This is the time of year when Katie Flower really blossoms. Since early May, the 38-year-old Winooski resident has been immersed in baseball, baseball, baseball. She coached the South End Red Sox, her team of 9- to 12-year-old Burlington kids, to a 2003 citywide championship in June. A new trophy has joined several others already on display near a dining-room window in her cozy apartment.
The lifelong sports enthusiast also volunteers as an umpire at an array of other games that youngsters play. Now that the season's over, her summer vacation is built around the Little League World Series taking place this week in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
A short woman with a sturdy build, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Flower holds down a steady job as a certified consultant in the field of architectural hardware and doors. As such, she's been dealing with the entrances and exits of commercial buildings for 19 years. It's her chosen profession, but the proverbial field of dreams remains an all-consuming -- and unpaid -- passion.
In an amateur video of a recent game, Flower is virtually unrecognizable while wearing a mask, chest protector and shin guards. She crouches at home plate to make the calls verbally and with hand signals. In between swings, a batter accidentally swats her in the face. Miraculously, there's no injury. But moments later, a pitcher's fastball inadvertently nails her left shoulder.
"It was stinging wicked bad," Flower recalls, then adds a philosophical footnote: "I've never been knocked out."
SEVEN DAYS: How important is your avocation?
KATIE FLOWER: I'm just a baseball fanatic. I go to about 300 games a year of every kind: Little League, Minor Little League, whatever. Almost every day or night of the week, I'm at a game somewhere.
SD: When did you get hooked?
KF: Early on. While I was growing up in Middlebury, they didn't allow girls to join Little League. It was all boys till 1974, when I turned 10. Then my dad wouldn't let me play.
KF: I'm not sure. Maybe because I was one of six children and both of our parents had to work.
SD: But were you able to pursue athletics in school?
KF: Yes. I did softball, basketball and field hockey. I was a skinny, scrawny little kid then. I wasn't outstanding at anything, but I had a good arm. I was a Boston Red Sox fan. My family would go see them play a few times every year. That was a big trip for us.
SD: What academic subjects appealed to you?
KF: I always liked math. After graduating high school in 1982, I went to Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center for a two-year degree in architecture. I played on the softball and volleyball teams, which meant traveling all over New England. For fun, I participated in intramural slush football, which we'd do even in three feet of snow.
SD: Did you go right into your architectural specialty after college?
KF: (Nods) When I started working in the field, I immediately fell in love with it. I was also hoping to save up enough money to pursue a degree in education -- I'm a natural teacher -- but my former fiance didn't like the idea. He thought it would put a financial burden on us.
SD: So maybe it's a good thing he's your ex?
KF: (Laughs) When we broke up 13 years ago, I decided to get involved with local baseball. Our Tupperware lady told me that her son's team in Jericho needed an assistant coach. I already knew the game and I attended a clinic to learn more. I would coach everything: Little League, Minor Little League and all-star games. I still try to be involved with as many of those as possible.
SD: At what point did you begin umpiring?
KF: About the same time. It's as natural to me as coaching. As an ump, I like to do some games at the regional level. I've also coached and refereed basketball and football over the years.
SD: Have you continued being a player yourself?
KF: When I lived in Maine for five years during the early 1990s, I was in a women's softball league. But I'm usually too busy these days. I want to be the best that I can be.
SD: There are probably few women doing what you do. Have you encountered sexism?
KF: I've run across some male chauvinists in the past. My first year coaching a Minor League all-star team in Maine, the other team had a kid warming up only 40 feet from the pitcher's mound. That's too close; the rules say 46 feet. So I mentioned it to the ump. The opposing team's manager didn't think I knew what I was talking about.
SD: Was he reacting to your gender?
KF: That's the way I took it. He was a little mad, especially after we beat his guys 6 to 2.
SD: Any other incidents like that?
KF: Two years ago, I coached an all-star team here playing Burlington's Sister City in Nicaragua, Puerto Cabezas. The next day, I was an ump behind the plate. On the third and fourth days, I did the announcing. The Nicaraguans were astonished. Their coach was cool to me at first -- as they all were -- but then he grew very friendly. I even learned a couple of baseball phrases in Spanish.
SD: Do Vermonters accept you?
KF: Everybody around Burlington kind of knows me. Even when I'm just a spectator, coaches or umps will come over with questions because they know I know the rules. That's why I learned the rulebook inside and out -- so people wouldn't discriminate against me. Now I have no problems.
SD: How about your father? Has he come to realize girls can play ball?
KF: I think my parents are proud of me. Maybe they finally understand.
SD: Are the South End Red Sox cool about your position with the team?
KF: They want me as their head coach, which I've been since 1998. The kids know that I'm going to be fair, that I expect them to learn the game, be competitive and have fun. That's what counts.
SD: Do you have a mentoring relationship with them?
KF: Definitely. I know how rough things can be at this time in their life.
SD: What about this time in your life? Are there more goals to accomplish?
KF: I've started writing a novel based on my sports experiences, Sixty Feet Away.
SD: What does the title mean?
KF: It's the distance between the base pads. And I often felt 60 feet away from my own dream. I never got to play Little League... I've also written a short story that I want to use as an introduction in the book, "I Get Paid With Hot Dogs."
SD: Is that true?
KF: Absolutely. I don't eat them any other time of year.