The Boys of Summer have trickled in to the Capital City for the past week and will be ready to make a splash during Friday’s season opener for the Vermont Mountaineers.
The New England Collegiate Baseball League action returns for the first time since 2019 and fans are bursting with excitement in anticipation of the first pitch. The Mountaineers open the season on the road at the North Shore Naviagtors and are led by second-year manager Charlie Barbieri. The team will begin its quest for a fourth title after raising banners in 2006, 2007 and 2015.
The Bristol Blues are set to make their NECBL debut, rounding out a 14-team league featuring a 42-game schedule for every squad. Vermont will compete for the North Division title along with the Navigators, Keene Swamp Bats, North Adams SteepleCats, Sanford Mainers, Upper Valley Nighthawks and Winnipesaukee Muskrats.
Joining Bristol in the South Division are the Danbury Westerners, Martha’s Vineyard Sharks, Mystic Schooners, Newport Gulls, Ocean State Waves and Valley Blue Sox. The Sharks reached the championship series during their first season in 2019.
Barbieri’s squad went 25-19 two years ago and was eliminated in the playoffs with a 7-4 loss to Valley. A delayed college season is likely to force Vermont to wait longer than usual for some of its top players to report for duty. But eventually athletes from over 20 colleges and universities will bring the Mountaineers to full strength before they enter the busiest portion of their schedule.
The players from New England campuses compete for Harvard, UMass-Amherst, Boston College, UMass-Lowell, Holy Cross, Bryant, Dartmouth and UConn. Stony Brook, Hofstra and Molloy athletes will represent the Empire State. The Mountaineers roster will also be boosted by talent from Xavier, William & Mary, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Monmouth, Elon, Lehigh, Michigan State, Penn, Penn State and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Eighteen former Mountaineers have made their MLB debut, while two others landed front-office jobs with pro organizations. The list of active players includes A.J. Pollock (Arizona Diamondbacks), Danny Mendick (Chicago White Sox), Nick Solak (Texas Rangers), Jonathan Stiever (Chicago White Sox) and Brian O’Grady (San Diego Padres).
U-32 graduate Quintin Pelzel will be in charge of broadcast duties for the Mountaineers’ season. Hitting coach Mitchell Holmes and pitching coach Shawn Kahrie will work with assistant coach Taylor Vile. There will be three sessions of Mountaineers youth baseball camp: June 21-24, June 28-July 1 and July 12-15.
After the Friday opener, the Mountaineers return to Recreation Field for Sunday’s game vs. North Adams and Monday’s rematch against North Shore. Tickets to home games can be purchased online or in person at the Hunger Mountain Co-op, Meadow Mart and Recreation Field.
Mountaineers General Manager Brian Gallagher answered a handful of questions earlier this week as the buzz continues to build before Thursday’s big game.
TA: Can you give a brief recap of how things played out a little over a year ago before everything got cancelled?
Gallagher: “With the whole COVID shutdown, we were pretty early to make that decision as a league. We’d already printed our 2020 tickets last year. So when people see the tickets, they do have 2020 on them. We just didn’t want to spend the money to reprint them all, so we went with that.
“And we did a lot of stuff in the off-season last year, just trying to continue to make things work with all the governors’ safety guidelines. It’s added a new layer of how much work it was behind the scenes this year because we had all the COVID cards to collect.
“As a league, we decided to go with a completely vaccinated league so the season can continue to go on. Even if some player who was vaccinated gets sick, they would just quarantine. And then everybody could keep playing. So that’s going to make it a little bit better this year. Instead of shutting the entire team down for two weeks, this would hopefully let us continue to play.”
TA: From a fan perspective, do you think it’s going to look a lot different this year?
Gallagher: “I don’t believe so. With all the guidelines, they basically said that we can have up to 900 unvaccinated (fans). And as many as you want vaccinated (fans). And I don’t even know we’d even have 900 people show up who were unvaccinated — the (vaccinated) percentage in Vermont is pretty high. So I don’t think it’s going to be any different.
“We’re going to have hand sanitizer all over the ballpark and ask people to keep their distance. But with all the guidelines that are going to be released here by June 3, I bet you most of these things are going to be completely dropped. So I don’t anticipate a lot of difference from what you’ve seen in the past while watching a game.
“We aren’t going to have bat kids this year just because those kids aren’t able to get vaccinated and we didn’t want to put them at risk. But other than that, it’s pretty much going to look the same down at the ballpark.”
TA: Has it felt fairly normal the last few weeks in the lead-up to the season?
Gallagher: “Yeah, just about every single night we’re down there. Even when there’s games going on, we’re down there working behind the scenes and underneath the grandstand and stuff.
“The field is ready to go. By the time we get to the first game, we’ll probably have the first 20 players here out of the 32. And as (college) teams end up getting eliminated, we’ll get more players coming up at that point.
“But their seasons got pushed back a little bit this year, which is making their tournaments going even later. It’s not going to be the best, but we’ll get it in eventually.”
TA: Are there one or two things that you’re especially excited about this year?
Gallagher: “The most exciting thing is that we can actually be out on the field. After having a full year off without having a team down here, getting back into it is going to be a lot of fun — and to see the community come back to the ballpark and hopefully get back to some state of normalcy at some point. And it’s giving these players a chance to play.
“A lot of these guys had their regular seasons in college canceled this year. And the ones that didn’t, it certainly had an impact over the last year with games being canceled or a shortened season.
“So my feeling is that most of these guys are going to be ready to stick it out for the entire season. In some years, you get to July and people are ready to go home and they just need to shut it down. And this year hopefully we won’t have that situation.”
TA: In terms of recruiting or getting those guys to Vermont, what do you think the big draw is for playing for the Mountaineers?
Gallagher: “It definitely helps that we have a lot of former players who are now either assistant coaches or head coaches around the country. So when people look to place players, they call us. And even people that played against us from different teams in the league, the word spreads that it’s a good place to play and a good community. So that helps us recruiting.
“There’s 14 teams in the league now. And who wouldn’t want to play in Newport, R.I., and be on the beach all summer? But I think the community support here is just as good down there, so that helps us out in a lot of ways.”