The Twins have won, let’s get that out of the way. They beat the White Sox by a single run, an auspicious start to the series. But that’s not where my baseball attentions were tonight.
It’s summer, and while big league baseball grinds on, spewing revenue and glory, there’s another kind of baseball game being played most every night in most every town.
The major leagues are the top of a very visible pyramid, but the base of that pyramid is vast. Baseball seeps out and becomes intensely local. You can touch it.
In Montpelier, Vermont, for example, you can attend a game in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. This is a 12-team league, split into east and west divisions. The teams travel from Maine to Connecticut, playing a two-month schedule that ends this week, followed by some playoffs.
The Vermont Mountaineers were formed in 2003, and have already claimed two championships. The fans in Montpelier are proud of the team, and fill the stands most every game. The team is out of contention this year, but tonight we still got all those bleachers filled.
And what uncomfortable seats they are. Ringed around home plate are deep stands of benches where you sprawl or budge up with your family and friends. You stare through the netting, and as rock-like as those benches become, they bring you very close to the field. The vantage point is ideal for watching the pitch come over the plate.
You will recognize people you know shuffling by to the concession stand; you will recognize people you’d never guess would go to a baseball game, and others who have started to make it a regular commitment. You’ll see babies and teens and young parents and retired folks, many of them smart enough to being cushions for the benches.
I can’t help but paint an idyllic portrait, because a baseball field, any baseball field, will force your attention on the late sun of summer and the lazy vigor of running out to the positions in the field. The games start at 6:30, the better to get kids and their parents out of the house. That means the sun is still high for the first pitch, but will start painting the clouds pink and blue by the fifth. And in the seventh, when the game gets all serious and the plays mean the most, the home team uniforms snap white under the lights, glowing while the dark blue sky dissolves to ink.
A lovely atmosphere, but what about the quality of play? Down on the field, there are some good college players who have tumbled out of sight of the major league scouts. Some are too short (scrappy, fun Henry Dunn, our centerfielder). Some have poor batting judgment (strapping Esteban Rosado, our right fielder, with 18 Ks to his 5 walks—but a perky .317 average). Some are not destined to hit much better than they are right now, and maybe just about all of them are on that list.
In Moneyball, Billy Beane observed that he’d prefer to recruit players after they’d reached college. There’s a longer book on them, they’ve begun to learn something, and you can judge more clearly. The mania for gobbling up 15-year-olds leads to a lot of mistakes by comparison.
I think Beane is correct. And I also think the doughty, charming players of the NECBL have put enough credentials on the table to be accurately judged as short of major league material. But when they play against each other, when they play at the level they’ve all achieved, the baseball is just as compelling.
And for all that, there is still, always, the chance. AJ Pollock, of the 2007 Mountaineer championship team, was selected in the first round of this year’s draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Five other former Mountaineers are toiling in the minors for major league teams, and all it takes is one example to inspire every other hopeful.
Tonight’s game is all pitching for the first half of the game. Starting for the Mountaineers is Andrew Benak with a middling 3.00 ERA and a sad 1-3 record. But he’s a tall, commanding presence on the mound, and he munches up the North Adams Steeplecats for five full innings. I can’t tell how fast the fastball is humming, but I can see that there’s some movement on it. The Steeplecats hit harmless flies and gummy grounders.
The pitcher for North Adams, Tim Boyce, likewise bottles up the Mountaineers, but he relies more on location than power. Someone seems to have told him it’s better to miss low and outside than to throw a meaty pitch in the zone, and Boyce obeys. He keeps trying to lure the batters to chase balls in and out, but that isn’t what’s defeating the Vermonters. When they make contact, they tend to get under the ball and send up sky high outs over the infield.
In the bottom of the third, Dunn leads off and is quickly sent down swinging. Our shortstop, Jantzen Witte, grounds out and it looks like another routine, scoreless inning. It’s at this point, after we’ve all had out first round of ballpark food, that one of my companions muses, “What happens if they haven’t scored by the 13th inning?” I assure him that baseball always accommodates a run or two.
Boyce issues a walk to our not-so-towering DH Clay Jones. Then Steven Felix, our catcher with such a happy name, hits an RBI double, and the clunky scoreboard lights record the first run of the game.
I should say they record the first lasting run. In the bottom of the first, we thought we had an inside the park home run. The scoreboard operator and every single fan in the stands could only make out Witte circling the bases while an umpire quietly watched his progress and the North Adams centerfielder remained on his knees. The throw never came in, and the runner kept running. Unbeknownst to us, without cameras and replays and announcers, a Steeplecat caught the ball and simply fancied sprawling there in tribute to his diving catch.
But now we have a real run, one we can keep. This slender lead may have to last us awhile, but Benak has some pretty efficient innings. In the sixth, he’s tagged for a run when a single plus a bunt plus a sacrifice fly plus a single equal one run. Notably, the bunt in question was a dangerous one—Grant Gajdosz, the Steeplecat DH no less, made two bunt attempts that were fouls and went right ahead and tried a third time. Fortune smiled on his chutzpah or ignorance, or both.
Tie game, top of the seventh. The evening air is cooler now, and the mugginess of the night is easing up. You can still smell the fries drenched in ketchup, but most fans have finished their ballpark dinners, their guilty, greasy pleasures. Benak probably hasn’t thrown more than 80-some pitches, but he has a rough, tough seventh. The first two batters reach base, and a sacrifice advances them. An RBI single nudges North Adams ahead, and Benak is feeling the strain. He walks the bases loaded.
We’re sitting right behind home plate, a little to the left of the batter. I can watch Benak putting a little extra on his pitches now, trying to get out of his jam with pure power. Unfortunately, he’s losing the finish to his pitches, and as his release point varies, the balls are flying low and outside. Felix blocks one that would have scored a run if he hadn’t muscled it to the ground.
It looks to me like Benak is pitching angry. It could be a good thing, it could be a terrible thing. I know nothing about him, but I do know enough to realize that with one out and the bases loaded, the best possible outcome here is a strikeout. There are too many ways to score a run with any ball put in play.
And Benak has the very same thought in mind. He strikes out Gajdosz—no more stinking bunts!—and the crowd makes a loud display of relief. Benak may have turned his inning around with the loss of only one run.
It was a turnaround, all right, until the Steeplecats turned it back. A single from centerfield Patrick Johnson scores two. Now North Adams leads 4-1.
I’m like all the fans here tonight. I don’t spend the whole time riveted on the game, so I’ll lightly summarize the rest of the scoring. Vermont scratches out an answering run in the seventh, North Adams piles on two more in the eighth, and then we get the special miracle of a home run in the eighth from our third baseman Kevin Vance—the team’s top home run hitter with six on the season. A home run, you see, is very rare in a regulation size ballfield populated with so-so college players.
Then we keep it just interesting enough to the very end. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, we mange one run—but only the one. North Adams 6, Vermont 4.
Over those last three innings, I amble into the ice cream line for a while, and chat with my friends. The lines in the batter’s box are erased by a night of cleats scuffing in and out, and the uniforms have grown dusty. The umpire takes a little longer to straighten back up from his crouch, and all of us in the stands are feeling the unforgiving planks of the bleacher seats.
It’s baseball, simple as summer, win or lose. Tonight’s game pretty much seals the season for the Mountaineers, but they dive and run and hustle and fling themselves flat to catch grounders. Few of these players will be climbing higher in the baseball hierarchy, but they seem to have realized that they can enjoy these days, these days in bright white uniforms with tiny, happy crowds cheering for them. We are rooting for you, Henry Dunn.