4/4/2013 - Opening day means more than the start of another baseball season. It means it’s finally time to swap out your heavy coat for your mitt and your hot chocolate for a hot dog. It means a season where you can unapologetically do the chicken dance with thousands of strangers, and it means not worrying about getting sticky cotton candy fingers.
And of course opening day means, for even the most casual fans, cheering for your favorite team and players. For diehards, it means analyzing stats and scrutinizing every diving catch and stolen base. It means lunging over rows of seats to snag a foul ball or staying up late to watch just one more inning.
There’s more than one way to enjoy America’s pastime in the Granite State. From town and city parks to historic Holman Stadium, to the bright lights and hopeful faces of the minor-leaguers in Manchester, it’s time to get back to baseball. We have paid professionals and we have college kids hoping to catch a break. We even have a hometown team that is happily stuck 100 years in the past. So breathe in deep and relish that smell of freshly cut grass. It’s been way too long. It’s time to play ball.
In his seventh season with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats — the Class AA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays — Michael Ramshaw still loves it when the hometown crowd boos him.
That’s because when Ramshaw takes the field, he’s not trying to hit a home run or strike out an opposing batter. His uniform consists of a mullet wig, camouflage, a feather boa and face paint, and his goal is to dominate six young fans in a tug of war contest between innings.
When he’s not performing as the Ram of War, Ramshaw is the Fisher Cats’ vice president of sales. The Ram of War is just one of many between-innings promotions he’s developed, because while the players between the lines want fans to leave the stadium cheering for a home team win, Ramshaw wants them to remember the full Fisher Cats experience.
“We’re always looking for new ways to keep fans entertained,” Ramshaw said. “Our job is to put on a show. We’re in the business of building memories.”
After the final pitch of each season, Ramshaw’s slate is wiped clean, giving him a chance to go into next year with a brand new approach on entertainment.
The crowd will always have its favorite promos, Ramshaw said, like watching two fans don sumo-wrestling suits and duke it out on the field. The T-Bones Build a Burger challenge has also been a favorite since it started in 2008. In that game, fans on the field will dress as burger buns. The bottom bun will have giant foam ingredients piled on him or her, and the top bun will belly flop on top of it all to complete the burger.
To celebrate the Fisher Cats’ 10th anniversary in the Queen City, Ramshaw said, promotions will include commemorative tickets featuring star players of the past, two kids-get-in-free days and one of his personal favorites, the bobble-head T-shirt giveaway.
The between-innings promotions and pre-game giveaways are an essential part of minor-league baseball, but during the game there’s more going on within the stadium than fans may realize. To get the full experience, Fisher Cats director of marketing Jenna Raizes said, the fun starts an hour or two before the first pitch.
Before they watch the pros hit 90 mph on the radar gun, kids can see how fast they can throw with the team’s new speed pitch machine. On the right field concourse, young fans can bounce around on an inflatable slide and take some swings with the inflatable tee-ball game. And of course, Fungo, Slider and some guest mascots will work their way through the seats, high-fiving and signing autographs for the team’s young fans.
“It’s all about making the kids and parents smile and bringing entertainment to the fans,” Raizes said. “Our focus is on making the game more accessible.”
For example, Raizes said, the play area was at one point located in the parking lot. The team received some complaints from parents who wanted to watch both the game on the field and their younger kids playing, so to accommodate both, the concourse play area was born.
To keep the entertainment fresh, Ramshaw said, the team behind the scenes at the stadium has to strive for a flawless performance at each home game.
“You approach it like it’s your only daughter’s wedding 71 times a year,” he said.
On Thursday, March 21, Alan Foley’s kitchen was spotless. But over the course of the next five months, he’ll have about 700 different items within reach, cooking with everything from red wine vinegar to basic yellow mustard.
Foley is in his third season as executive chef for Advantage Food and Beverage, the food service provider for the Fisher Cats. Each game carries its staples, dishing out thousands of hot dogs, pretzels, chicken fingers and pizza, but keeping up with the seasonal changes from April through September is essential for a chef at a New England ballpark.
“We sell more clam chowder and coffee in April,” Foley said.
To get the trip to the park started right, Foley recommends easing into the day of baseball and food. The two go hand in hand, he said, but with so many options available it’s good to get a sense of the smorgasbord of offerings before diving right in.
Before the first pitch, the gates open for fans to check out batting practice and pregame warmups. Players will be taking it easy, playing long toss and getting in a few last-minute swings. What’s true for the players is true for the spectators: it’s good to start off light before getting into the thick of the game.
