Posted by: Ryan | September 3, 2010

Game 16: Once More to the Lake Monsters

Date: August 21, 2010
Location: Burlington, VT
Score: Brooklyn Cyclones 8, Vermont Lake Monsters 7 (box score)
Hat worn: Pawtucket Red Sox
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be: Walk On, by U2
photos from the game

Raindrops spattered on the windshield as I drove north to Burlington. After 15 dry games, it would be sad to end my summer with a rainout, especially since this might be the Lake Monsters’ last season in Vermont. It would definitely be my last minor league game of the year. I was wearing jeans for the evening ballgame, and had tossed a long-sleeved shirt onto the passenger’s seat.

Feeling melancholic and autumnal, I parked on the campus of the University of Vermont (UVM), then joined the crowd of fans walking across campus toward the stadium, foam cushions under their arms.

It’s been over 20 years since I graduated from college, and I’ve lost that sense of newness that once came with every fall, when each collegiate year was a lifetime onto itself, bringing a different dorm or apartment in which to live, new friendships, and a new REM album that your roommate would play every night at bedtime. The band always seemed to time their releases to the beginning of the fall term, and for me, those records defined each year: Life’s Rich Pageant, Freshman year. Document, Sophomore year. Green, Junior year.

Now late August just brings the knowledge that the wonderful outdoor life we’ve enjoyed since May will soon draw to a close. Within the next two weeks I’ll light the first fire of the season in our woodstove. We’ll go to the Tunbridge World’s Fair in mid-September, celebrate my wife’s birthday in October, and one day look up to see the first tentative snowflakes skittering down from a slate-gray sky, advance scouts for the invading winter army.

We walked en masse through a residential neighborhood, then turned onto a long gravel driveway to the stadium, strolling past Brooklyn players hitting balls off a tee and stretching outside the concrete-block clubhouse. This is short-season Single A, about as far as you can get from big league hype. For many of these players – who have been assigned to Single A immediately after getting drafted by major league clubs earlier in the summer – playing at Centennial Field is a major step down from the athlete-coddling amenities of their college days.

The ballpark was built in 1904, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of UVM’s first graduating class. As I wrote before, it appears that the stadium has changed little since the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. The green wooden seats around the infield are so old, have been painted and scraped and re-painted so many times, they make Fenway Park look modern and cushy. There is no electronic scoreboard, no pitch speed indicator, and the seats along the first- and third-base lines aren’t really seats. They’re bare concrete risers, like at an English football stadium (hence the people carrying seat cushions).

Photo of presidents on dugoutThe place is borderline uncomfortable, and you’re a long way from the action, even in my seat behind home plate. But it’s undeniably homey, and very Vermont.

To be more specific, it’s very Burlington. The pre-game entertainment was supplied by Bread-and-Puppet style big-head puppets of Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt. But before you let your Vermont stereotypes run too wild, let me say that the crowd was surprisingly diverse, possibly the most ethnically-mixed group I’ve been among this summer (with the possible exception of Portland). A good melange of working-class locals, Old North End Vietnamese, African Americans, Hispanics, and yes, ex-hippies.

Plus students. As I was waiting for the game to start, a young woman strolled past on the concrete walkway. I only saw her for about five seconds, long enough for her to turn and smile back at her boyfriend, and turn around again, ponytail flipping, as she headed on to their seats. She was reasonably attractive, but not gorgeous. Her smile, and the way she looked at her boyfriend – like they were in on some secret joke – was what made me ache, made me want to be 20 years old again, and freshly in love. She seemed to be a person who makes you feel better when you are with her, and if her boyfriend has any smarts, he will recognize his good fortune, and stay with her, the way I, dumb-ass 20 year-old though I was, knew that I had found something I wanted to hold onto when I met my own compatriot, my own secret-keeper, 22 years ago now.

I thought about them for the first couple of innings. They had probably arrived back in town after being apart for the summer. He’s helped her move into her first off-campus apartment, the week before school starts up again (he’s younger than her and must live in campus housing). These nights they lie together on her double mattress on the floor, both so freaked by the closeness of the person they’ve missed all summer, and so surprised at their good fortune, that they don’t sleep much. They go out for coffee and eggs in the morning, where she talks about how her father used to take her to ballgames when she was little, and then they discuss what to do with the day, one of those glorious days before classes, before winter. Window shop on Church Street? Stroll down to Lake Champlain to watch the ferries leaving for the islands, for the Adirondacks? Climb back onto that mattress and take a nap in the afternoon, then maybe go to a ballgame, what the hell, it’s only seven bucks along the first-base line. Get a sausage and a beer and sit close to each other on the concrete riser and don’t feel uncomfortable at all.

