’re buying into the Yard Goats,” Abramson said of the local fan base. “Unless you’re a Red Sox, Yankees or Mets affiliate in Connecticut, it doesn’t much matter who your affiliation is with. However, I hear from fans that they get a real thrill out of seeing players who played for us now play with the Rockies. I do too, by the way.
“We’re in a really fortunate position because the Rockies are a big development team. They have a lot of young guys and things are moving quickly. When I watch a game now, I can’t believe how many players on that team played for us.”
It’s all part of the memories Abramson and the Yard Goats are creating in Connecticut.