All baseball fans know the exact moment they fell in love with the game. For hardball diehards, it’s a formative life experience not unlike a first kiss or the day you get your driver’s license. For Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, it was a moment shared by generations of New England baseball fans: the first time he saw Fenway Park.
“It’s a magical experience,” recalls Weinberger. “That moment when you see the field for the first time, maybe under the lights, the vividness of the green. I was really taken by that.”
Since his introduction to Fenway 30-odd years ago, Weinberger says baseball has been a constant in his life. He played Little League as a kid and attended Ted Williams’ baseball camps. He played ball throughout high school in Woodstock. After graduation, he spent a summer touring every major-league ballpark in the country and writing a series of stories for the Valley News. At Yale, Weinberger was the baseball team’s radio play-by-play announcer. He went on to cover baseball as an intern for the Boston Globe.
Now, the 42-year-old mayor is the catcher for the Burlington Cardinals, a position he’s played for the past five seasons. The team is part of the Vermont Men’s Senior Baseball League, which in turn is affiliated with a national organization. Players have to be at least 35 to play, 45 to pitch. The Cards’ motley crew includes a policeman, an engineer and a doctor, among other professionals. It also includes Galen Carr, a scout for the Boston Red Sox; Tom Simon, a Burlington attorney and author of several books on baseball history; and an old Red Sox hero, Bill “Spaceman” Lee. And now, a newly anointed mayor.
“What else but baseball would bring these guys together?” Weinberger asks.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals are squaring off against the Waterbury Warthogs at Harwood Union High School in Moretown. Before the game, several Warthogs shag fly balls in the outfield. By the far dugout, a shirtless man warms up by pinwheeling a bat, a cigarette dangling from his mouth above a sizable belly.
When it’s the Cardinals’ turn for pregame batting practice, most of them have yet to arrive, including Weinberger. Two Cards clad in red jerseys play catch along the first baseline.
“I think we’ve only got three right now,” says one of them, tossing the ball.
“Well, maybe these guys will jump in and shag flies,” says the other, nodding to the Waterbury dugout. “Unless they’re already into the beer.” It’s not quite noon.
Eventually, enough Cardinals arrive and the game gets under way, though the mayor is still a no-show. Fortunately, the team’s starting pitcher shows up on time.
“I’m pretty sure I threw about 180 pitches yesterday,” says Bill Lee, rotating his left shoulder slowly. “Maybe 200.”
Lee, who now lives in Craftsbury, was an enigmatic all-star pitcher for the Sox and Montréal Expos and is renowned for his exploits both on and off the field. Lee has just driven back from Boston, where he spent the previous day doing a charity event and playing “Billy Ball” — a hybrid softball/hardball game that he invented.
The Cards jump out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning, thanks to a ground-rule double by Lee that hits and then scoots under the right-field fence. At the end of the half inning, the 65-year-old grabs his glove and looks out to right field.
“Just missed it,” he says, before sauntering to the pitching mound.
Burlington Cardinals: 2, Waterbury Warthogs: 0, bottom of the second inning
Two innings into the game, Weinberger’s arrival is probably not quite on par with the first time he walked into Fenway. Still, as he descends the hill to the field, a heavy bag filled with catcher’s gear slung over his shoulder, he’s grinning from ear to ear.
“Nice day for a game, huh?” I say in greeting.
“It sure is,” he agrees, beaming as he heads toward the dugout along the first baseline. In the field, the Warthogs push across a run on a hard opposite field single, following a double to the gap. But the Cardinals get out of the inning on a comebacker to Lee, who fields the ball cleanly and fires to second to ignite a 1-6-3 double play. As they trot off the field, Weinberger’s teammates greet him with high fives and fist bumps.
“Nice of you to make it, Mo,” chides an infielder.
Weinberger’s first at bat comes in the top of the next inning. He takes the first pitch for a ball, just below the knees. After a tremendous rip that almost corkscrews his wiry frame into the ground, he eventually works the count full on a pitch up around his eyeballs. Swinging from his heels on the next pitch, he strikes out and scuffles back to the dugout.
“You’re drifting into the ball,” advises Lee as Weinberger straps on his shin guards. “Your shoulder is coming open and you’re drifting.”
“Mo” nods and takes up his post behind home plate.
Cardinals: 5, Warthogs: 1, bottom of the third inning
Weinberger is crouched behind the plate flashing signs to Lee, who shakes him off. So he tries another sign, with the same result. Finally, the burly southpaw nods on the third sign and goes into his windup. The pitch is laced back up the middle, a scorching line drive that finds its way into center for a leadoff single. Face mask in his hand, Weinberger saunters to the mound. After a brief exchange with Lee, he returns to the plate.
Three batters later, the side is retired, the Waterbury runner left stranded at first. Lee is pitching well and throwing hard. He says he can still hit 80 miles per hour on a good day — read: not the day after throwing 200 pitches in a charity game — and has about six different pitches, including his famed “Leephus,” a lollipop curveball.
