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Mudville: April 16, 2024 6:46 am PDT

Beer and Ball


BURLINGTON, Vermont – Every ballpark has a story.

Few ballparks have the history, the allure, and the local food and beer options of Centennial Field on the campus of the University of Vermont, home to the Vermont Lake Monsters of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League and that is the subject of The Story this week.

I’ve been to hundreds of ballparks, major and minor leagues; but this is the first ballpark I’ve traveled to that has its own pizza oven imported directly from Italy.

“One hundred percent of our pizza is homemade on site in the blue pizza trailer, a custom-made oven that was made in Italy that we had flown in – and the oven is in Lake Monster colors,’’ C.J. Knudsen, senior vice president of the Lake Monsters, told BallNine.

Now that is something special and, yes, the pizza was delicious.

Minor league baseball used to be played here; in the 1980s it was a AA franchise, home to the Reds and then the Mariners. An 18-year-old kid named Ken Griffey Jr. played here. Most recently, this was part of the New York-Penn League, home to the Class A Expos who became the Nationals. An A’s farm club was the last affiliated team here.

Then Rob Manfred stuck it to 40 minor league franchises in his effort to “grow’’ the game.

That’s a shame because this is the perfect setting for a minor league team; but credit the Lake Monsters for coming up with a Vermont way to show America’s Pastime in the FCBL and making it a wonderful experience.

This is a slice of Americana with the added touch of hustling college players, local brews, and a right field beer pavilion with flower boxes that makes you feel like you are standing on a neighbor’s porch, hanging out watching a game and having a beer.

The string of new right field luxury boxes, which were moved closer to the foul lines because this field included a running track when it was built way back in 1906, offers a fantastic view. The suites have fire pits, a nice Vermont touch. There are umbrella-topped tables sitting behind those boxes that anyone can use and that is prime foul ball territory. Then there is the historical concrete and steel grandstand that was built in 1922 after the original wooden bleachers burned down in a fire.

You have the option to watch the game from a relaxing suite or, if you are like me, sit in the grandstand, admiring the decorative ironworks and the occasional steel pillar that takes me back to my days as a kid at the original Yankee Stadium.

“You walk into this ballpark and you feel like you’re going back in time a little bit and are also getting a glimpse of the future, while having a local Vermont beer that was made two miles down the road, local ice cream, and it’s a great thing,’’ Knudsen said. “After today’s game the kids will run the bases and they each get a baseball they can play catch with and take home.

“The field is 1906, the existing grand stand, 1922, and since 2021 when we lost the (affiliated) franchise (the A’s) we have put in a ton of amenities.’’

They sure did, including sunset seats and much more.

“It’s great that baseball is here,’’ Knudsen said. “We were pretty sad when Major League Baseball eliminated the team.’’

From out of the greed of MLB, though, came a new way to enjoy the game; the Vermont Lake Monsters are a true success story of overcoming hardship and making baseball a delightful local experience.

Peg and Gordy Gilbert are long-time season ticket holders. The 24th of June will mark their 62nd wedding anniversary. “We are going to celebrate it right here,’’ Peg told me proudly, sporting a beautiful pair of Lake Monster earrings that she made and can be purchased in the gift shop. “I just turned 80 years old. I’ve been coming here since I was about six years old.’’

What makes this place special?

“No. 1, baseball,’’ Peg said. “The University of Vermont. There have been a lot of successful baseball players who have come through here.’’

“There is so much baseball history,’’ Gordy notes between sips of a local ale.

The couple owns four season seats ($200 each) located just in front of a pillar and Gordy made a wooden bracket to keep the empty seat between them in a down position.

“This is our beer seat,’’ Gordy said with a smile. “And we have family come too.’’

Gordy was wearing an Expos hat, a classic.

Peg and Gordy Gilbert. (Kevin Kernan)

When you go to a ballpark and learn some fascinating baseball history as well as have a local hot dog and beer, freshly made pizza, and ice cream … and watch a game, that’s a good day.

At Peg’s first game she remembers sitting on concrete. “There were no chairs then,’’ she said pointing to a section of the grandstand down the line that now has new modern seats.

There is the best of old and new here, and did I mention the food? Plump locally made McKenzie All Natural Beef Hot Dogs, cheese steaks, Vermont ice cream, and frosty brews like Fiddlehead IPA, Zero Gravity, Yorkshire Porter, Citizen Cider, Long Trail Ale, and Queen City, and, of course, there is baseball on a refreshing evergreen Vermont evening.

There’s also Champ, the Lake Monster mascot. Nearby Lake Champlain owns its own mystical Loch Ness Monster-like creature and that is how Champ became the team’s mascot. Champ even took a picture with AMBS between entertaining the legion of kids at the game. A local school band played the National Anthem, and the Lake Monsters stood at attention on the field, lined up next to youth ballplayers.

A final word on the grandstand.

There are modern seats – but for a touch of nostalgia, a number of historical wooden seats are in there to send you back to another place and time. My favorites were the seats just below the small press box, seats that still have brass plates on the back that read “Reserved Scout Seats.’’

This ballpark hasn’t forgotten the scouts.

Scout Seats. (Kevin Kernan)

And remember that wonderful pizza oven? In an effort to pay homage to the extinct Montreal Expos, Knudsen made sure to include the glowing colors of the Expos on the oven.

“The tile on the back is a tribute to the old Montreal Expos,’’ Knudsen said.

That bit of tile work immediately made me think of Le Grand Orange – Rusty Staub – who was a great hitter and food connoisseur.

