After the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to take a season off, and following a Major League Baseball realignment that almost left Burlington without high-level baseball, the Vermont Lake Monsters have returned this week to Centennial Field.
Monday saw the team's first workout and practice.
"I love Vermont," said pitcher Evan Stewart, who is on the roster for the Vermont Lake Monsters' inaugural season in the Futures League — made up of college athletes.
Stewart graduates this weekend from Middlebury College, and said he will attend graduate school this fall at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
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Stewart predicted fans will enjoy their trips to the ballpark this summer.
"These are Division I, high Division III, high Division II — really good baseball players who are not just playing for fun," Stewart said. "We are having fun, but it's going to be competitive. People want to win."
It was almost game over for the Lake Monsters when Major League Baseball recently changed its franchise structure for farm teams, eliminating some affiliates.
Previously, the team was affiliated with the Oakland Athletics.
Now, with a new owner in the new league, the city is breathing a sigh of relief.
"The league has a good record, is my understanding, of producing major league talent," said Burlington's mayor, Miro Weinberger, a lifelong baseball fan who still plays in an adult league.
Weinberger said the team is an important draw for Burlington, adding that he is glad to see the club making investments in the historic Centennial Field.
"More than the economic impact, the cultural impact of being able to take your kids to a baseball game — connect with this long history — is a very positive thing, and I'm grateful that we seem to have a future now of baseball in this community going strong," Weinberger said in an interview Monday with NECN.
The team said its 38 home games this season match the number it played in the old league. Additionally, the Monsters promised that popular promotions will return — including 25-cent hot dog nights.
Of course, fans can also expect to see one of Vermont's biggest celebrities: Champ the Lake Monster.
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"I want these kids to have fun. I want the fans to have fun," team manager Pete Wilk said. "It's a great game. Coming off of COVID, I think everybody's excited to be out and about in this wonderful facility in a great town, that from all indications is rabid about their baseball."
Ryan Chaffin of Farrell Distributing, the ballpark's longtime partner for many concession stand items like beer, said the Monsters are really meaningful to many in the business community here.
"To not have the Lake Monsters and baseball in this community would be devastating," Chaffin said. "We have a lot of meetings up there at games, we have a lot of social gatherings. We invite clients to come join us. We're really excited to get back."
The Vermont Lake Monsters' home opener is Saturday, May 29, hosting the Sea Unicorns of Norwich, Connecticut.
Additionally, the team says its box office will be open 11 a.m. 5 p.m. Monday through Friday throughout the season, and on weekend days from 11 a.m. until the fifth inning when the team is playing at Centennial Field.
Tickets can also be purchased over the phone, by calling (802) 655-6611.