His teenage son, who will be a freshman at Burlington High School in the fall, lives to play baseball.
“Austin is one of those kids who might have had a chance be on the team,” says Pine of his oldest son. “He would like nothing more than to stay here, go to UVM and play for his home state. UVM talks about being a place for kids from Vermont to go to school, but this decision really took away a lot of opportunities for Vermont kids to make a Division 1 team and play.”
Those opportunities won’t return any time soon, unless UVM officials reverse course and reinstate both the men’s baseball and women’s softball teams — the only two teams cut from the university’s 20-team roster this year as a result of budget cuts. For baseball, it was the end of a 110-year-old program.
Baseball is the nation’s pastime, up there in the pantheon of American icons. What’s next? No more apple pie served in the UVM dining halls? Moms banned from visiting campus?
Not likely. But in the minds of baseball boosters who are still fuming over the decision, the administrators might as well have decided to move UVM to another state.
“It’s a sham that they needed to cut the programs; it’s such a hoax. We told the school, ‘If you need us to raise $400,000, we can,’” says Ronald Paquette of East Burke, a fourth-generation Vermonter whose son Ethan was the captain of this season’s team. “But we were never given the chance. They just wanted to get rid of the program because the athletic director doesn’t like baseball.”
Paquette and more than 2000 supporters sent letters and signed a petition urging trustees to overturn the decision by UVM Athletic Director Bob Corran. By a 13-9 vote, the trustees balked.
Now Paquette’s son is headed to Hofstra to finish his studies — and play ball. Not only did Ethan Paquette have to transfer to continue his athletic career, notes his father, but he also needed to change majors and take summer courses to ensure he could graduate on time.
That’s dedication — a testament to the popularity of baseball and softball in Vermont. According to Christopher D. Downs, spokesman for Little League International (which is based in Williamsport, Penn.) thousands of Vermont kids play the two sports. In 2008, 12,660 boys and girls played Little League baseball, and another 2500 played league-sanctioned softball, says Downs.
Those figures do not include kids who play in the competing Cal Ripken Division, a separate entity from Little League International. In Vermont, about 1000 kids play in the Ripken league — most of them in the Northeast Kingdom.
It could take some time to develop an equivalent thriving minor-league system in Vermont for lacrosse, or even soccer. “Most kids in Vermont play baseball and softball,” Paquette says. “Will they now just pick up lacrosse sticks? I don’t think so. They [university officials] just want to attract more kids from out of state because they make more money that way.”
Bob Corran, UVM’s athletic director, defends his decision, saying he and the administration were faced with tough choices as a result of the economy.
“When you get into difficult times, you have to make difficult choices,” says Corran. “The choice was: Do we continue to try to be all things to all people and operate a program of lower quality, or do we direct our resources and improve the quality with the number of programs that we can operate?”
Corran says he was forced to cut $450,000 as part of an across-the-board recision made to all university departments. At the same time, he had to find a way to increase scholarship aid to accommodate a larger incoming class. Couple that with a general operating budget increase due to a drop in projected revenue and inflationary costs, and Corran said he was staring down a $1.1 million gap.
All coaches were consulted. Their consensus was to implement Corran’s plan to cut teams, rather than making across-the-board reductions that could potentially hurt the development of a few signature sports, such as hockey and basketball.
Corran points out that baseball is no longer a top-tier sport among New England teams. Schools in the America East Conference, of which UVM is a member, have been encouraged by league leaders to focus on three sports: basketball, soccer and lacrosse.
While acknowledging that UVM has historical and emotional ties to baseball, Corran says it no longer has practical ones. For one thing, the climate has never been that auspicious. April is the height of the college baseball and softball seasons, but it’s hardly an ideal time to trot around a Vermont field. Last season, the men played more than 20 games before hosting a game at Centennial Field. Meanwhile, the softball team had only about nine home games, said Corran.
“How strong is the connection with the institution and the life of the university when our team is absent a significant amount of time?” asks Corran. The costs the school incurred to transport students to and from games in warmer climes were mounting, he adds.
“We see the value in baseball,” Corran says. “And one of the things about baseball in this state is that it has a real value in the summer — especially in small towns where everyone has their baseball team and loves to watch their teams play.”
Turning Its Back on Vermont
Several baseball backers say that UVM’s recent decision came as no surprise: They’ve watched the school’s level of support for baseball and softball decrease in recent years.
Of all UVM sports teams, baseball and softball received the smallest chunk of scholarship money. In fact, baseball only received token money in the past four years, according to longtime baseball coach Bill Currier.
To make up the difference, Currier raised money from alumni, including former UVM star and major-league pitcher Kirk McCaskill. McCaskill played for the school in the early 1980s and went on to pitch for the California Angels and Chicago White Sox.
“We’re not a hockey or a basketball — we’re certainly a second-tier sport,” says Currier, acknowledging Corran’s concerns. “But we had won league championships in the past five years and were looked up to in the community, in the state and in the conference.”
Some locals attribute that success to the coach himself. Jim Carter, a UVM alum and baseball booster who continues to lobby trustees to change their minds, chalks up the team’s good record to Currier’s attention to player development — especially of in-state athletes. That helped keep the UVM team connected to communities all over Vermont, he says.
“[Currier] really gave kids a chance,” says Carter. “No other coach is going to do that. You won’t see that in basketball or soccer or even the ski team.”
