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Norwich - On a gorgeous spring day, Connecticut Tigers officials threw out their first pitch Thursday, introducing the new minor league baseball team in a news conference held in front of the entrance to Dodd Stadium.
General manager Andrew Weber batted leadoff.
"This is a great day today for not only our organization but for our ownership and the city of Norwich," Weber said. "This is a day that we've been looking forward to and a very proud day. … We're here to make this one of the best summers of baseball in Norwich."
Armed with a bundle of enthusiasm and optimism, Weber and his staff are hitting the ground sprinting. They have about two and a half months to complete a to-do list that normally takes about eight months.
Opening day is June 18 for the short-season New York-Penn League franchise. The home opener at Dodd Stadium is June 26 against the Vermont Lake Monsters. The 76-game schedule runs through Sept. 5.
The Tigers only officially received approval from the 14-team league and minor league baseball to relocate the Detroit Tigers Class A team from Oneonta, N.Y., to Norwich on March 26. As of Wednesday, the front-office staff was unpacking boxes and setting up its new offices at the former home of the Class AA Defenders.
"That's definitely a challenge for us but one we look forward to," said C.J. Knudsen, vice president of operations, of the short preparation time. "We realize it's not a 9-to-5 job. Working in baseball is something that we feel very fortunate to do."
In the frantic days ahead, they will work on connecting with the surrounding community. They'll reach out to Defender season-ticket holders, put a new shine on Dodd Stadium and hold two town meeting-style events, in Norwich and the New London-Mystic area. Dates will be announced in the near future.
"We want to learn what the fans want, what they've seen in the past and what they've liked and didn't like," Weber said. "This is going to shape our ability to provide the best form of entertainment to this market that we feel we can."
The arrival of the Tigers made at least one former Defenders fan happy. Cal Lord of Norwich wore his Detroit Tigers jacket to the news conference. He's been a Tigers fan since the days of Al Kaline, Norm Cash and Mickey Lolich.
"It's just wonderful," Lord said. "Growing up here, I always liked the Yankees and the Red Sox but the Tigers were my team. I always dreamed of moving out that way. Well, it's kind of like they moved here."
If only winning over the rest of the community is as easy for the Connecticut staff.
Like the Defenders before them, the Tigers are fighting the same problems - apathy, complaints about the Dodd Stadium location and the lack of an affiliation with a rooting interest.
At least the Connecticut Tigers will be playing Lowell (Boston Red Sox), Staten Island (New York Yankees) and Brooklyn (New York Mets).
Owner Miles Prentice said he believes the community here will back a Class A team, and he's shooting to average 2,000 fans but hoping for 3,000. He noted that the Defenders averaged about 3,000 fans last year. And the Tigers won't be playing during the cold-weather months of April and May.
"First of all, there was a fair degree of support for the Double-A franchises that were here," Prentice said. "The attendance, in particular last year, was outstanding. ... We felt the weather would be a nice factor. The stadium, we were very pleased with.
"So we think there is a market here that will support the team."
As far as the baseball operations, the manager already is in place with Howard Bushong returning. The team roster, which will be filled with draft choices and first-year players, will be set by mid-June. Players will arrive in Norwich for a two- or three-day mini-camp prior to the start of the season.
Weber is eager to introduce the Tigers to the area.
"This is an area that's had 15 years of professional baseball and we look to build on that," Weber said. "We're privileged to be part of this community. We hope that people take to us. We can be a wonderful addition to the community as well."
For more information on the Connecticut Tigers, check out their Web site: cttigers.com. Individual game tickets will go on sale sometime next month.