May 15, 2007

Tuesday in the Park in May; of Baseball in Vermont

Rain fell and stopped, and fell again throughout the day here in Burlington, Vermont. Dark clouds hung over the mountains east of the city, towards Stowe, in the morning. The rain began as I sat with my sister, Ilana, in a coffee shop on Church Street, the pedestrian arcade, and primary artery of downtown Burlington.

We read through the morning papers, Burlington’s Free Press, the Times, and the sports-section in USA Today. I am on vacation and she took two days off from work while I am in town. This year she joined my fantasy baseball league, the Smilin’ Joe Fission All-Stars, and we worked through the box-scores and team-notes, looking at potential pick-ups and deconstructing the merits of our respective teams. The Free Press listed the University of Vermont (UVM) as having a home ballgame this evening at 6 PM against the University of Connecticut.

The rain had lightened and faded into a gray overcast sky by 5 PM and even a little sunshine was peaking through. Ilana picked me up at quarter to six and we drove over to Centennial Field for the game.

According to the UVM athletics website, the field has been used for organized baseball since 1906 and the current ballpark was constructed in 1922. This ages it with Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Fenway Park in Boston, and Wrigley Field in Chicago. The park was built for a piece of writing like this: the grandstand seats are wood with chipping green paint; the bleachers beyond the corner bases are unadorned concrete; the field is asymmetrical with the left-field fence defined by the rear of the old football field’s bleachers and pressbox. The game clock in centerfield is digital now, and the bats for this collegiate game were pinging metal – and watching the game here is likely remarkably similar to what it has been for decades.

When we pulled in to the parking lot at five past six, the left-field scoreboard showed the game to be in the fifth inning with the score tied at four. Maybe the teams had not read the same paper that we had this morning, or the Free Press had not spoken with the clubs. We walked through the gate on the parking-lot third-base side and came into the grandstand behind home-plate.

We had eaten a late lunch this afternoon, stopping at Burlington’s City Market, the Co-op. Ilana said she would pick-up a hot dog at the game. But this was not a game given to contemporary sports event retail practices. There were no concessions stands. The souvenir shop was three UVM guys sitting in the third-row directly behind home plate, with white UVM baseball t-shirts draped over the seats of the fourth row. Sales for the game were one shirt (according to one of the guys), which at a rate of one shirt per 40 fans, works out to 1,000 t-shirts were the attendance a robust major league 40,000. I would take that conversion-rate given the current mark-ups on souvenir t-shirts in this country.

Ilana and I worked our way around, behind the screen, to the rows behind the first-base side home dugout. Here, we were still under the cover of the grandstand’s roof, and we were just to the right of the screen. We had both a dry as well as an unobstructed view of the action. We sat down in front of a scattered group of a dozen girls, all around 20 to 22 years old. Were this the major leagues, we would have been sitting in the designated players’ wives and girlfriends section. They had brought blankets, snacks, wore Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle sweatshirts, and cheered for the Vermont players by their first names.

Vermont plays in the American East Conference and entered the game five games under .500 with a record of 20 and 25. UConn had entered the game with a 27 and 24 record.

UVM took an 8 to 4 lead into the eighth inning. With the stands nearly empty, the PA system blessedly used at a minimum (ACDC is a favorite band between innings), and both teams sitting on folding chairs in front of the dugouts, each bench’s chatter, celebrations, and dismays were audible to all of us. UConn came back in the top of the eighth to take a 9 to 8 lead. The happy chatter moved from the first-base UVM side around to the third-base UConn side.

Then it grew interesting. Perhaps it was the wet field and that a very light rain was now falling.

Vermont opened the bottom of the eighth with two of the first three batters reaching base on singles. Down by a run, UVM had runners of first and second with one out. UConn pitcher David Erickson made a quick pickoff move to first-base. One might say that it was an “errant throw”. One might also say that the first-baseman was not paying close attention. The ball sailed through the spot where his glove would have been had he seen the pitcher’s move and returned to the bag. The UVM runner on second-base scored; the runner on first went to third; the game was tied at 9 in the bottom of the eighth with one out and the go-ahead run 90 feet away.

Erickson retired the next UVM batter, which brought up Kyle Henry. The UVM website is generous tonight in its game account: “Kyle Henry (Brattleboro, Vt.) singled through the right side to give UVM a 9-8 lead.” A more detailed telling would recount how Henry put the ball on the group on the right-side, how the UConn second-baseman charged it on the infield dirt, slipped in the wet conditions, and as he watched from his butt, the ball scooted by him and into right-field. I had been feeling bad for the UConn first-baseman and was glad that he how had the second-baseman’s company.

UVM took their 10 to 8 lead into the ninth. They called in their closer, Jeremiah Bayer. Bayer looked every bit the poised closer as he warmed up on the bullpen mound in the eighth inning. He is tall and lean, and walks very slowly and deliberately, with a sense of self-purpose that we have come to expect from the contemporary baseball closer. He appears focused and dedicated, knowing that he is a cut above the rest, both in skill and in poise of character. His warm-up pitches snapped on target in his bullpen catcher’s mitt.

On the game mound, away from the bullpen, Bayer’s accuracy and confidence dissipated into balls that bounced in the dirt or sailed high and away. He fell behind to the UConn batters and then they hit his strikes on clean pinging line-drives into the outfield. He walked slowly, almost shuffling his feet, five runs later, off the mound at the end of the top of the ninth with UVM now down 12 to 10.

This is how it ended around 7:30. There was still a bit of evening light in the western sky. I exhaled into the cool air and watched my breath in front of my nostrils. This was May baseball in Vermont. Like the end of a hockey game, both teams lined up and shook hands, walking past each other at homeplate. UConn held a team meeting in left field as their bus idled in the parking lot. UVM did sprints and stretched. In a couple minutes, the rain would begin to fall hard as Ilana and I returned to downtown to watch the Boston Red Sox – Detroit Tigers game from Fenway and grab some dinner.

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