The arrival of the Colorado Rockies heralded the end of a 62-year baseball drought in New Haven, Connecticut.
Following the MLB expansion in 1993, the Eastern League received two bonus teams to accommodate the player development systems of the Rockies and Marlins. The Marlins funneled their Double-A prospects through the Portland Sea Dogs, while the Rockies sent theirs to the New Haven Ravens. New Haven had not opened their doors for a pro ball squad since the 1931-32 Bulldogs rolled through town, and the Ravens would become their first-ever Double-A ranked team.
Despite fan fervor over the new team, as well as unsuccessful playoff bids in 1994 and 1995, the Ravens settled into a funk. They finished below .500 for three consecutive seasons, never ascending higher than second-to-last place in the North Division. By the end of 1998, the Rockies had signed on with the Kinston Indians, and New Haven was again left without a pro ball affiliate.
Due to their membership with the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, which assured them of another MLB affiliate, the Ravens were not kept waiting long. Half a dozen MLB teams vied for their attention, including the Mariners, who had been ousted from their partnership with the Double-A Orlando Rays when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays purchased the club. Seattle sent manager Don Lohn to Connecticut to hold a getting-to-know-you luncheon in the hopes that a warm impression would pave the way for a new affiliation. Several players followed Lohn to New Haven to make special appearances, visit local soup kitchens and hospitals, and host youth baseball clinics during the offseason.
It worked. In 1999, the Mariners kicked off the Ravens' sixth season with seven straight losses. The rocky start to the year was leveled by mid-season, when they found themselves courting third place in the division. Not only was it the highest mark the club had achieved since 1995, but it came during another minor league expansion. Earlier that year, the Pirates' Altoona Curve and Angels' Erie SeaWolves brought the league total to 12 teams.
By the end of 1999, Seattle's Ravens had cemented their third-place finish, only six games under .500. Unwilling to curb their momentum after the ballpark had closed for the season, members of the Ravens reached out to the New Haven community, initiating youth-oriented programs like "Rally Around Reading" and "Baseball in Education." Management also oversaw some much-needed tweaks to a 72-year-old Yale Field, adding corporate luxury boxes, a playground, and a sports bar to cater to both their adult and adolescent attendees. In response, MiLB presented the club with the Ellis Award for the minor league team most dedicated to community service.
When 2000 rolled around, the Mariners finally had an on-field product as good as their off-field contributions. Southpaw Brian Fuentes more than doubled his strikeouts, leading the team with 152 whiffs and just seven home runs despite finishing with a 7-12 record. Fellow starter Greg Wooten received league-wide accolades with a 2.31 ERA and 17 wins, more than any Ravens pitcher had accumulated since Juan Acevedo's 17 wins in New Haven's inaugural 1994 season. Backing the sharp pitching staff was first baseman Juan "Large Human" Thomas, who crested 100 RBI and accented the Ravens' 82 wins with 27 home runs, good for second-best in the league.
The crowning glory of the 2000 season came with the Ravens' third franchise playoff appearance. On their first go-around in 1994, the Ravens had been swept out of the first round by the Mets' Binghamton Mets. The following year, they were booted from the championship series by the Phillies' Reading Phillies. This time, they'd find themselves in the ring with both teams.
True to the precedents established by former Ravens' rosters, the team lost their first game of the postseason by one run. Whether it lulled the Mets into a false sense of security or the Ravens were facing fewer power-hitting pitchers, the series tipped in the Ravens' favor as they won the next four consecutive games and advanced to the final round. The big test came with the championship series, which pitted New Haven against the 85-57 Reading Phillies, a franchise hoping to reclaim their former winning streak and add a fourth title to their record books.
Here, as in the semifinals, the Ravens wasted little time keeping their opponent guessing. The championship was theirs in four games with a 4-2 squeaker. Fuentes allowed four hits and struck out 11 batters in a five-inning start, and the bullpen picked up four scoreless innings to finish off the series -- including a timely strikeout and inning-ending groundout to quash the Phillies' attempted rally in the ninth.
No one spoke more eloquently about the victory than manager Dan Hohn. "These guys just battled their butts off," the skipper told The Hour.
In spite of the Ravens' immense success, and fully unaware of the dominant season awaiting their parent club in 2001, Seattle parted ways with New Haven after claiming the Eastern League title. Benny Looper, Mariners' Director of Player Development, was driven to the decision after watching the team play in a dilapidated, decades-old ballpark and monitoring the expensive living costs in the surrounding area. The Ravens, meanwhile, were on the verge of a big transition as well. By 2003, they had been sold to Lowell Spinners' owner Drew Weber, who hitched the club to the Blue Jays and settled them in New Hampshire -- smack dab in the middle of Red Sox Nation.
New Haven trivia
- Notable Ravens: Brian Fuentes, Gil Meche, and Joel Piniero.
- Previous franchises in New Haven, Connecticut included the Single-A New Haven Profs and the 1891 New Haven Nutmegs.
- During the Ravens' very first home playoff game in 1994, they lost 2-1 to the Binghamton Mets after Mets' starting pitcher Chris Roberts hit a game-winning home run.
- In 2004, the Ravens were uprooted to Manchester, New Hampshire as the Blue Jays' New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Before the move could be finalized, however, the club had to strike a deal with the Red Sox as their new digs would encroach on the Sox' territory. "Although the team will not be Red Sox affiliated, we are Red Sox baseball fans in New Hampshire," Manchester mayor Robert Baines told The Hour. "That will never waver."
- Prior to the Ravens' arrival in Manchester, controversy erupted over their new moniker. Management developed the New Hampshire Primaries, identified by an elephant and donkey holding baseball bats. What was intended as a tribute to the New Hampshire primary quickly soured among the locals, who protested the nickname and suggested several alternatives, including the New Hampshire Granite and the Granite State Mountain Men. In the end, only 22 votes propelled the New Hampshire Fisher Cats' win over their runner-up, the Manchester Millers.