by Don Stacom
September 2, 2015

NEW BRITAIN – Rocky the Rock Cat has gone, but professional baseball apparently won’t be leaving the city.

The Atlantic League on Tuesday evening announced a tentative deal to field a team at New Britain Stadium next season.

Mayor Erin Stewart said she was “ecstatic” at getting a new ball club so soon after the Rock Cats of the Eastern League finished its last game in the city on Sunday.

“New Britain was technically without a baseball team for a day. That’s a pretty good batting average — I feel like an MVP,” Stewart said.

“We still have work to do but are very encouraged by our discussions with the City and the hearty reception Central Connecticut has given to keeping professional baseball in New Britain,” said Atlantic League founder Frank Boulton in a written statement.

Boulton has been negotiating with Stewart about moving a club to the city. The eight-team, independent league, which includes the Bridgeport Bluefish, plays a roughly similar schedule to the Eastern League’s.

Which team will be moving was not revealed, but sources have indicated that the Camden Riversharks of New Jersey is a likely candidate. The Atlantic League has said that it wants to expand to 12 teams, but the Stewart administration said New Britain will be getting one of the existing eight.

Stewart said the team’s name hasn’t been chosen. The owners want to work with the community and businesses to choose a name.

“Whatever it ends up being, it’s something that will be uniquely focused on New Britain,” she said.

Officials said team owners and the city will be negotiating until the end of September to finalize details. Boulton said the conditional agreement is subject to working out terms of a ballpark lease, including provisions that govern field lighting, field maintenance, corporate boxes and more. New Britain and the team also must agree how to handle parking; under the Rock Cats’ contract, the city used seasonal staff to run the parking lot and kept the revenue.

Stewart’s administration took heat last year when the Rock Cats announced they were leaving after 32 years.

Stewart said she was blindsided by the decision, because she had spoken with team executives days earlier and had no indication of trouble. It later turned out that the team had been looking to move for some time.

At the time, Stewart pledged to try to recruit another professional team to New Britain, even if Eastern Division rules prohibited the city from hosting another AA level club.

With the Atlantic League team en route, the city will make improvements to the 6,500-seat ballpark during the off-season. But Stewart said she doesn’t anticipate any major changes. She said Boulton uses the same concession vendor as the Rock Cats did, so she’s hoping that most of the staff will be able to stay in New Britain if they choose.

The Rock Cats’ lease on the New Britain ballpark continues through Dec. 31. In the spring, the team is scheduled to play in a new downtown Hartford stadium as the Yard Goats.

This article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.