- Matthew Thorsen
Never mind gnomes and pink flamingos. This winter's dearth of snow has revealed something else on many lawns in the Burlington area: green and yellow signs that read "Bring It Back."
What, inquiring minds have asked us, is "it"?
Motorists zooming past these signs may not be able to discern that the "I" in "It" is actually a baseball bat, and that the words "Support Vermont Baseball" precede the "Bring It Back" slogan, which is in varsity-style typeface.
But even those who grasp the meaning may wonder why baseball needs to be brought back to the University of Vermont. Players have been seen practicing on Centennial Field on recent warmish evenings, after holding February and March sessions in UVM's Gutterson Fieldhouse.
At issue, it turns out, is the level of baseball the school supports. A visit to friendsofuvmbaseball.com and subsequent online sleuthing reveal that the seed for the signs' planting was sown back in February 2009. That's when, faced with a $1.1 million budget shortfall, the UVM athletic department tossed the baseball and softball teams from the lineup of Division 1 sports, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
UVM dumped the teams "without any input from coaches or players," says Jim "Skip" Carter, coach of the UVM Club Baseball Team, which includes players who are full-time students at the school. "So a group of us got together and said, 'Gee, other sports have been reinstated; what does it take to bring a sport back?'"
Quite a lot, as the newly formed Friends of UVM Baseball soon found out. Two years ago, according to Carter, the club learned it needed to come up with an endowment of $10 million. That number was later upped to $15 million.
"Honestly, it's an insult to anybody who's ever played or coached baseball," says Carter, "to think you'd have to raise $15 million to play a sport."
UVM athletic director Robert Corran cries foul ball on such a claim. "Well, $15 million, that's not a fair characterization of it at all," he says. The annual operating budget of up to $1 million for baseball and softball, he explains, led the department to envision an endowment that, over several years, "would have required approximately $10 million" — but, with inflation, "probably $15 million for each sport."
Carter insists that Corran wanted to eliminate the teams because of a personal bias against America's national pastime.
"I don't know if you'd say I'm a baseball fan," admits Corran. "I certainly enjoy watching games. We go to Lake Monsters games periodically."
Are Vermonters fans of the yard signs? "I haven't had one person say, 'No, I don't want it on my property,'" says Carter. "We wouldn't just go to somebody's house and plant it; we ask everybody's permission."
Most of the signs are on private property, he adds, with some banners decorating high school and Little League fields. "If anybody objects," he says, "we take it down."
Chapin Spencer, director of Burlington's Department of Public Works, points out that the signs are legal under city ordinance. Chapter 21-5 states: "Temporary signs for political candidates, parties, and organizations, signs for charitable organizations, and signs for garage/lawn/yard type sales are exempt from the district limitations and the requirement for a permit as long as the signs do not exceed the size limitations set forth in subsection (d)(1)(B)(ii) and do not obstruct the public rights-of-way or otherwise impair the public health, safety or welfare."
"We do remove these signs," says Spencer, "when they present a safety hazard, and periodically when we do comprehensive cleanups."
Club team player Jamie Martell reports that the signs generate positive reactions. "Talking to people, or when I meet someone new, if they hear that I play baseball at UVM, usually I get the response of 'bring it back,'" says Martell, who adds that he's been playing the sport since he could walk.
"Growing up," he adds, "it's every little kid's dream of playing Division 1 college baseball and playing in the majors — it's a shame that it's no longer here."
Martell is one of 21 players on the club team, which practices twice a week at Gutterson in the winter and twice a week at Centennial Field when conditions permit. Come springtime, the club scrimmages with local teams from Burlington, South Burlington and Mount Mansfield high schools; in the fall, it plays other teams in the New England Club Baseball Association. "We're the only Vermont team and have been very competitive in the last six years," says Carter.
A Calcutta auction raises a few thousand dollars for UVM baseball each year, adds Carter. But he pins his hopes more on a future change of leadership than on the possibility of meeting the endowment request. "If [a] new athletic director will listen to us and drop the $15 million stuff, we have a very good chance of baseball returning," Carter says. "It's not an expensive sport, it has great history and tradition, Vermont high school grads can play it successfully, and Centennial Field is considered to be one of the best college baseball fields in New England."
Does Carter think the lawn signs on "home" bases have done their job of raising public support? "Probably we might have designed it a little differently," he says with hindsight. "It's a little hard to see that 'Support Vermont Baseball.'"