- Luke Awtry
- Baseball field at Calahan Park in Burlington
In his 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella wrote, "America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers." A version of that line, resonantly delivered by James Earl Jones, is one of the more moving moments in Field of Dreams, the 1989 movie based on Kinsella's book.
As those metaphorical steamrollers have ground to a halt in the face of the pandemic, America is again experiencing one of Kinsella's erasures — to be followed, with any luck, by a rebuilding. But it's anyone's guess whether baseball will once again mark time, as it has through American triumphs and tragedies for 150 years.
A proposal to begin an 82-game Major League Baseball season in July has been gaining momentum, which is giving some fans hope that America's pastime might resume in some form this summer on the national level.
Less clear is how the game might fare locally. High school and college baseball and softball seasons were wiped out in March. In April, the Vermont Mountaineers of the New England Collegiate Baseball League canceled its 2020 season. Also in April, the American Legion Department of Vermont called off its season for just the fourth year in nearly a century. The last year American Legion teams didn't play in the Green Mountains was 1945, the end of a three-year hiatus during World War II.
While there are about 2 billion reasons why the Major League will push hard to play this summer, significant financial incentives for baseball in Vermont are all but nonexistent. Local teams attempting to play will do so — pardon the high cheese — solely for the love of the game. The lone exception is the Vermont Lake Monsters.
The Class-A short-season Minor League Baseball affiliate of the Major Leagues' Oakland A's, the Lake Monsters are the only professional baseball team in Vermont. The team's prospects for a 2020 season are even less certain than those of its parent club in California, in part because Minor League teams get their players from their Major League affiliates. So until the Major League decides what to do, the entire Minor League — some 162 teams — is in a holding pattern.
"It's not a decision that we can make on our own, nor can we make it as a league," said Lake Monsters vice president Kyle Bostwick. He maintained that the organization will be ready for play by the usual start of its season in mid-June, should its league, the New York-Penn League, be allowed to proceed on schedule. But he added, "It's a decision that has to be driven by Major League Baseball, so we are in a full-on waiting game."
But another dark cloud is threatening rain on Centennial Field. In October, a proposal surfaced regarding a restructuring of the Minor League system that would eliminate 42 teams. Early reports included the Lake Monsters among those franchises.
That proposal, which drew the ire of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other legislators, was tabled over the winter. But recently, the Major and Minor leagues have resumed negotiations over contraction as both scramble to address the pandemic's severe financial fallout.
"We have been told that there is not a confirmed list," Bostwick said of whether the Lake Monsters might be eliminated. "So we can't say that we're on it, nor can we say that we're not on it. Nor do we know what that means." He added, "There's a lot of uncertainty between 2020 and 2021 and, unfortunately, we don't know the answers to any of it."
- Luke Awtry
- Calahan Park in Burlington
Bostwick and the Lake Monsters aren't the only ones searching for answers. Local players, coaches and administrators at every level of the game, from tee ball to senior leagues, are awaiting word from the state about whether they can get back on the field. If and when they do, it's not certain what the games will look like or what safety precautions will be in place.
"We're all handling the same ball," said lawyer and local baseball historian Tom Simon. "It's not like anyone is wiping it down."
Simon is a member of the Burlington Cardinals of the Vermont Senior Baseball League, a statewide men's league for players age 35 and up. Last week, a handful of Cardinals, including former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, 73, held an informal, socially distanced batting practice. (The Cardinals' catcher, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, was not in attendance.)
"I suppose there's some level of risk in that," Simon admitted of practicing. "But is that any different than going to Price Chopper?"
In some ways, baseball is the rare team sport uniquely suited to the age of social distancing. Outfielders patrol wide expanses of grass. Ninety-foot basepaths allow for infielders to coexist peacefully. Ten people could maintain proper distance in the 60 feet, six inches between the pitcher's mound and home plate. The dimensions are smaller for adult softball and for Little League Baseball and Softball, but the gist is the same.
"We've got plenty of space out there," Dan French said.
French is the owner of the Strike Zone Academy, a baseball and softball training facility in Essex Junction. He's also part of a group that is currently organizing an alternate season for American Legion-age players — ages 13 to 19. To top it off, this summer French plans to launch a new regional high-level travel baseball league for players age 15 and under, as part of the New England Elite Baseball League. He's spent a lot of time lately considering the new safety issues involved in playing baseball now, which, large playing field aside, are numerous.
For example, French is mandating that his players wear batting gloves when hitting. But that solution doesn't work on defense, because it raises another safety concern. "You can't wear a glove and throw [a baseball] accurately," he noted.
French is watching the Major League to address many other issues, such as where umpires should stand, guidelines for sharing equipment and what the protocol is for tagging players out.
"You can't call someone out from six feet," said Jules Fishelman, a board member of Center City Little League in Burlington.
"The nature of an out is making contact on a tag," agreed fellow Center City board member and coach Cayenne MacHarg.
Center City, like other area Little Leagues, has been receiving guidance from its district administrator, Chris Brosseau. He oversees District 1, which includes 13 leagues from Colchester to Mount Abraham. Among the new regulations is the requirement that only two players be allowed in the dugout at one time. Remaining players are required to stay six feet apart from each other outside the dugout.
"And no high fives," Brosseau said.
"It will be a very different feel," Fishelman observed, adding that extra coaches will be on hand to help keep an eye on players. "You won't have that crowded group of [kids] in the dugout and climbing the fence yelling chants and doing all their baseball things."
Typically, Center City teams would be well into their season, which normally wraps up in June. In the meantime, coaches have been dropping off free Wiffle ball sets at players' homes to help satisfy the baseball jones.
As for actually getting on the field, Fishelman, MacHarg and the other board members are currently assessing whether some sort of season or tournament might be possible later in the summer. They're also considering alternatives to traditional games, such as clinics, home-run derbies or playing a modified version of actual baseball with fewer players.
"We don't need an outfield, most of the time," joked MacHarg. Then she added, "For anyone who wants to play, we want to make that possible, whatever it looks like."