Posted by: Ryan | January 23, 2010

Sugarmakers

One team that I won’t be visiting this year is the Single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, the Vermont Lake Monsters. Before I yell at them to get off my lawn because of their cutesy-pie name (if you can’t just call them the Nationals, at least dub them the Sugarmakers and give them red-and-black checked ballcaps with earflaps), I’ll reconsider my decision to leave Burlington out of my itinerary, as this might be the last year for minor league ball in Vermont.

The issue is the team’s aptly-named home ballpark, Centennial Field, which is now 103 years old. Last fall, the Burlington Free Press cited a report prepared for the Commissioner of Major League Baseball:

The report, dated Oct. 8, 2007, said the pitching mound was not regulation size. It also reported the distance between two of the four bases exceeded the 90-foot regulation. It noted defects and hazards with the field that could jeopardize player safety and it said the nighttime lighting for the infield area was below acceptable levels.

Is that all?

It’s been a while since I went to a ballgame in Burlington, since before my daughter was born, eight years ago. They were called the Vermont Expos back then, and it’s likely that I saw them when the future Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay was part of the team in 2000. (Wikipedia has a list of notable Lake Monsters alumni).

Centennial Field redefines the term “old school.” If attending a game there reminds one of post-war America, the war in question is the Spanish-American War, not World War II. The stands are steep and made out of wood, and sitting on them, you feel you should wear a boater and a cellulose collar and cry, “Hurrah” for the Mudville Nine.

Even though I splurged for good seats the two or three times I went – spending maybe eight dollars for admission each time – the action is a ridiculous distance away. There is as much space between the catcher and the backstop as there is between him and second base.

But it is such a nice experience. You park on the street and walk down the left-field line, past a small concrete-block building where the home team dresses, high-school-style. They walk to the field along with the crowd, clattering in their cleats, carrying their bats and gloves.

One of the games I saw was toward the end of the season (the team is in the short-season New York-Penn League, and the home games end in late August). As part of the between-innings entertainment that seems required at minor league games, a local radio personality brought a woman atop the home dugout for an interview. How many games had she been to this season, he asked. “Haven’t missed one!” she replied cheerfully, wearing her Expos shirt and cap. Her answers to his subsequent questions revealed that not only did she attend every home game, but she had also hosted ballplayers in her house for years. At this level of the minors, players live with local families, exchange-student style (which is a decent definition of what the players are).

So I wonder if she hosted Jason Bay, or Orlando Cabrera, or the notable nut-job Milton Bradley (yes, that’s his name), or one of the half-dozen Vermont Expos who later made the Bigs. If Orlando Cabrera, say, lived with her, does he ever think about her house with its tiger lilies and hummingbird feeders, remember how she helped him learn English, and took him to Al’s French Fries on Saturday afternoons? Does he remember how he woke to the sound of her vacuuming the living room above his bed in the basement, and how she made him do his own laundry, using the first clothes drier he had ever seen, because that’s the way we do things here in America, and you’re not in Cartagena, Colombia any more?

It’s more likely that she never hosted any of the lucky six who went on to fame and fortune, but is remembered by a different half-dozen ballplayers, former 18-year-olds from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and San Diego and Wichita. Single-A is the first step up from Rookie ball, and the  majority of these players will not rise beyond Double-A, let alone make The Show.

I thought of the Vermont Expos, and this woman, when I recently watched the movie Sugar, which is about a teenaged pitcher from the Dominican Republic coming to America to play in the minor leagues, and eventually finding a home in the States. I was moved by this film because it depicted the players other than the Cabreras and the Bays. It depicted the ones who don’t make it. The film made me think about what happens to all of that desire, all of that yearning, all of those years of practice and honing that come to naught. What happens after that single summer in Vermont, after you’ve played the night games on a dimly-lit, 103-year-old field, and your skills are found lacking, and all of the heart and effort you can muster won’t change a thing?

At one of the Vermont Expos games I attended, a pitcher for the Staten Island Yankees threw a no-hitter, and by the third inning, everyone sitting on those hemorrhoid-inducing wooden stands sensed the inevitability of the game’s outcome. It was the sort of dominance that becomes rarer the closer you get to the majors. He was obviously On His Way Up, a man among boys, a phenom among prospects. I have long wished that I kept my scorecard from that game, to know if he did fulfill his destiny, if he ended up in the place that seemed so apparent on that Vermont evening.

But maybe because I’m five-foot-five, because I was a good field/no hit second baseman who got cut from the varsity my senior year of high school, because my love for the game (the smell of a well-oiled glove, the sound of metal cleats on concrete dugout steps) far outstrips my natural ability, I think more about the player who might have realized that night – three strikeouts and one weak tapper back to the mound against the phenom – that he was outclassed, and would continue to be outclassed, and that he would end up back in Cartagena, or San Pedro de Marcoris, or Kalamazoo, with only memories, and the fading embers of that desire, dimmer than the lights of Centennial Field.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Ehlers, Ryan Newswanger. Ryan Newswanger said: One team that I won't be visiting this year is the Vermont Lake Monsters. Wrote about it here: http://wp.me/pI5I9-1q […]


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