Twilight for New Haven Sports
Published: Friday, November 10, 2006
Yale Daily News - yaledailynews.com
Kevin Tennyson grew up at the New Haven Coliseum. Hooked on hockey since his father surprised him with a trip to a Nighthawks game in 1974, Tennyson eventually became a staple in Section 14, den of the Coliseum's most raucous - and perhaps most knowledgeable - fans. When the Nighthawks left in 1992, he embraced the Senators, and then the Beast, and then the Knights. Without a team for four years now, Tennyson still speaks of Ken Baumgartner's fights and drinks with friends at Hennessey's Pub on George St. after games. Tennyson, who now resides in North Haven, has not seen many of those friends since the Knights skated for the last time.
"With work and people living in different areas, a lot of those guys I only saw at the Coliseum," Tennyson said. "So when the building closed, I lost some friends."
There is no news to report from the Coliseum. And for thousands of sports fans in the Greater New Haven area, Yale's unexpected football success this fall does little to assuage the sting of losing a high-level minor league hockey team, a Double-A baseball team and an arena football team in a tumultuous 12-month span beginning in 2002. New Haven's looming, Brutalist sports and entertainment venue officially closed in 2002, the cries of vociferous hockey fans drowned out by a city's economic death knell, and there is no plan to replace it. When New Haven's baseball team, the Double-A New Haven Ravens, left Yale Field for greener New Hampshire pastures, the Elm City retreated into baseball irrelevance as the new home of the New Haven County Cutters, part of the almost self-parodic Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball. Three years later, the city that the New York Giants once called home and that nearly hosted the World Cup in 1994 is without a reputable professional sports franchise, without a high-capacity non-Yale playing facility, and without even a hope of improving matters.
Bleacher creatures at the Coliseum
For Tennyson, the decline of professional sports in New Haven is an unmitigated tragedy. A follower of local politics, Tennyson understood Mayor John DeStefano's rhetoric of debt service and his frustratingly unassailable public claim that the Coliseum was beginning to siphon money from the city's schools. He just wasn't buying it.
"If city hall had put as much energy into promoting the building as they did in spinning negativity when they were trying to close it, it could've been another story," said Tennyson, who cast a ballot for M. Jodi Rell for governor this week. "Certainly, the building wasn't making money hand over fist, but I don't think it was the liability they were making it out to be. Why would our mayor allow Harbor Yard to be built [in Bridgeport in 2001] when we had the Coliseum still open?"
Tennyson, 41, missed out on the early days of the New Haven Eagles and New Haven Blades, who played in the old New Haven Arena on Grove St. from 1936-72. But he and the Section 14 gang supported the Nighthawks (1972-92), Senators (1992-93) and Beast (1997-99) of the American Hockey League and the Knights (2000-02) of the United Hockey League with unmatched fervor. Section 14, which spawned a tribute Web site (section14.com) after the Coliseum closed, was the progeny of a similar group at the New Haven Arena, dubbed "The Zoo" for obvious reasons. Tennyson, who is planning to publish a book on New Haven hockey, remembers inciting Springfield Indians players to physical retaliation in a surreal "Slapshot"-like scene and razzing opponents about lost pension money.
"We did our homework," he said. "It wasn't just a bunch of profanity. And this is before the Internet, too."
Such scenes cause others to recoil. Vincent Scully '40 GRD '49, Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, has long preferred the airy, autumnal beauty of outdoor athletics at the Yale Bowl to the claustrophobia of the Coliseum.
"I don't like the sports that are played inside, the spectator sports like basketball and hockey," he said. "The Coliseum is the ultimate enclosure. You're trapped with your lust and your greed and your desire for blood. It's awful in there."
Scully's tendency to imbue contemporary New Haven spectatorship with primordial associations is certainly not common. But his opinion is nevertheless symbolic of the culture-inclined trajectory of 21st-century New Haven, which may replace the Coliseum with the high art of the Long Wharf Theater.
Tennyson naturally feels a bit neglected.
"I don't want to go to Hartford or Bridgeport for my entertainment, whether it's a concert or an arena football game," he said. "I understand that New Haven is trying to be a mini-Manhattan and an arts center. But you have to have a mixture. Not everyone is interested in sports. But not everyone is interested in arts, either."
The town-mound relationship
In the first half of the 20th century, baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams played on Yale Field in exhibition games against the then-celebrated Bulldogs. The West Haven Sailors occupied a local niche as a semiprofessional team in the 1930s and '40s. Yale Field hosted three iterations of the same Eastern League team between 1972-82, as the West Haven Yankees, White Caps and A's all took their turn sharing tenancy with Yale baseball before the A's bolted for Albany.
Chris Getman '64, longtime keeper of Handsome Dan and president of Soundview Capital Management Corp., was instrumental in bringing Eastern League baseball back to the New Haven area a decade later. Rather than fight the inevitable uphill battle of hockey teams and Coliseum advocates, however, Getman embraced Yale's role in New Haven from the outset, courting representatives from the expansion Colorado Rockies in a uniquely Yale fashion.
