Friday, June 30, 2006

Opening Weekend with the Lake Monsters

This is an article yours truly did and was published in this week's edition of the Vermont Times.

The sun was out, the bats were cracking, and over the weekend at Centennial Field in Burlington, it was the beginning of a new area in Vermont baseball as the Vermont Lake Monsters opened up their 2006 home season against the Tri-City Valley Cats.

The Single A affiliate of the Washington Nationals made a major change back in November, changing the nickname of the team from the Expos to the Lake Monsters. The change was made as a result of the parent club’s move from Montreal to Washington in 2004, and the team wanted to break away from the old club, and start a new tradition with the new name. Back in November, General Manager C.J. Knudsen told me the new name reflects the character and tradition of the Champlain Valley, and incorporates the legend of the mythical sea creature “Champ” that lives in the waters of Lake Champlain.

The nickname change added to the excitement of another Opening Day at the 100 year old ballpark. Many fans told me they were excited about the opening of the season, and could not wait to spend some quality time watching the Lake Monsters. John Anderson of Waitsfield told me, “I am still getting used to the new name, and I know I will still call them the Expos for a long time. I just hope the new name will bring a better team to the field this year.” Anderson said this as his kids were nipping at his heels asking Dad if they could have a hot dog and a Coke.

As per tradition, both teams had their rosters introduced, and the Lake Monsters took the mike from C.J. and introduced themselves to the announced crowd of 3,814, and of course slapped hands with Champ while running onto the field. The loudest cheers were reserved for returning fan favorites Brandon Conway and Mike Daniel, along with manager Jose Auguacil who returned to the team the previous Friday after a change in the organization moved manager Edgar Caceras to manage the Potomac ballclub in the organization.

While there have been changes in the name and logo of the team, some things will just never change. Back with the team are the front office staff, along with longtime PA announcer Rich Haskell. Haskell returns to the mike for his 13th year with the team, a tenor that has seen him miss only one game. Rich told me the only time he missed a game was the third game of his first season, but he did have a good excuse; his wife was giving birth to their only child across the street at Fletcher Allen. Of course, the Expos(oops, Lake Monsters) beloved mascot Champ is back to get the fans riled up, and keep the kids occupied while their parents ponder which of the players will eventually make it to the major leagues. The in between innings promotions remain the same with games like Human Bowling, the frozen t-shirt contest, and Champ shooting t-shirts into the stands with his trusted shooter. (Although in game two of the series, the thing did misfire, and one t-shirt traveled a grand total of about six inches, drawing laughs from the crowd.)

A few of the other changes the team has made come in the form of the concessions and entertainment for the kids. The team has jazzed up its speed pitch game, and added a bouncy tent where kids can get all of their energy out by bouncing up and down for three minutes at the cost of just a buck. The food, which has always been good and very reasonably priced, now features the Monster Dog, and a pulled pork sandwich that will have your stomach begging for another one, two, or three. Longtime on-field emcee Jamie Scavatto has been replaced by “Rockin Ruby” as Scavatto has moved on to devote more time to his duties in the sports department at Channel Five.

The highlight of the second game of the series had to be when a three year old boy threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Now, this was something for the books. Here is this tiny kid, playing catch with the players before the game, being chased around by the players, and throwing some balls that would rival tosses of mine. Of course, when he threw the first pitch, it was a strike, and drew the loudest ovation of the night from the crowd of about 3,200.

On the field, well, it was not a good weekend for the Monsters as they dropped the first two games of the series in pretty ugly fashion. Opening night, the Lake Monsters dropped an 8-4 decision, a game that saw two Tri-City runners score from second on wild pitches, and an assortment of mental and physical errors lead to a very unhappy manager and fans. The bright spot was Brandon Conway, who came into the game with a lifetime batting average of .160. In the second, Conway hit a three run shot, his first in 222 lifetime at bats. This could be a make or break year for Conway, as if you can’t hit above .200, regardless of defensive prowess, you won’t be in baseball for very long. After the game, Manager Jose Auguacil said he was disappointed with the play of the team and said, “We will not have this type of performance again.” Well, he shouldn’t have said that, as on Saturday night, the Lake Monsters dropped a 7-5 decision to Tri-City in a game that saw the Lake Monsters snag defeat from the jaws of victory. The Lake Monsters held a 5-4 lead going into the seventh after scoring four in the bottom of the sixth. In the top of the seventh, the bullpen fell apart again with the Monsters giving up four runs in the inning. On the night, the relief pitching was not up to par, and the defense was sloppy with Vermont committing four errors. The poor defense, and pitching had manager Jose Auguacil quite angry with his players, as he went straight to the clubhouse with his team. After about 15 minutes, one member of the Lake Monsters staff came out of the clubhouse shaking his head and said, “Man, I am so glad I am not a player right now.” About five minutes earlier when someone was coming out of the clubhouse, I could hear Auggie yelling in a couple of different languages at his players. Some of the words cannot be repeated in a family publication.

Game three of the series turned out to be much better for the Lake Monsters as they pulled out a 3-2 victory over Tri-City. Brandon Conway continued his hot hitting with a two RBI single in the fourth, and Mike Daniel added an RBI triple. Of course, it got dicey in the ninth as Tri-City put two on with one out, but Juan De Los Santos was able to get Christopher Johnson to ground into a game inning double play, and for the first time this year, the famous victory balls were thrown into the stands to celebrate the victory. Before the game, Auggie told me he had some words for the team following the previous night’s game. He said the team needs to focus on the fundamentals and getting the job done. He said this is a very good ball club and they just need to play together. With the way the team played on Sunday night, it looks like they listened.

This was Little League Day at the ballpark with Little Leaguers from all over the area getting discounted tickets to attend the game. Before the game, the players and coaches paraded around the park to the cheers of the 3,200 on hand. Before the game, Lake Monsters players took a tremendous amount of time to take pictures with and sign autographs for the kids and parents. Brandon Conway told me he enjoys Little League Day and feels it is his responsibility as a professional ball player to be a role model for the kids. Conway said, “Being a role model is important to me. It wasn’t too long ago that I was one of these kids asking for autographs. Some of the smaller kids are really shy, but they warm up to you.” Conway’s statement is one that was repeated by many of the players. Lake Monsters players seem to enjoy the interaction with the fans, and take the time to say a few words to each kid that asks for their signature.

After the game, it was pure chaos on the field as it was “Have a Catch Night”. Can you imagine about 200 kids on the field, playing catch with their parents, and having free baseballs flying around? While I was walking around taking pictures, I thought I was going to need a helmet to avoid getting nailed in the noggin. One parent told me being able to play catch on the field with his son is one of the highlights of the season. “These guys do such a great job getting the fans into the game and doing things like this. It isn’t too often that a professional team allows a bunch of kids to play catch on the field. What a great experience for them.”

One final note, I was grabbing some fries in between innings, and one of the vendors I had talked to asked me how the story was going. One fan piped in and said, “Make sure you mention in your article how wonderful the players and staff are. We love coming to the games because they are all so nice and have so much to do when the kids get bored. Where else do players actually sign autographs without asking for money?” Ah yes, you have to love Centennial and the Lake Monsters.

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