“Get in early and get some popcorn and peanuts,” Foley said. “Then you can stroll around and get the lay of the land.”
After a couple innings have gone by and you’ve seen each pitcher and had a good look at both batting lineups, it’s time to get serious. Foley recommends snagging that first hot dog and a beer. Or, if you want food that’s on the lighter side, this year the ballpark will have a Healthy Plate concession stand featuring salads and plenty of vegetarian options.
A couple innings later and your hot dog and beer are gone, leaving you with a couple used-up mustard packets and an empty plastic cup. It’s the seventh-inning stretch, the game is tied — it might be time for a sugar rush to get you through the final frames, and maybe into extra innings.
Foley said the ballpark has no shortage of sweets, with hard-scoop ice cream, cotton candy, snow cones and fried dough.
Or, if you’ve held off on eating throughout the game and are looking for a hunger-ending challenge, you can eat your way to immortality. Starting opening day, the Queen City club sandwich will be ready to face down its challengers, who will have their names posted on a wall in the stadium if they can finish the sandwich in 20 minutes.
“It is a super gigantic sandwich,” Foley said. “It’s really three sandwiches in one.”
Also new for this year, Foley said, the stadium is serving Kayem brand hot dogs, the same kind the Red Sox serve at Fenway.
“There will be footlong-hot-dog carts, and fans can use regular toppings or build their own with sauerkraut and relish,” Foley said.
Back to the border
Though it’s the one New Hampshire city to host professional players, Manchester is not the only city where fans can catch a game.
When the American Defenders of New Hampshire, an independent professional team, moved to Pittsfield, Mass., Nashua became a city without a team.
Fans in the Gate City had grown accustomed to having a hometown squad when the Nashua Pride moved into Holman Stadium in 1998. But 10 years later, when Holman became vacant, Jon Goode jumped at the chance to bring baseball back to the 75-year-old stadium.
Goode is vice president of the Lowell Spinners, a minor-league Red Sox affiliate, and he helped develop a new team, the Nashua Silver Knights, as a collegiate summer-league squad. At first, Goode attempted to get the new team set up to play in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, the league that hosts other New Hampshire teams like the Keene Swamp Bats and the Laconia Muskrats.
The NECBL denied entrance to the new team, Goode said, making Nashua a city with a team but with no league for it to play in. So along with teams in Portsmouth, Torrington, Conn., and Martha’s Vineyard, Goode and the Silver Knights developed the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. The new league now has nine teams throughout New England, and the Silver Knights have won back-to-back league championships.
Goode said fans approached the team with some apprehension at first. They were used to seeing Holman host professional players, not college kids. But winning cures all, and Goode said the fans have now fully embraced the city’s champions.
“[Holman Stadium is] the community epicenter of Nashua,” Goode said. “Everyone’s been there, and everyone knows it as a place they like to call home.”
That hometown concept is not just the team’s philosophy, it’s the league’s rule. Silver Knights director of creative services Jarrod Fitzgerald said that when teams formulate their rosters, at least 50 percent of players have to either be from New England or go to college in New England.
The Silver Knights try to get as many players on board with New Hampshire ties as possible, and this year’s squad features three players from Bedford, three from Nashua and sole representatives from Merrimack, Hudson and Manchester. Local colleges are also well represented, with two players from Franklin Pierce University and Southern New Hampshire University and one from Saint Anselm College.
While the local connections have been a great boost for ticket sales, with players’ friends and families having an opportunity to watch them play, Fitzgerald said the most fun is seeing kids interact with the players.
“It’s cool for the younger kids because in their eyes, these are professional baseball players when they’re in this stadium and these uniforms,” Fitzgerald said. “They get to say, ‘Wow, you went to my elementary school,’ or ‘You’re from my neighborhood.’”
Because Holman is such an intimate venue, seating 2,825, players are encouraged to mingle with fans before and after each game, talking baseball and signing autographs. Since many of these players come from small colleges, the crowds summer brings in are some of the largest they have played in front of.
“These players are thrilled to sign autographs,” Fitzgerald said. “And every guy is excited to play for a crowd.”
Fitzgerald said they take the same attitude onto the field. There are no guaranteed contracts in this league. In fact, NCAA rules prevent the players from being paid at all. But, Fitzgerald said, players are hustling on every play and giving it their all each night because they never know when a professional scout could be watching.