The extra work paid off for the program and the players, agrees Currier. Born and raised in Essex Junction, he was a Catamount star himself and was drafted in the sixth round by the Philadelphia Phillies. Now he sees it as his mission to give back to Vermont and the school, he says.
“What I have found with kids from the state is that they were good, but no other school or coach wanted to take a chance on them,” says Currier. “Some of those players went on to be conference players of the year and win conference titles.”
When Currier talks about the loss of the team, it’s hard not to sense a tinge of bitterness. But, at 49, he’s too young to retire and too dedicated to the sport to walk away because of UVM’s decision. “I looked around, but there wasn’t much available this year,” he says of his future plans. “I’m hoping to stay close to Vermont.”
No matter which diamond Currier chooses, he plans to keep his Vermont Baseball Academy active in the spring and summer, as well as running his baseball camps around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That’s welcome news for coaches like Pine, who notes that nearly half the players on his Center City Little League city championship team this year have taken part in Currier’s camps.
Those youths aspire to wear the green and gold, just as Currier did years ago when he was growing up in Essex Junction. That’s why he feels, perhaps more than anyone, the emotional impact of the school’s decision.
“I’m from here, went to school here, and was drafted out of here and returned here to coach,” he says. “And to just be cut like that with no appreciation, no thanks, no nothing — it’s disheartening.”
Since 1965, 18 UVM ballplayers have been drafted into the major leagues.
Outgoing baseball coach Bill Currier was a sixth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies. After three years in the minors, he returned to UVM to complete his degree and become the team’s coach in 1988.
Currier was one of the most talented players ever produced in the UVM system, many longtime b-ball fans note.
Another famous UVM star was pitcher Kirk McCaskill, who did make it into the majors. He played for the California Angels and Chicago White Sox over a roughly 11-year career.
In the program’s final year, three players were drafted into the majors: Outfielder Justin Milo of Edina, Minn., was drafted by the New York Yankees; pitcher Joe Serafin of Tariffville, Conn., will join the Chicago White Sox franchise; and pitcher Justin Albert of Hull, Mass., signed a contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Green Into Gold?
What lies ahead for Centennial Field? UVM President Dan Fogel informs Seven Days that, despite the rumors, there are no plans to raze the historic park.
“Someday, if we ever are — and someday we will be — in a position to build the planned artificial-turf soccer/lacrosse field on the athletic campus to the south of Gutterson, we might want to develop the land where we currently play soccer,” Fogel writes in an email. “There are no plans in place for that possible future development, nor any under active discussion of which I am aware.”
Centennial Field provides necessary greenspace on campus, and the overhead lights are assets as the school looks to either utilize, or rent, the space for athletics, says UVM Athletic Director Bob Corran.
“The bottom line is that it’s an athletic field and we are desperately short of field space,” he says.
It’s possible a club baseball team will spring up next year and field enough players to utilize the field and its dugouts.
“We don’t envision any dramatic change for how the facility is being utilized,” adds Corran. “It’s a good-quality playing surface, and that means an awful lot to our students.”
Meanwhile, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball is demanding upgrades at Centennial Field to bring it into compliance with current PBA (Professional Baseball Agreement) standards, and Lake Monsters franchise owner Ray Pecor says MLB may not continue to give the Burlington ballfield exemptions. It’s a tough time to raise money — for anything — but Pecor is in talks with other community members, UVM officials and Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office about the decision: preserve and upgrade Centennial, or build a new ballpark?
The grass is greener at Centennial Field — really. And as the sun sets on the oldest U.S. ballpark, it bathes Burlington’s urban playground in a golden glow. That moment — between day and night — is magical when you’re at a Vermont Lake Monsters game on a warm, dry summer night. The home team, in white, glows in the dusky light. The bats crack louder. And the smells that waft up through the stands — of sausages, poppers and fries — only get more enticing as darkness descends.
The crowd is a slice of Vermont life: infants, toddlers, grandparents, old-timers, flatlanders, hipsters, rednecks. At $7 per adult, no one is excluded from the game that plays out, sans remote control, in however many innings it takes. A collective cheer erupts when one of our boys hits a bomb, or finesses a double play. The shared experience is a throwback — a slow, sweet “time out” in the digital age.
Still, baseball in Vermont appears to be endangered, because Major League Baseball is demanding upgrades to Centennial Field that would bring it into compliance with current standards. And as beloved as the old ballpark is, many fans wouldn’t mind a shiny new stadium in Burlington, one with all the amenities. That just might include franchise owner Ray Pecor. “It’s a wonderful ballpark, but it’s a 1920s park,” he says. “We’re in a different century now.”
Pecor has been in discussions — for years, actually — with community members, legislators, UVM officials and the city about just what to do with Centennial Field. He says he’s surprised at the recent spate of media attention on the subject — even in the New York Times. “It’s interesting that there’s a great deal of publicity right now and there wasn’t seven years ago,” says Pecor. “But it’s pretty sad — the government doesn’t have any money, the state doesn’t have any money, and we don’t know what the community will want.”
And then there’s the fact that, no matter what Pecor or others might do to improve Centennial Field, it will still belong to UVM. Does the university’s recent discontinuation of its own varsity baseball program suggest a disinterest in the field? UVM President Dan Fogel has gone on record saying the university has no plans to raze, develop or sell the property … anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Preservation Trust of Vermont has offered to help the community raise an estimated $7 million to “rescue” Centennial. Next? We’ll see who steps up to the plate.
— Paula Routly & Pamela Polston
This is just one story from our 2009 Baseball Issue. For more sports stories, click here.