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Dodd Stadium in Norwich is tucked away major venue

About the series: This part of the state has some of Connecticut's biggest and most popular tourist attractions. But in this occasional series we're going to bring you places worthy of a visit that you might otherwise never have heard of.

Norwich — The complaint has been voiced uncounted times in the past 25 years: Why the heck did they build Dodd Stadium so far out of the way? Why not in downtown Norwich, or near Norwich Harbor?

Because, said attorney Glenn Carberry, who led the effort to bring minor league baseball to eastern Connecticut in 1994, there was no time for a drawn-out property purchase, demolition and environmental cleanup to make way for a stadium. After a site in Groton fell through, proponents needed to act fast to bring the Albany Yankees, the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees, here.

“We had like 10 days to acquire a site that was suitable, get control of it, otherwise the team would have to sign its lease in Albany,” Carberry said. “Norwich had the courage to step forward. ... We built it there, because it was the location that was affordable and available. It was built on time and on budget, unlike the unfortunate experience in Hartford,” he said, referring to the numerous delays and cost overruns at Dunkin’ Donuts Stadium.

Named for the former U.S. senator and a prosecutor for the United States at the post-World War II Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremburg, Germany, in 1945-46, the Sen. Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium was built on a former cornfield at the edge of the Norwich business park at a cost of $10 million.

A baseball stadium in a cornfield, attracting thousands of fans to see baseball games. Could be a book, or a movie. It was, of course: “Field of Dreams” — with its iconic line, “If you build it, they will come” — was released 30 years ago this spring.

Management of the Connecticut Tigers, the Single A minor league baseball now at Dodd Stadium, did not miss the connection. The Tigers are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dodd Stadium and the 10th anniversary of the Tigers at the stadium this summer.

On Saturday, July 13, Dodd Stadium will host “If You Build It” night, with special guest Dwier Brown, who played the character John Kinsella in the movie.

“Dodd Stadium was built in the middle of a cornfield, so we thought it was a good connection,” Tigers general manager Dave Schermerhorn said.

Dodd Stadium is one of only seven minor league baseball stadiums in New England with Major League Baseball affiliations. Dodd started with the Yankees’ AA Norwich Navigators, changed to San Francisco Giants’ Navigators and Connecticut Defenders and now the Detroit Tigers’ Single A Connecticut Tigers.

This year, the Tigers will change its name as part of a new lease agreement with the city. Fans submitted 650 ideas for the new name, and the Tigers are working with a sports logo company to choose finalists for a fan vote later this summer.

The Tigers play 38 home games at Dodd each season. Last year, with one game canceled, the Tigers averaged just over 2,000 fans per game, with total attendance at 75,810. The stadium seats 6,000.

The stadium's location often is blamed for attendance struggles.

“Still, Dodd’s greatest wart is the real estate broker’s enduring reminder: location, location, location,” Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro wrote in a column last year. “It’s a half-hour from everywhere with nothing around it.”

The famous visit Dodd

Dodd Stadium has had a storied history, regardless of its location. The stadium has hosted thousands of professional, high school and college baseball games, brought star major leaguers to Norwich for injury rehab stints and Hall of Famers on promotional nights. Big-name musicians have played there.

Major leaguer rehab appearances included: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and Chilli Davis. Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Al Kaline, Dave Winfield and Mike Schmidt have greeted fans.

Nearly 200 Navigators, Defenders or Tigers have made the Major League, some — Mike Lowell, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval and Ramiro Mendoza — with distinguished careers.

For 20-year Dodd Stadium public address announcer Ed Weyant of New London, a different baseball celebrity provided his favorite memory. Famed Yankee Stadium PA announcer Bob Sheppard visited the press box one night in 2002.

“He stood right there and shook my hand,” Weyant said. “I said, ‘We have something in common.’”

The music lineup has been no less impressive: Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson on one night, Clint Black and Dwight Yoakum another, and the Beach Boys.

Dodd Stadium also has hosted the Podunk Bluegrass Festival and the Connecticut Renaissance Fair. Wrestling Under the Stars professional wrestling will return to Dodd for the second year on Saturday, Aug. 17.

Now that Dodd Stadium hosts a short-season minor league team, the facility is available all spring for high school and college games. Dodd has hosted about 80 high school games this spring and is the home field for Norwich Free Academy, St. Bernard’s and St. Thomas More baseball teams. The Northeast Conference college baseball tournament was played there in late May.

