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Rough in the Diamond 

Centennial isn't just a field, it's a proving ground

If the original Yankee Stadium was baseball’s cathedral, then minor-league ballparks are its small-town churches — and the University of Vermont’s Centennial Field is something akin to a college chapel. Should the local baseball congregation hope to continue attending mass in its concrete pews, this “chapel” is in desperate need of repair, if not divine intervention.

Long the home of the now-defunct UVM Catamounts baseball team, the 103-year-old field currently hosts the Short-Season Single-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals — the Vermont Lake Monsters of the New York-Penn League. But MLB has all but condemned the facility, citing a laundry list of inadequacies: a substandard playing surface, outdated clubhouses, cramped and leaky dugouts, an archaic lighting system.

Sadly, Centennial Field’s maladies have raised the very real possibility that the team’s tenure in Burlington is nearing its end after 15 years. And, given the recent loss of the Catamount nine, the Lake Monsters’ departure would all but sound the death knell for high-level baseball in Vermont.

If the team left, life in Burlington would probably go on pretty much as usual. But, as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Then there’s that other chestnut: Baseball is as American as Mom and apple pie. The sport is woven into the fabric of our culture. Though the National Football League and NASCAR may have surpassed it in the Nielsen ratings, baseball remains “America’s pastime.” The loss of the Lake Monsters would mean much more than a darkened diamond atop the hill in Burlington.

In many ways, it’s appropriate that Centennial Field sits on a college campus and is owned by the state’s largest university. One step above Rookie ball — the bottom rung of the minor-league ladder — Short-Season Class A baseball is as much about preparing players for life as professionals as it is about honing swings or smoothing out pitching deliveries.

For the most part, players at this level are not blue-chip prospects on the fast track to the big leagues. (If you’re waiting for Stephen Strasberg, the Nats’ much ballyhooed 2009 number-one draft pick, to take the mound at Centennial this season, don’t hold your breath. As Lake Monsters’ general manager C. J. Knudson puts it, “He’s not coming.”) These are players who, much like college students, will spend their time learning their trade, discovering what it means to be a professional and, just as important, becoming part of a community.

It’s not that the current crop of players has no chance of making the majors; it’s just that they face long odds. The Lake Monsters/Expos have produced a total of 56 major-leaguers — including current All-Star leftfielder Jason Bay of the Boston Red Sox and that team’s 2004 World Series hero, Orlando Cabrera. Averaged over 15 seasons, that means fewer than four players in any given year will ever make it to “the Show.” But if they do, manager Jeff Garber — who likens starting a career in baseball to trying one’s luck in the lottery — will have played a key role.

A career minor-league infielder in the Kansas City Royals farm system, Garber, 43, is the man primarily responsible for helping his players navigate the transition from amateur baseball to the pros. He points out that the most significant challenges they face tend to involve what happens off the field, not on it.

“For the most part, you’re really talking about kids,” he says, taut arms clasped behind his sturdy, lean frame. A shade under 6 feet, Garber cuts an imposing figure: equal parts ballplayer, guidance counselor and drill sergeant. As he talks about his players, most of whom come straight from college or even high school, he projects a steely, almost protective intensity. “For a lot of these guys,” he says, “this is the first time they’ve been away from home, away from their families. When you add that to the day-to-day pressures of just playing the game, that’s a lot to deal with.”

Indeed it is. Those who play professional baseball at any level have been elite players at virtually every stop along the way, starting with Little League. And for those who have always been the best at what they do, failure can be crippling — even in a game where the best players are only successful a third of the time. Given that every player in the New York-Penn League was probably the best player wherever he came from, this level of competition is the highest they’ve ever faced. Garber’s task is to teach them how to deal with the inevitable reality of failure, and how to adjust.

“The players who succeed at the next level and beyond aren’t always the ones who have the best numbers here,” he explains. Given that the Lake Monsters are hitting a paltry .233 as a team this season — the third lowest average in the New York-Penn League — that may be a welcome revelation for current players. But it comes with a caveat.