“He’s a game changer,” says Weinberger of his battery mate.
In between innings, Lee is stretching on the sidelines. Asked if Weinberger gets testy about being shaken off now that he’s the mayor, Lee says, “Oh, yeah,” rolling his eyes. “But I told him, now that he’s mayor, I get free parking in Burlington.”
Weinberger chuckles when told the Spaceman’s response.
“Two years ago, in the playoffs, we were playing Charlotte, who were really good,” he says. The game was at Callahan Park in Burlington, where the Cards play their home games. “It was early in the game and we were working this guy, their best hitter.” Weinberger says he called for an inside fastball. Lee shook him off. “He wanted to throw a curve,” he recalls.
Lee threw the curveball and the Charlotte batter swung. “He hit it about eight miles,” says Weinberger, grinning. “After that, Bill said, ‘All right, I’m not gonna shake you off anymore.’”
Cardinals: 5, Warthogs: 2, top of the fifth inning
In his second at bat, Weinberger hits a weak grounder to short. But he hustles down the line and reaches base safely when the shortstop bounces the throw to first. Three batters later and with two runners on, first baseman Adam Chetwynd, a 39-year-old DEA agent by day, crushes a towering home run to left field. Lee is up next and swings hard, connecting on a 1-1 fastball.
“Ah, I just missed it,” he again complains as he begins trotting down the first baseline.
“Well, it’s out,” replies the first-base coach. Lee looks up just in time to see the ball land in the woods beyond the right-field fence for a solo home run. The Cardinals score four runs in the inning to take a 9-2 lead and break the game open.
“I told my wife that every time I hit a home run, I have to play another year,” says Lee after he rounds the bases. “Guess I’ll be back next season.”
Cardinals: 21, Warthogs: 2, final
The defending-champion Cardinals handily dispatch the Waterbury nine to improve to 5-0. Weinberger goes 1-4 but reaches base and scores three times. The Cards are undefeated and riding an offensive hot streak, having scored at least 10 runs in each of their first five games. Especially with Lee turning back time, both on the mound and at the plate, they appear poised for another title run.
“This is the best group of guys I’ve ever played with,” says Lee, who, by the way, pitched Game 7 of the 1975 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.
Postgame interview, two days later
“I really fell hard for baseball right around age 6,” says Weinberger, seated behind the desk in his new city-hall office. “I wasn’t very good at first,” he concedes. So he practiced. Incessantly. Weinberger says he “drove his parents nuts” fielding tennis balls off the house for hours on end. “The house looked like it was diseased,” he says. “It had all these pockmarks from where I’d bounce balls off it.”
In 1987, his junior year of high school, that practice would pay off. Weinberger was the second baseman for Woodstock Union High’s varsity baseball team.
“We were the ninth seed in the tournament that year,” Weinberger says of his team’s unlikely title run. In the second round, the Wasps drew top-seeded Winooski. At the time, heavily favored Winooski was a baseball powerhouse that would send 10 players from the 1987 squad on to play college baseball. One of them, starter Dana Perrotte, became one of the best pitchers in the history of the University of Vermont.
“I think he’d given up, like, three runs in 42 innings that year,” recalls Weinberger of Winooski’s starter. Winooski scored in the first inning and led 1-0 most of the game. But in the later innings, Woodstock mounted a rally. Weinberger stepped up to the plate and dug in against Perrotte with the bases loaded.
“I hit a weak grounder to second, but beat it out for an infield hit and we tied the game,” Weinberger says. With bases loaded, the team’s cleanup hitter came to the plate. Perrotte fell behind 3-0 and grooved a fastball on the next pitch.
“I’ll always remember that as one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” says Weinberger. “He swings and it’s just this majestic arc.” The ball landed in a swimming pool just beyond the fence — a grand slam. Woodstock would hold on to win 6-4 and take the state championship.
One gets the sense that baseball is rarely far from Weinberger’s thoughts, even though, these days, pressing city matters clamor for his attention. But every now and then, the worlds of sports and politics merge.
During his mayoral campaign, Weinberger ran a baseball day camp in the North End with the help of some Cardinals teammates — including Lee. Given how closely contested that race was, it’s fair to surmise that every effort during the campaign might have had some impact at the ballot box.
“There is a part of me that likes to think baseball played a small role in [me] becoming mayor,” Weinberger admits.
It’s also playing a role in his first term.
UVM and the Vermont Lake Monsters recently reached an agreement to allow the minor-league team to call Centennial Field home for the next 20 years. That agreement meant that the state’s high school baseball tournament could also return to the field this season. It had been played there until uncertainty about the park’s future meant moving the tourney to Montpelier for the past three seasons.
“I got to go to the press conference announcing the return as the newly elected mayor who had won a championship there,” says Weinberger. At the presser, Jim Carter, the coach of that 1987 Winooski team, approached the mayor. He was holding a baseball.
“He said, ‘Do you know what this ball is?’” says Weinberger. “I said, ‘Was it in a swimming pool?’”