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Field of Dreams Deferred

Many still crying foul over loss of baseball and softball

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Brian Pine, president of Burlington’s Center City Little League and a longtime baseball coach, says the University of Vermont’s decision to cut baseball from its sports roster hit close to home.

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.”

Tough Call

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.”

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