Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Northern Heights: Game 60 in Burlington, VT

The Vermont Lake Monsters make their home in Burlington, which is the northern-most point in the eastern portion of my tour.  Whether it or Lowell, Massachusetts is the ballpark city farthest from Whittier might be determined by how you measure the distance—by air miles or by the most direct Mapquest route.  Whatever the case, the Vermont Lake Monsters’ game on the Fourth of July weekend made it to the peak of my trip. 
The ballpark in Burlington is one of the oldest in the nation. Of course, Rickwood Field in Birmingham, which each year hosts a single game for the Birmingham Barons, is the oldest ballpark while the one in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the first collegiate game was played, has been restored to host various minor league franchises over the years.  Currently, it provides the home for the Pittsfield Colonials, an unaffiliated minor league team in the CANAM League.  Centennial Park in Burlington is the oldest that provides a home for an affiliated minor league team.  The original, wooden grandstands at Centennial Park in Burlington were erected in the early part of the 20th century. 

The low clearance from the concourse to concessions indicates the age of the ballpark.
During its earliest years the ballpark served as the home for the team at the University of Vermont, and in 1955 the first Minor League team took the field.  Like other small city ballparks of the era, the section for general admission at Centennial Park doesn’t have seats, merely widely tiered concrete platforms.  But unlike the custom at Pulaski’s ballpark of similar vintage and with a similar structure, none of the fans in Burlington brought folding chairs to prop up on the wide tiers.  Instead, the fans sat on the cement, often using cushions to soften their perch.

Fans sit on the wide, hard tiers.
Centennial’s field was also distinct in a couple of ways, one affecting a possible homerun.   In dead centerfield the grounds crews’ access gate was hung about 6 inches higher than the adjoining outfield wall.  Consequently, the yellow, homerun line atop the outfield fence jutted up a half-foot in that section. 
A couple of ads on the outfield fence also were distinct, one of which signaled a different field for play and another which actually could affect on-field play.  One ad featured the logo of Facebook, inviting fans to enter its simulated space by “liking” brpnews at its page.  And another ad was ingenious in its physical presence rather than its virtual direction.  Hanging on the foul poles were banners for Fairpoint Connections, the regional telephone service.  Why ingenious?  If a ball hit Fairpoint’s sign, it would be fair.
For the final game on their home-stand on the holiday weekend, the Lake Monsters’ pre-game festivities on July 3 featured Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who threw out the first pitch after offering a few remarks about the significance of Independence Day, the importance of Vermont as the greatest state in the Union, and the prominence of the Lake Monsters as the best team in the league.   Indeed, at the beginning of the game, Vermont stood atop the league standings. 

Gov. Shumlin poses with me pre-game.
At Burlington, the first pitch also featured an innovative way to promote the service of a sponsor. Rather than the public address announcer simply saying that the ritual was sponsored by Brick Oven Pizza, the ball for the first pitch was delivered to the mound in a pizza box, mimicking the custom of pizza delivery. 
Moments later, I was introduced as touring the country this season to sing the anthem in as many Minor League ballparks as possible, perhaps justifying to Vermont citizens why a Californian would be on the pre-game program with Governor Shumlin.  Before he had taken the mound, we had chatted briefly about pre-game routines of throwing out the first pitch and singing the anthem.  He had heard advice about aiming high for the target since he would be throwing downhill from the mound.  And I had received instruction about the stadium’s microphone idiosyncrasies. 
Following my rendition, the governor said, “You hit it out of the park.  You’re a better singer than I am a pitcher!”  That was true.   Standing in front of the rubber he had thrown a 59-foot slider.  Actually, his pitch wasn’t intended to be a breaking ball.  It simply hit the dirt in front of the plate and slid past the corner.

Jerry Fiddler captured my performance for the Lake Monsters.
Even having shared the opening ceremonies with the governor, the good times that Bonnie and I enjoyed in Vermont were more personal than political.  They were rooted in good friendship.  A couple of days before the Burlington game, Jerry Fiddler and Missy Alden, whom we had met on an educational technology tour to the Soviet Union twenty years earlier, joined us in Trenton and accompanied us in Arby for a couple of days as we trekked north.  After docking Arby in Brattleboro at a site run by one of Jerry’s cousins, we drove Toad on to Royalton to Missy’s family’s retreat atop a mountain where we spent the night.
There on Sunday morning before departing for Burlington for the afternoon game, thunderstorms rolled across the mountaintops and echoed through the valleys, and the rain run-off sluiced through gullies in the dirt road that descended from the Aldens' house toward the White River.  While we drove through residual showers en route to the ballpark 75 miles north, we monitored the weather forecast, which continued to call for showers until evening.  Thankfully, the rain stopped, billowing clouds appeared in the clearing sky, and the game proceeded on schedule.  
When we had arrived at the ballpark, Vermont’s Assistant GM Joe Doud greeted us, introduced us to other staff members, and showed us the ballpark’s “ropes”  while we talked about the anthem project. During the scheduling phases of my project, Joe had distinguished himself as one of the most communicative staff members with whom I have had contact.  Indicating that he was attracted to the project when my initial email came to his attention last summer, he said that he was overjoyed that the date that we could coordinate would be on the weekend of July 4, a time for celebrating freedom and unity, especially by featuring a special anthem performance. 
The antics of the Lake Monsters’ mascots added to the fun of the afternoon.  A new mascot, Chippy the Chipmunk, was making his debut this season to complement the actions of and attraction to Champ the Lake Monster, who has been a local celebrity for a number of years.  Chippy’s featured activity was leading kids on a run across the outfield before the bottom of the fourth.   While the visiting Tri-City ValleyCats were making their between throws, the children chased Chippy along the edge of the outfield grass from the third base line to first.

The door is open to Chippy's dressing room.  Perhaps he'll get a promotion as his popularity rises to rival Champ.
Champ’s efforts were even more energetic than those of darting Chippy.  When the Lake Monsters put runners on first and second, Champ climbed atop the ValleyCats’ dugout and began to lead a cheer for the home team as only a mute mascot could do.  Using his clown-oversized shoes, he stomp stomped the top of the dugout, followed by clap, clapping.  Again.  And again.  The crowd quickly joined in and the noise became quite a distraction to the players in the dugout, especially with Champ’s feet thudding on its roof.  Although the ValleyCats in the dugout soon surrendered, tossing out paper cups rather than waving a white flag, their teammates on the field yielded a run but didn’t relinquish the lead.
The Lake Monsters delayed their game-winning rally until the ninth inning.  Entering the frame trailing 6-3, Vermont started to rebound on an unusual play.  With one out Jordan Tripp swung and missed a third strike, a wild pitch reminiscent of the governor’s pre-game toss.  Escaping the catcher, the ball rolled toward the backstop and allowed Tripp to trip to first.  Following a walk to the next batter, two teammates singled in runs to cut the deficit.  Then with two runners on base Jacob Tanis struck out before Diomedes Lopez tied the score with a line-drive single.  Following a pitching change and yet another base-on-balls, Seth Jamieson fought off two two-strike pitches before delivering the game winning single and sending the Lake Monsters’ crowd home celebrating the holiday weekend victory.

1 comment:

  1. The banners were fair?!? Brilliant marketing manager at that field. Imagine the possibilities at places like Tropicana field with the catwalks?