Last summer, we spent a week in Vermont. While looking for activities to occupy the time, I discovered the Vermont Lake Monsters, a local collegiate team. I ordered tickets to attend one game during the week, selecting the Thursday game during “Hot Dog Hysteria” night, which offered 25 cent hot dogs.
Monday, while exploring downtown Burlington, we passed a young man wearing Lake Monsters’ gear. I nudged Michael, telling him that the young man was probably a player. He was too shy to interrupt the player and didn’t know what to say. Later, we figured out that we passed Patrick Harrington, one of the Monsters’ all-star pitchers. Michael still kicks himself for not at least saying hello.
Once we arrived and watched the weather forecast predicting rain Thursday night, we decided to head to Tuesday’s game to ensure we were able to see the team play. When we entered the stadium’s parking lot, Champ, the Lake Monster’s beloved mascot, drove by on the back of a golf cart, waving and rolling his eyes at us. We happened upon a double-header; they were finishing a previously rained-out game. Michael fell in love with everything about the team: the small, intimate stadium, the kind fellow spectators, and, especially, Champ. When we entered the stadium’s parking lot, Champ drove by on the back of a golf cart, waving and rolling his eyes at us. Michael was in love.
The rain slowed enough to allow us to attend Hot Dog Hysteria night as well. We sat in our seats directly next to the Monster’s dugout. Michael worked up the courage to talk to some of the players. He joined other fans in some good-natured razzing of the other teams. “What even is a Sea Unicorn?”
Most importantly, he watched the players coming together as a team and supporting each other. Michael has only been playing baseball for a year. Despite his size, strength, and determination, there are skills in which he still lacks. He’s working hard to fill his gaps in ability, taking training sessions and summer camps. In these sessions, he’s witnessed some of the ugly sides of competitiveness from other players.
Michael left Vermont with a full-blown love of the Lake Monsters. He no longer inquired about visiting Fenway; it was all about the Monsters. A few weeks later, we surprised Michael by taking him to Worchester to see the Lake Monsters play the Bravehearts. We arrived decked out in our Lake Monsters’ gear and sat next to the visitor’s dugout. We cheered so loudly that other spectators in the area asked which player we were related to. This time, Michael had worked up the courage to talk to the players. They shared their experiences with him. We spoke to the relatives sitting in our area about the experience. Collegiate players do not get paid to play; it’s a massive commitment to both the players and their families. The players spend long hours on busses to games hours away, stay with host families, and sometimes pursue opportunities to play on the other side of the country.
We became fascinated by these dedicated players, who put in so much effort for the opportunity to play the sport they loved. I was thinking about collegiate baseball as a mom- trying to imagine sending Michael to the other side of the country to live with a random family and travel around playing baseball. Michael is amazed at the idea of spending his entire summer playing baseball with new friends.
Our Lake Monsters made it to the final championship game the same day I had my Achilles surgery. We paid to live-stream the game because traveling was out of the question. We felt like we were their good luck charm and couldn’t abandon them now!
Our love of collegiate baseball continued locally. Mike found an opportunity to send Michael to a camp held by our local Futures league, the Newport Gulls. Michael loved the sessions, which were amazingly personalized and well-organized. While he swears his loyalty remains with the Lake Monsters, he wears his Gulls hat almost constantly. Before the fall sessions ended, we took advantage of a deal to purchase three weeks of Gulls’ summer camp with three season passes to the Gulls’ season.
Being eleven, Michael wonders what it takes to be a serious ballplayer, examining other players’ bats, cleats, and gloves. He hears about teammates taking private lessons and getting custom-made gloves. As someone who has only been playing for a year, he often feels like an imposter. Watching the Monsters players show up with worn cleats and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches taught Michael that baseball isn’t about having a custom glove or expensive sunglasses. It’s about growing and being part of a team.
Collegiate baseball taught Michael the importance of rooting for everyone and that the best players have much more than just a fancy bat. After watching Lake Monsters cheer each other on and complement each other, even when that person is not within earshot. Over the summer, he watched individual players become a team. The Lake Monsters gave Michael a game ball, ensuring that each player signed it before handing it over. They took the time to tell him about their own baseball experiences and what it was like as they grew older. Collegiate baseball players sparked more joy and excitement into Michael than any professional player ever did. I hope the players realize that, to Michael, they are the role models, the ones who took the time to talk about how to become a better hitter and all-around player. Mike and I have commented that this will be the summer of baseball; I cannot wait to see where Michael’s enthusiasm rises to by the end of August!