With the city gearing up to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ballpark this season, Goode said each Saturday will have the Silver Knights playing in a different uniform of a team from the city’s past. The first Saturday will feature the team dressed as the Nashua Dodgers, and throughout the year they will also don throwbacks from the former Nashua Pirates, Angels, Hawks and Pride.
The team will also be introducing a promotion celebrating a lesser-known piece of Nashua baseball history. Fitzgerald said that in 1946, before the start of the Nashua Dodgers season, a local farmer offered to give 100 baby chicks to a player every time he hit a home run. That season was catcher Roy Campanella’s first in Nashua, and the powerful catcher clubbed 14 homers out of Holman. Campanella, who would later star in Brooklyn as one of the pioneers of racially integrated baseball, sent his 1,400 chicks back home to his father, who then started a poultry farm.
This year, after a player hits a homerun, in addition to triumphantly circling the bases, he will pay homage to Nashua history by tossing some stuffed animal chicks into the crowd.
For Goode, the best part of bringing baseball back to Nashua is seeing how it has impacted individuals, from players who go pro to fans happy to have a home team to front office interns who go on to make a career in the sports industry.
“Since I was sitting in [team president] Tim [Bawmann]’s office having that initial conversation, to see where we are now is amazing,” Goode said. “It’s great to see how many lives we’ve impacted.”
The grass is greener
Just before the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium gates were set to open, Shaun Meredith saw purple.
As the director of facilities and turf, Meredith spends a good amount of time with his eye on radar screens, watching the weather for any sign of trouble. Before this particular game in 2010, Meredith heard there might be a storm on its way but didn’t expect the purple.
“It’s the ‘oh no’ color,” he said.
The wind came in at somewhere between 65 and 70 mph, blowing the field tarp, all 175 square feet of it, clear across the field.
Luckily, Meredith was able to get a crew out onto the field to rescue the tarp before it flew out of the stadium, which would have made for a turf manager’s worst nightmare. A runaway tarp is rare, but with the unpredictability of New England weather, Meredith said he needs to be ready for anything.
Though his title carries the word ‘turf,’ Meredith said much of his job is actually done in the dirt. While green is the overwhelming color when it comes to baseball fields, about 90 percent of the game is played on the base paths, and keeping them consistent is imperative to the quality of game play. With the right combination of watering and raking, Meredith said, the diamond should have the consistency of a cork.
While the quality of the dirt is for the comfort of the players and to keep ground balls rolling unimpeded, much of the work Meredith does with the infield and outfield grass is for aesthetic purposes.
The patterns change throughout the season, and Meredith said fans will notice. By cutting different lines, angles and shapes into the grass, he said he keeps the perspective fresh and the fans appreciate having something new to look at each time they walk through the gates.
“Two and a half acres is really tough when there’s 6,000 sets of eyes looking at it,” Meredith said. “It only takes 5 percent to look bad to make the whole thing look bad.”
Meredith said one of the most memorable moments in his five years as turf manager stands out. On July 13, 2011, eyes across the Eastern League turned to Manchester as, for the second time, the city hosted the league’s All-Star Game.
Meredith and his crew worked for about 24 hours straight to get the field ready, and when it was unveiled in front of the league’s best players and a packed house of fans, they saw a star cut into the infield and two more in the outfield.
It’s his proudest moment of manicuring the field, but taking care of it is a year-round job. Though the field needs to be tough to endure being constantly rained on, snowed on, spit on and spiked, Meredith said treating it with tenderness keeps it in its top condition.
“I refer to the field as an infant baby,” Meredith said. “It doesn’t feed itself, it doesn’t cut its own hair and it doesn’t give itself water to drink.”
The old ball game
The striker approaches the line and stares down the hurler. As the apple comes hurtling in he takes a swing and sends it bouncing into the infield. He digs it out to first base as a crowd of cranks, bugs and rooters looks on. But he can’t make it in time as the first baseman corrals the apple before he reaches the bag. One hand down. Next striker to the line.
The New Hampshire Granite specialize in vintage base ball (vintage teams refer to it base ball, not baseball), playing the game just as it was in the late 1800s, looking the part in oversized uniforms and gloves that are merely a thin layer of leather covering one hand. They speak the language too. The batter is a striker, the pitcher is the hurler, the ball is the apple and the cranks, bugs and rooters are fans. Instead of having three outs per half inning, there are three hands.
The Granite started playing in 2005, founded in Nashua by Pete Duda, a former ballplayer at Keene State College. Before he moved back to New Hampshire, Duda said he was living in Connecticut and had seen a vintage base ball game in Hartford. He said he immediately fell in love with the throwback style and asked to join the Hartford squad’s roster.