Photo of Vermont Lake MonsterI thought about how the players are just starting out themselves, and how the odds of these college stars and Dominican phenoms making the big leagues are not nearly as good as those college sweethearts getting married and being happy for twenty years. The players are endearingly young, and haven’t yet developed the ability to carry themselves apart from the fans. The Lake Monster assigned to sign autographs out by the entrance gate before the game chewed his lip and looked around, awkward in his home whites, taller and stronger than any of the fans streaming in, unused Sharpie in his gifted hand. The Brooklyn players watched the presidents dancing atop their dugout between innings. The Vermont pitcher, on his way back out to the mound in the top of the third inning, bumped fists with the six-year-old batboy, and did it as a friend, not as a god coming down to bestow a gift upon a lucky mortal.

This lack of pretense, and the level of play – well below Double-A, which has now become my baseline – gave me the seriously mistaken impression that I could suit up and head out there and contribute. I told myself that *I* would have eaten that grounder in the shortstop hole, instead of wildly pegging it to first, although the truth is that I never could have touched that ball, much less hopped to my feet in one swift motion to wing it across the diamond, as the Dominican shortstop did.

In the sixth inning, I decided to give the concrete risers along the third-base line a try. It’s only a buck cheaper to sit out there, so I didn’t understand why anyone would choose to sit on the risers instead of on a real seat behind home plate.

Photo of Burlington crowdBut it turns out that the sight lines are much better up on the risers, and that you’re actually about the same distance from the pitcher’s mound 30 feet behind the dugout than you are right behind home plate. (There’s so much distance between home plate and the stands that several foul pop-ups landed harmlessly on the grass before the catcher could reach them.)

I spent the last couple of innings chatting with the middle-aged guy beside me, a Burlington local. He told me that it doesn’t look good for the Lake Monsters staying in Vermont. The owner of the Lake Champlain Ferry Company owns the club, “so he has the money,” but the field is owned by UVM, which has closed its baseball program. The field is so old, so out-of-date, that it will take $1 million to bring it up to Single-A snuff (which is, to be honest, nowhere near even Double-A snuff). The fans haven’t always supported the club, although the crowd was vocal tonight, and it had been tough to find a spot to park myself on the concrete.

We spoke the language of baseball, the way middle-aged seamheads can. You have to go to Reading, I said. He had just gone to Scranton, on a college visit with his son, and had seen a game at PNC Park there (he’s more a fan of double-decker ballparks than I am). He said that I should go to Omaha, Nebraska to see baseball, or take in a Royals game the next time I visit my sister in Kansas.

We talked about the Arizona Fall League, keeping our eyes on the field as we spoke. It was a decent game, see-sawing back and forth, with bonehead plays followed by awe-inspiring hints of physical prowess: a home run launched just to the left of the faux-barn in center, well over 400 feet away.

The man told me about his friend who has volunteered to have players live with his family during the season. Sometimes he’s hosted guys from “the DR,” young players who don’t speak any English, who have just gotten signed and left their hometowns for the first time. I would love to do that, I thought: I could practice my Spanish, and help the next David Ortiz adjust to life in the States. I’d see all of the home games, make plantains and black beans and rice as a treat, take him on the ferry over to New York and back on a sunny afternoon.

The problem, the guy explained, is that you need to drive the Dominicans around, as they don’t have licenses. It means you need to stay until the end of every game, and get here early, and bring them to practice. “You do a lot of waiting,” he said.

Still, I thought. It would be pretty great.

Photo of man watching Vermont gameThe game moved into extra innings, and the rain – which had held off until now – began to spit down from the sky, making a hollow thumping noise as it hit the plastic-covered barbecue shack. I said goodbye to my seatmate, said goodbye to minor league baseball until next year, shouldered my backpack, and headed back through the neighborhood, and across campus, to my car, thinking all the way.

Maybe we’ll move to Burlington someday. We could live by the lake and own a small sailboat and eat good Vietnamese food in the Old North End and see 25 or 30 Single-A games a year, riding our bikes to the park, if the Lake Monsters survive.

Maybe I’ll win the lottery, and donate my winnings to keeping minor league baseball in Vermont.

Maybe I’ll tell everybody that they should come to Burlington whenever they are able, before this ancient ballpark sits empty, and join the crowd of ex-hippies and factory workers and smilling ponytailed college girls. I’ll tell them to sit in the same seats that once witnessed both Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey, Jr., tell them to be sure to duck your head on the way out to the bathroom, tell them to walk back to your car through a sleeping neighborhood in the crickety Vermont night, and count yourself lucky.

As I did, and do.

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Responses

  1. nice!


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