by Richard Creaser
BARTON — By any objective measure, the greater the number of delays, the harder it is for pitchers to stay warmed up. Friday night, opening night of the Vermont U12 Cal Ripken Baseball tournament, was just such a night. Fans and players alike sought what shelter they could find as the umpires cleared the playing field behind the Pierce Block in Barton Village. Overhead menacing skies threatened, but so far, had failed to surrender anything more than loud noises.
Twice the game would be called for thunder delay, a mandatory period of 20 minutes to allow any danger of lightning strikes to pass. Given the fact that tall light poles and chain link dugouts constituted the bulk of structures closest to the field, the precautions seemed justified.
No sooner had the second thunder delay come to an end when a light rain began to fall. The players, coaches and umpires gamely took to the field, playing half an inning before the intensity of the rain increased and even the most die-hard of parents and fans scrambled to their cars, under the trees or, through forethought and good planning, popped open their umbrellas. Game one of the tournament was off to a rather poor start.
Coming out of the third delay in as many innings, the field now given a good drenching, the quality of play suffered somewhat. Pitchers struggled to control sopping wet baseballs from atop a greasy mound. The ring of aluminum bat on plastic cleats became a familiar sound as the players took breaks to remove the accumulated muck from their spikes.
“I got a lot of dirt stuck in my cleats,” Hartford reliever Chris Nulty acknowledged. “I was having a hard time staying on the mound. I would throw and then start to slip.”
Nulty was the second pitcher to take the mound for Hartford, Hunter Perkins having been pulled after an accumulated hour-long delay. Though Nulty struggled, loading the bases and allowing North Country to tie up the game, he was far from defeated. Nulty went on to record a three-run inside the park home run to begin Hartford’s rally from a long, painful inning.
North Country’s Aiden Gariepy, though subjected to the same routine dashing delays as his Hartford counterpart, would likewise struggle to recover his form. Fastballs adopted unexpected movement, jinking and juking like knuckleballs, rising or dropping unexpectedly. The role of the catcher became one less of calling pitches and catching strikes than one of simply arresting the ball’s forward momentum and hoping to keep it out in front.
Hartford moved on to the winner’s bracket, ousting North Country 15-5 in five innings. Despite the ten-run mercy-ruled game, an hour of delays pushed back the start of game two.
The slick conditions persisted into the evening portion of the tournament as the Lake Region All-Stars took on Central Valley. The lights, coupled with a persistent haze, gave the outfield a rather Field of Dreams quality. However, what came out of the shrubbery on this night was not Shoeless Joe Jackson but, rather, a determined and ravenous horde of mosquitoes.
Despite the weather and the little miseries that accompanied them — or perhaps because of an ample supply of popcorn and hot dogs provided by the Barton Academy and Graded School’s eighth grade class — the players returned to the field and the fans got up and stretched, tried to dry out a bit, and went back to the business of baseball.
It was a sentiment shared by the players. The night game has a certain mystique about it, recalling the major leagues and all those golden heroes of the diamond. Maybe it’s just a function of the background being lost behind the lights, but everyone seems to stand a little taller. There are no network TV cameras, but the dim glow of shaky handy cams and the luminescent sparkle of camera phone flashes fills the night.
“This is my second one,” Lake Region catcher Parker Perron says of night games. “You don’t really do anything different. You just don’t want to look right at the lights.”
Tracking pop-ups and running down baseballs in the outfield are probably the hardest parts of night baseball, he said. The lights tend to be off to the sides and pose little problem for the catcher, he added.
The night game also holds the power to magically ward off bedtime, a fact not lost on the players. Rian Hayman-Jones marveled at the hour when his walk-off three-run inside the park home run allowed the Lake Region team put away Central Valley 11-0.
“It’s pretty fun to be out playing baseball at 11 o’clock at night,” Hayman-Jones said afterward.
Adding to the fun was a strong sense of teamwork that enabled Lake Region to advance to the winners bracket. A loss to North Country in the district playoffs spurred the Lake Region squad to do better, Hayman-Jones said.
“Losing that game made us work harder as a team,” Hayman-Jones said. “We just had to work harder and play better.”
Despite being made up of players from Glover, Barton and Irasburg, the Lake Region All-Stars played as if they had spent the entire season together. Indeed, this U12 team is largely composed of the same players who came within one out of being the U10 state champions two years earlier, Coach Jethro Hayman said.
“Some kids have gone and others come in, but this is basically the same team,” Mr. Hayman said. “They’re very close. They’re like brothers, and it shows.”
Like brothers, some of their dugout chatter spoke of their fellowship. Parker Perron admired a bat and asked Parker Brown, the bat’s owner, if he could use it in his next at-bat.
“You don’t have to ask,” Brown replied. “Unless you’re gonna use it to hit rocks or something.”
That good-natured rivalry and the spirit of fellowship that is the game of baseball would prevail. Bernie Gonyaw, the state commissioner for Vermont Cal Ripken Baseball summed it up best.
“What better way to spend a Friday night than to spend it watching baseball under the lights?” Mr. Gonyaw mused. “It’s the only place to be.”
contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]
For an article on the tournament champions, click here.