After he relocated to Nashua, the Hartford team called him and offered to help him bring New Hampshire its first vintage base ball team. Duda rounded up a group and, with help from Hartford and other local teams, the new team learned how to play the old game.
“We had a hodgepodge group of guys from every walk of life,” Duda said. “We all figured out it together.”
Duda said at the time, there were only a few teams in New England. And though he said he now only gets a rare opportunity to play with the team he founded, he has been thrilled to see vintage squads sprouting up throughout New England.
“Whenever people come out and watch it, they seem to love it,” Duda said. “I think what the fascination is, is that it’s so basic but the players are playing hard and trying to do everything right.”
Brian Donohue, the team’s captain and catcher said that while the team’s home field is at Pennichuck Middle School in Nashua, the squad has traveled to George’s Island in Boston, a field in rural western Massachusetts and has even played at a showcase at McCoy Stadium, the home of the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox.
With players dressed in baggy uniforms, laced up in front with a collar, sporting short-billed caps and swinging massive 45-ounce bats, the game does have a novelty factor to it. But Donahue said the players’ skills are no joke, as during each game they field sharp grounders and line drives barehanded and face pitchers who can legally use a nail file or Vaseline to doctor a ball.
“I always tell the new guys, ‘Don’t get upset, because you will make an error,” Donohue said. “But the game rewards people who hustle.”
The New Hampshire squad is made of players in their 20s through their 40s, brought together by both a love of the game and a love of history. Most have a pretty extensive baseball playing background.
Donohue, 28, said playing by the old rules and an adopted persona of a 19th-century player is perfect for a baseball purist. There are no concerns about how many millions of dollars your contract says you’re entitled to. Pitching changes don’t drag the game on for hours. There are no drug scandals.
“With HGH and steroids, people have this idea of baseball players as cheaters,” Donohue said. “But they don’t understand where the game came from.”
When people see the Granite and their opponents in action, Donohue said passersby quickly become cranks. If they’re playing in a park, people driving by will stop and get out of their cars to watch a few innings.
Big leaguers have even shown their appreciation for the Granite and their commitment to vintage base ball. When the Providence Grays invited the Granite to play in the pregame showcase at McCoy Stadium, a couple players peaked their heads out of the clubhouses to check out the display.
Jason Bay, then with the New York Mets, was in the minors rehabbing that day and former Red Sox Lars Anderson was getting in some time in Pawtucket. Donohue said both players were shocked to see some of the equipment the historical squads were using.
“They all came by and picked up our bats,” Donohue said. “They’re used to swinging 33-, 34- and 35-ounce bats and we’re using bats in the upper 40s.”
But it’s not just the equipment and the language that differentiates the vintage game from the modern. A few key rule changes are important to note before watching the game as a crank or signing up to play.
In the 1880s game, batters walk on seven balls, and foul balls are not considered strikes. If a batter is hit by a pitch, it’s a dead ball and he does not walk to first. Like the modern game, a batter is out if a fielder catches the ball in the air, but an out is also recorded if a ball is caught on one bounce.
One of the strangest rules, Donohue said, is that a batter can request where he would like his strike zone to be. With a high zone, strikes can only be called from the shoulders to waist and a low zone is from the waist to knees.
Duda said if fans get confused during a vintage game, players are more than happy to explain a rule. He said the accessibility of the players can be refreshing for sports fans, and most players are thrilled to talk base ball right there on the bench.
“Little kids will go up to you and start talking to you,” Duda said. “And that’s how it used to be when they would play in town greens.”
Though it’s not a requirement, it’s common practice for vintage players to take on a nickname from the era. It’s an important ritual, Donohue said, and a nickname must be earned and cannot be forced. The Granite have a “Stumpy” and a “Slim” and Donohue goes by “Flask.”
“It might take a season or two to get a good nickname,” Donohue said. “But it will happen.”
The 2013 season begins for the Granite on Saturday, April 27, with a road game in Whately, Mass., against the Whately Pioneers. Though its home opener isn’t until Saturday, June 1, at Pennichuck, games are scheduled this season in Portsmouth, at the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton and on Sunday, July 28, when the team will play at Holman Stadium as the 1940s Nashua Dodgers in a showcase of the Gate City’s baseball history.
Because the Granite’s goal is to be a window into American history, Donohue said the team members are often referred to as historical reenactors. But the difference between a vintage base ball team and someone reenacting the Civil War is that in base ball, there is no predetermined outcome.