Karl Lindholm: It was old – and then it was new

I had forgotten just how much fun it is to go to a professional baseball game in Burlington. I used to go all the time, but age, obligation, and habit combined to change my summer routines. I became less keen to drive up Route 7 to Centennial Field (and back!) night after night.
The first few years the Expos were here (they arrived in 1994), we had season tickets and came to as many games as we could, giving away our tickets to Middlebury friends when we were otherwise obliged.
Our seats were right behind home plate just under the press box. We had a motley crew up surrounding us — Dominic, John, and Joe. Old Middlebury friend Russ Reilly had the two seats next to us.
We cheered for our favorite players from our aerie behind home. For two years the Expos had a scintillating outfielder named Ed Bady (34 steals in 1996). Whenever he came up, or was on first, we rocked the chant “Eddie, Eddie!” The whole crowd joined us.
We maintained a running dialogue with Rich Haskell, the PA announcer (still doing it!), only about 10 feet away in the press box, and abused the official scorer for ignoring our recommendations on hits and errors.
Every game, we held a Celebrity Lookalike Contest that engendered much debate. At the end of the game, win or lose, we high-fived and exchanged self-congratulations: “Nicely rooted.”
One of those summers, I was asked to read “Casey at the Bat” to entertain fans before the final game. Champ, the Expos big fuzzy mascot and kid favorite, was to pantomime with exaggerated gestures the actions in the text.
PA guy Rich, General Manager Kyle Bostwick, and I were discussing the choreography before we went on. Another fellow whom I didn’t know was there with us, an athletic-looking guy in gym shorts, T-shirt, and flip flops, making a lot of suggestions. “Who is this guy,” I thought, and why is he interrupting?
“I’m Champ,” he told me. Ah, I had forgotten Champ was actually a person inside a Champ suit.
This summer, a couple of Fridays ago, my daughter Jane was meeting her VPR pals at a game and she had tickets for us. An added incentive was that our grandson, one-and-a-half-year-old Dylan, Jane’s little boy, would be meeting us there for his first game.
What a good time we had, on a gorgeous mid-summer night, beautiful sunset. The Lake Monsters cooperated with a tidy 1-0 win in two hours flat, so little Dylan stayed for the whole game.
I was reminded afresh how much I have enjoyed Vermont Reds, Expos, and Lake Monsters games. Centennial Field, a relic, is our own Fenway Park, and team owner Ray Pecor and his staff have done a remarkable job renovating the old stadium with on- and off-field improvements and embellishments.
There are brand new seats throughout, no longer the concrete, butt-numbing grandstand on the first and third base lines. For Christmas last year, I was given three of the old seats, which now sit proudly in my study at home.
I remember well the first game at Centennial of Dylan’s mom. We got a foul ball! Unfortunately, it’s not a story I often tell, as there’s little glory in it. I was walking out of the porta-potty behind the first base grandstand, and a foul ball was hit right to me: all I had to do was pick it up.
We’ve had 25 years of pro baseball in Burlington, Vermont. Our first pro team (since the semi-pro Northern League in the 1940s and ’50s) was the Vermont Reds, Cincinnati’s Double A franchise, who were here for four years, 1984-87.
I was there for the Reds’ very first game, Opening Night, early April, 1984. Mayor Bernie Sanders, instrumental in bringing the team to Burlington, enthusiastically greeted fans and stayed the whole night, despite brutally cold temperatures and a power outage that wiped out the scoreboard for the last half of the game.
Those Reds were terrific, winning the Eastern League Championship in three of their four years. Their roster had many of the players who won the World Series under Manager Lou Piniella in 1990: Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, All-Star Chris Sabo (two seasons here), Paul O’Neill, nasty-boys Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble, and many others.  
As it turned out, Burlington was not a large enough market for AA ball, where teams play 140 games from early April to September. Short season A ball (80 games) is perfect for Vermont.
The Expos became the Lake Monsters in the wake of the big club’s change from the Montreal Expos to the Washington Nationals. The team is now affiliated with the Oakland A’s.
I will return to Centennial at least twice more this summer before the season closes on Sept. 7. I certainly can’t miss the third 25-cent hot dog night on Aug. 19 with my friend Rick, a hot dog gourmand.
You know what they say about minor league baseball: the baseball’s good, the parking’s free, and the beer’s cold.

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