“I was 8 years old when Navigators first came there,” NFA baseball coach Luke Gabordi said. “I remember going to those games.”

Gabordi said his team and visiting teams are thrilled to play in a professional stadium. When it rains or snows, the Tigers let the NFA team practice in Dodd’s professional indoor pitching and batting facilities.

“It’s just a good resource in the community,” Gabordi said. “I would love to see them do really well, have more people in there. The New York-Penn League is good baseball. I hope people come out to see the games.”

The Tigers’ season ends Labor Day, and general manager Schermerhorn is working on scheduling fall events to keep Dodd Stadium open.

Fans of all types

Kathy Bryant of Lisbon often is first in line at the front gate before a game. She sports crisp Major League Baseball uniforms of various teams and rarely misses a game.

“I even watched the stadium being built,” she said. “I told a friend of mine, ‘I want to have season tickets.’”

Bryant loves the full fan experience. She switches her season ticket seats “once in a while” to get different viewpoints. She can recite the goofy clips Weyant will play over the speakers — the broken glass and “uh, oh!” when a foul ball heads toward the parking lot is one favorite.

Vernon “Griff” Gray Jr., owner of Gray Ledge Tree Farm in Griswold, is a longtime college baseball fan and attends games throughout southern New England. When the Single A Connecticut Tigers moved to Norwich in 2010, Gray added Dodd Stadium to his routine, since this is the first professional stop for many top college players drafted by major league teams.

Every few years, this spring included, Gray’s Lisbon Boy Scout troop repaints the picnic tables in the Dodd Stadium pavilion for a donation from the Tigers to the troop’s annual summer camping trip.

Gray also is a "host family," providing a home to players during the season, often keeping in touch with them as they move on after leaving Norwich. He has housed 11 players since 2012. One of his first guests, Tyler Collins, “made it to the top,” Gray said.

“Having players on the field who live in your house,” he said, “having that connection is just great.”

Hardcore baseball fans cite the intimate feel of a minor league stadium, the easy interaction with the players and staff, and low ticket and parking prices. Tigers’ tickets are $20 for the Yard Bar luxury box, $12 for a premium box seat, $11 for reserved seats and $10 for grandstand. Parking is $3. Compare that with Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Citi Field.

But stadium attendance has declined over the years since the initial excitement of the Yankees coming to town. The stadium's isolated location, away from population centers or other attractions, is a factor. The stadium is 5.8 miles from Norwich City Hall, 11 miles from the Mohegan Sun Casino and 17 miles from Foxwoods.

Signs direct travelers to Dodd Stadium on Interstate 395 and Route 2, along city streets in Norwich and Route 32 in Franklin. The Tigers erect sandwich board “Game Today” signs at key intersections to help catch people looking for something to do that night.

Schermerhorn and his staff line up special weekend promotions, reach out to youth teams, camps, schools and Scout troops for group outings and seek sponsorships from the region’s big and small businesses.

For nine years, Stephen Curtis of Canterbury has been scanning tickets at the front gate with a smile, cheerily bidding fans to "Enjoy!" This year, he was promoted to head usher and still greets fans on the concourse and front gate. He said it’s important to show everyone entering the ballpark that Dodd Stadium is a “family-oriented” night out.

Curtis takes that mission away from the stadium, too. Earlier this year, he was at a restaurant and someone mentioned that he used to go to Navigators’ games at Dodd Stadium. Curtis encouraged him to come back and enjoy a Tigers game.

“That’s what minor league ballparks are all about,” Curtis said.

c.bessette@theday.com

If You Go

The Tigers have promotions and giveaways every homestand, including:

July 5: Fireworks after the game.

July 13: "If You Build It" night, with special guest Dwier Brown.

July 20: On New England Night, the Tigers will become the New England Lobster Rolls for one night, wearing jerseys that will have a certain similarity to another New England team. Check www.golobsterrolls.com for details.

Aug. 23: On Military Appreciation Night the Tigers will wear special uniforms to be auctioned after the game.

Hot dogs are $1 on Tuesdays. Domestic draft beer is $2 on Thursdays. Seniors get in for half price on Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are "Me plus three" nights, with four tickets and food vouchers for $40.

Every Sunday, kids get to run the bases after the game, play catch in the outfield and get a Ben & Jerry's ice cream voucher.

More information: www.milb.com/connecticut

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