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Pro baseball in Vermont – at Centennial

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By KARL LINDHOLM
Do you like professional baseball in Vermont?

If so, better get to a game pretty soon. Looks like the Vermont Lake Monsters are not long for the Green Mountain State.

Last week, Burlington Free Press sportswriter Mike Donoghue wrote a long piece on the inadequacies of the Lake Monsters’ home, Centennial Field. Donoghue cited a 2007 report from Major League Baseball and discussed the ramifications of the physical problems that jeopardize the future of the team at that site. His Free Press colleague, Matt Ryan, followed up the next day with an Opening Night report.

Donoghue and Ryan really did a number on Centennial, which was built in 1906, with the permanent grandstand constructed in 1922. Donoghue described the old beauty as “dilapidated” and “decrepit.” Ryan wrote that fans at the first home game “forgave the ballpark’s trespasses.” He also commented on the “unsuitable playing conditions,” and talked to fans who “roughed it on green wooden seats.” His first quotation was from a fan who said, “it’s definitely tired.”

Back off, boys. I’m here to speak on behalf of Centennial Field.

Simply put, it’s a great place to watch a game, a classic. It’s the park your grandfather went to ... when he was a boy. That’s worth something, and not just to old guys for baseball’s days of glory, like me. It’s hardly the dump the Free Press reporters described.

The walk down to Centennial Field from the shuttle bus stop, or from East Avenue or Colchester Street, a couple hundred yards, is a timeless experience. You see that old wooden grandstand, painted a traditional green, and it could be the 1920s. It’s a stirring sight.

In the overheated American sports scene, baseball is unique. If a latter-day Rip Van Winkle awoke after 100 years, contemporary life would astonish and confound him — that is, until he went to a baseball game. Even at one of these new major league parks, these billion dollar monuments to excess, Rip would find the action on the field entirely familiar. And if he found himself at Centennial Field, he’d be right at home!

It’s the same park that the University of Vermont’s greatest major leaguer, UVM graduate and Red Sox Hall of Famer Larry Gardner, played in, and in which the UVM teams coached by Gardner (Enosburg Falls) and his Red Sox teammate Ray Collins (Colchester) also played their games. It was the setting for great Northern League games in the 1940s and ’50s. It is Vermont baseball history.

It is remarkable that this century-old ballpark is still the setting for exciting play in 2009. It’s a star, one of the best things the Lake Monsters’ team has going for it. Centennial is the Vergennes Opera House, the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. It’s a cultural artifact well worth preserving. Like Fenway Park, it’s a baseball shrine. It’s Vermont’s baseball shrine.

As it turns out, many of the deficiencies the League noted in 2007 have been corrected. Also, the bulk of the League’s objections (dugouts, locker rooms, bullpens) had little to do with the quality of the fans’ experience. Nonetheless, without question, Centennial could use some sprucing up, much as Fenway has been physically improved without losing its historic appeal.

So it’s crucial that these improvements be made and baseball continues in this wonderful setting.

Don’t hold your breath.

Ray Pecor owns the team. UVM owns the park and just eliminated its baseball program as a cost-saving move. The university is unlikely to pour more money into an intramural facility. One cannot blame Pecor for being reluctant to invest further in a property he doesn’t own, even though doing so might sell more tickets. His desire to build a new stadium is well known. “Ask me who I haven’t talked to,” he says in the Free Press piece.

Stalemate.

Ray Pecor’s greater liability may be the quality of his team on the field. The Expos/Lake Monsters, an affiliate of the woeful Washington Nationals (the Montreal Expos before that) have been losers eight of the last nine seasons. Yet the fans still come out, though in lesser numbers recently as the team’s fortunes have declined. With good teams in the ’90s, Centennial sold out and a celebratory atmosphere prevailed.

The real heroes of the Lake Monsters’ ongoing story are their estimable general manager, C.J. Knudson, and his energetic staff, who work so hard to provide an evening’s enjoyment for Vermonters. It would be fun to see what C.J. & Co. could do if they could feature a winning team on the field, in addition to a big fuzzy mascot, lively promotions, and between-inning antics. It’s hardly the park’s fault.

Perhaps it’s time for the politicians to get involved. Mayor Kiss and Senator Leahy are cited in Donoghue’s story as supportive of minor league baseball in Burlington. I know Gov. Douglas is a baseball fan: His two sons were good players in Middlebury as teen-agers, and I witnessed the Guv standing through some endless contests. Bernie, too, is a genuine fan who used to be a frequent visitor to Expo games at Centennial.

I certainly hope it’s possible to save pro baseball in Vermont ...

... at Centennial Field.

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