“The players who make it are the ones who adjust,” says Garber. “You’ll see a guy hitting .220 here who will hit .300 at the next level. And then you’ll see guys who were successful here struggle when they move up. It’s because they never made the adjustments.”

One player who seems to have taken that sentiment to heart is 20-year-old Jack McGeary, a highly touted pitching prospect from Roxbury Latin School in Massachusetts. Projected as a late-first-round draft pick coming out of high school in 2007, McGeary saw his stock drop sharply on draft day, falling to the Nationals in the sixth round. Following a brief stint with the Lake Monsters that year, he returned in 2008 for his first full season in the pros — split between Vermont and the Rookie League affiliate Gulf Coast Nationals — and struggled, posting a mediocre 4.10 earned run average (ERA) for the year.

But this season has proved a different story altogether for McGeary. The 6-foot-3 lefty — who boasts a modest fastball and changeup but a downright filthy curve — has been among the most dependable arms on a team rich in strong pitching. Relying on excellent control, he has cut down on his walks and lowered his ERA with the club to a sparkling 2.62.

“You have to understand that this is our job,” says McGeary. “If you don’t perform and improve every day, you’ll be gone.” Sage words from a kid who could be entering his junior year of college — McGeary turned down a full scholarship from Stanford to go pro.

He points out that starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. So over a 76-game season he has, at best, about 15 opportunities to showcase his stuff. That pressure compounds the challenge of facing hitters of significantly higher caliber than those in high school. “Obviously the competition is better,” McGeary concedes. “But you still have to have the confidence that you are better than anyone else you’re playing against.”

And when it comes to the question of whether he’ll reach the big leagues, he doesn’t hesitate. Responding with the same unnerving coolness that no doubt flusters opposing batters, he says simply, “Yes.”

It’s a Saturday evening in Burlington, the kind of hazy midsummer night that was made for baseball. The kind of night when one can ignore the bloated excess and scandal tarnishing Major League Baseball and be reminded that even at — or perhaps especially at — a run-down relic like Centennial Field, the game itself remains pure.

Not surprisingly, throngs of fans pack the dilapidated stands. They’re treated to a rare offensive outburst as the Lake Monsters pound the archrival Lowell Spinners, 8-3.

During a batting side session earlier the same week, general manager Knudson points out several times that attendance has never been a factor in the team’s potential departure from Burlington. Manager Garber adds without a trace of schmaltz that, more than anything else, Minor League Baseball is about community. A fact reflected in the stands on this game night and countless others like it.

“It all comes down to how the community supports the team,” Garber says. “And, of course, how the team supports the community.” To the latter point, last year the Lake Monsters raised more than $50,000 for local charities. On the day Seven Days visits a team practice, several players arrive after a morning spent at a local library promoting children’s literacy.

One of those players, third baseman Jack Walker, marvels at the community aspect of playing in Burlington. “It’s amazing,” says the 20th-round draft pick from tiny Division III Concordia College in Illinois. Walker, appropriately enough, leads the team in walks.

“For people to come out here day in and day out to support the team, for host families to open their homes to us … shows that people are going out of their way to help the team out,” he says. As for Centennial Field’s now notorious shortcomings, “They don’t bother me at all,” Walker says, grinning.

Amid the pleasant hum of crowd noise during the game, there’s also a palpable, if cautious, sense of relief in the air. Earlier in the day, the Burlington Free Press reported that the Preservation Trust of Vermont may take up the cause of helping rescue Centennial Field at an estimated cost of $5 to $7 million.

That’s a far cry from the original $20 million, er, ballpark figure proposed by other speculators — and a pittance compared with the $39 million price tag of the Brooklyn Cyclones’ KeySpan Park. Whether Centennial will find salvation remains to be seen. But the news is enough to make this crowd hope that, just maybe, there’s an angel in the outfield after all.

The Baseball Issue

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.

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Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

Bio:
Dan Bolles is the Seven Days music editor. His column "Soundbites" appears weekly.

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