The University of Vermont Catamounts played here until the varsity baseball program was disbanded in 2009. The first game played on this field was on April 17, 1906, a 10-4 victory for the University of Vermont over the University of Maine. In 1907-08 teams from the New Hampshire and the Vermont League played here. Pro ball did not return until 1955 when the Burlington A’s played for one year, a member of the Provincial League. Minor League baseball did not return until 1984 with the AA Vermont Reds, who stayed through 1987. The Mariners came in for a year of Eastern League play. The Vermont Expos were here by that name in 1994-2005 and then became the Lake Monsters in the NY-Penn League from 2006-2019. But meanwhile the Expos became the Nationals, and then came the A’s.

Make sure to see the Ken Griffey Jr. banner along the right-field walkway, with Junior sporting a Vermont cap.

Those Reds teams produced much Eastern League success with players like Barry Larkin, Paul O’Neill, Chris Sabo, and Rob Dibble. In the Montreal days Orlando Cabrera and Jason Bay played here. Many future major leaguers have come through Centennial Field.

The pizza oven....

...and the pizza. (Kevin Kernan)

There is also a large banner with six images of a shortstop named William Clarence Matthews, noting: “Four decades before Jackie Robinson broke the organized baseball color line, and well before minor leagues were organized, a Black baseball star from Harvard, William Clarence Matthews, played professionally for a season in Burlington, Vermont, integrating the Northern League …

“After his lone season here in Vermont, he earned a law degree from Boston University and went on to a career in law and public service until his death in 1928. The Ivy League baseball championship trophy was named in his honor in 2006 and Matthews was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.’’

When you go to a ballpark and learn some fascinating baseball history as well as have a local hot dog and beer, freshly made pizza, and ice cream … and watch a game, that’s a good day.

The workers at the ballpark are super friendly and dedicated as well and this team draws a nice crowd, 3,300 the previous night and 2,700 on this night.

“We have some great people,’’ Knudsen said. “We have people who have been here a long time. A lot of people in the press box have been here since Day 1, 1994, when the franchise came over from Jamestown, NY, a single-A affiliate for Montreal.’’

Knudsen is completely invested. In fact, one season when my friend, Flagler baseball coach Dave Barnett, managed the team, there were struggles. “Dave is a great skipper but we just didn’t have the talent,’’ Knudsen said of the 2003 team that finished 19-56. “We were the worst team in baseball, so fans were disappointed. We’re in the business of trying to get people in the ballpark and enjoying baseball, so I had to sleep in the dugout until we won a game and it ended up being seven nights in the dugout.

(Kevin Kernan)

“I rolled out a cot every night and slept in the home dugout and the first night was great until I got startled and there was this big skunk less than a foot from my head. Needless to say I didn’t sleep the rest of the night but I was committed at this point. We lost again the following night so the director of ticket operations joined me, then we lost again, another person joined me, we lost again. We had a group. We finally won on July 5th. It was like we won the World Series.’’

That is what minor league baseball is all about.

“This is my second stint here,’’ Knudsen said. “I started out as an intern here in 1995 and then came back as the assistant GM in ’97. I was with them for 14 years, and I was here from the transition from Montreal to D.C. I left after the ’09 season to go to Connecticut and came back here when ownership changed and to relaunch after Covid.’’

No one knows this community like Knudsen knows this community.

“I started out here delivering pocket schedules around the state of Vermont as an intern and now doing a little bit of everything as the vice president,’’ he said with a smile.

People who run these ballparks, affiliated and non-affiliated, love baseball and love to have fun. There are many front office people like Knudsen who work tirelessly to bring the game, and the roots of the game, to the fans and they deserve much credit. Through the years I have gotten to meet many such great people like Todd “Parney’’ Parnell, VP and CEO of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a AA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.

Parney is a legend in the business and when I brought up his name to Knudsen he smiled broadly and said, “If Parney were here he would be up at the pavilion taste testing our beverages, and we have some great beverages.’’

Then came these words of wisdom from Knudsen. “At the end of the day, we are in the entertainment business and people are investing their time and money with us and we want to make sure we put on a great show for them,’’ he said. “If we’re not having fun doing it then our fans are not going to have fun doing it.’’

AMBS and Champ. (Kevin Kernan)

The FCBL is a baseball breath of fresh air.

“It’s really worked out well,’’ Knudsen said. “The players are really excited to be here, the word has gotten out nationally that this is the place to spend the summer to play and they love playing in front of large crowds. And Burlington, Vermont is a great place to spend the summer if you’re a college kid. These guys are playing hard every single day and one of the best things about it is we have guys from Vermont. It’s great when somebody looks up on the video board and sees the small town of Salisbury, Vermont; they cheer a little extra harder for that person.

“We have guys from Vermont to Florida to Texas to California, from all over,’’ Knudsen said. “It’s a great potpourri of players and the guys are having a ton of fun playing baseball, on the field and off the field as well. We will have eight to 10 sellouts and our capacity is 4,415.’’

Parking is limited because of the age of the ballpark and being located in a residential neighborhood, but the club runs free shuttle service from various points and those lots are close enough to walk to the park, too.

“We have great support from a sponsorship standpoint, a group outing standpoint, from a fundraising standpoint; we do 50-50s here for non-profits so we are really engaged with the community,’’ Knudsen added.

That is what baseball here at Centennial Field is all about. That, and the beer.

Click through the gallery below for some more photos from AMBS of Centennial Field.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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