"There were three double-A leagues and 30 cities that applied, so these guys were going all over the place," he said. "When they came, we put together a lunch at Mory's. Imagine, here's Ezra Laderman, dean of the School of Music, who said he would write a fanfare for opening day. You have Sidney Altman, a Nobel laureate who's an avid baseball fan. That stuff's impressive."
It was, but the honeymoon between New Haven and the Rockies' farm club (the town-mound relationship, as it were) would quickly give way to attendance problems, gripes about the ballpark and a general instability from management on down as the team plowed through four general managers and a host of lower-level employees in under a decade.
"We basically had a revolving-door staff," said Sam Rubin '95, an original staff member for the Ravens and author of the book "Baseball in New Haven." "And when you're in the business of sales, it's tough to sell when you can't establish a relationship for more than a year or two. Plus in 1995, when the team was just two years old, we heard our first rumors that the team was going to move. It seemed like every year there was a different town that the team was going to move to."
Although he mentioned that DeStefano was certainly never an ally of the team, Rubin, who now works in the Yale Sports Publicity office, stressed that Yale Field was a major cause of the team's eventual move to Manchester, N.H.
"Having to share the facility with Yale created some issues," he said. "It's not so much the case now because the Cutters have a shorter season, but before, the Ravens would be playing while Yale was finishing up their season. It's no coincidence that when the team was sold, they already had a plan for a new stadium in Manchester."
Like Rubin, Getman admits that Yale Field definitely had a role in the Ravens' demise. But he heaps the majority of the blame for the Ravens' stadium hysteria on New Haven Register columnist Dave Solomon's insistence that the facility was outdated.
But Bill Buckingham, sports marketing manager of the Greater New Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau, does not think the family-oriented paradigm of minor league baseball could ever thrive in a stadium built before modern-day gimmickry.
"Yale Field's a great park to watch baseball. It's not a great park to bring your kids to," he said. "That's the only difference [between Yale Field and the Ballpark at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport]. At Bridgeport, people go for the entertainment; they bring their kids. It's not about baseball."
But even in Bridgeport, Buckingham said, the draw of the Yankees to the south and the Red Sox to the north will eventually preclude any smaller club from occupying the swath of Connecticut land termed the "Munson-Nixon line."
"It's a novelty that has worn off," Buckingham said. "This is Big League country. This is not the Midwest."
A tennis town?
The exodus of professional sports from New Haven has taken its toll on Getman. The Ravens' departure reopened years-old wounds: In 1994, Getman and a team of New Haven delegates mounted an ultimately fruitless campaign to bring the World Cup to New Haven. They sifted through Request For Proposal requirements from FIFA, implemented the necessary changes to the Yale Bowl and received certification for the New York-Connecticut bid. The only problem was Henry Kissinger, who helped bring soccer to the United States in the first place and insisted that the tournament be held at Giants Stadium despite issues with its playing surface.
Getman had hoped to bring to the Yale Bowl copious fans and national cachet, as in 1973 and '74 when the Giants made it their temporary home. There was a silver lining in the World Cup disappointment, however.
"We had all the information about New Haven, like hotel rooms and transportation infrastructure, so when we didn't get the World Cup, we had a book about a foot thick that we just gave to the International Special Olympics Committee," Getman said. "They came in 1995, and it was the largest sporting event that year."
New Haven fans also point to the Pilot Pen tennis tournament, held annually during the last week of August at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale, as a boon for sports in the city. Featuring some of the top players in the world, the tournament is New Haven's last remaining claim to a major professional sporting event. But Special Olympics and U.S. Open-tune-up tennis tournaments do not provide a city the same validation that a World Cup or an NFL franchise can.
Buckingham does not seem to be bothered by the peripheral role of New Haven sports in the 21st century. His brand of urban pragmatism involves the understanding that a city, like a person or a business, ought to traffic in what it excels at. New Haven holds no discernible advantage over Bridgeport as a sports town. It is right to be fashioning its policy around Yale, for decades its largest employer and landowner by far.
"New Haven first and foremost is an arts center," Buckingham said. "New Haven has one of the best downtowns of any cities in the northeast, with a vibrant culture and so many residents living within the downtown area."
But New Haven's new image crops Tennyson, a security officer at Quinnipiac University, out of the downtown picture. Never having felt the same connection to Yale sports as he did to the hockey teams of the Coliseum, Tennyson won't be among the Yale Bowl crowd for Saturday's football game against Princeton though Scully, Getman and Rubin certainly will.
"Sometimes my friends and I on a Friday or Saturday night will get together and pop in a Nighthawks tape or a Beast tape," Tennyson said. "And that'll be our hockey these days."
Twilight for New Haven Sports