Kevin Watterson isn’t one to sit still — it goes against his nature. And so on this comfortable weekday, as afternoon fades to evening, he’s in full-speed mode in between Keene Swamp Bats baseball games.
But it’s a poised, controlled full-speed mode for the team’s energetic 60-year-old president.
A game program, tightly rolled, protrudes from the back pocket of his tan shorts, the way it always does. There is a hint of commotion. Double-headers will do that. It’s conspicuous, but not unusual, like backstage between scenes at a school play.
Watterson reminds manager Marty Testo that it’s time to get his starting pitcher warmed up. Then he slowly slides over to home plate to present new wooden bats, still wrapped in plastic, to a pair of smiling bat kids, acknowledgement of their efforts this season.
They pose for pictures.
Watterson notices one umpire is missing, but his cellphone is ringing so he directs another person to check. On the line is an assistant baseball coach at Southern N.H. University.
The conversation is quick, but cordial, the caller surely sensing this is not a good time for baseball small talk. A text message follows, from another coach. Watterson reads it and makes a mental note to respond later.
He notices it has grown darker and so he scoots through a door that leads under the grandstands to turn on the field lights.
More baseballs are needed, a player interrupts, and Watterson vanishes again, returning in just seconds with a box full.
As the second umpire arrives, a woman who will sing the national anthem drifts unnoticed onto the field.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” begins.
Watterson withdraws from the field area and disappears into a swelling sea of purple.
It’s Game 42, the last in another regular season for the popular Keene summer team, and it goes off like all of the others before it — without a hitch.
It’s a dance perfected over time.
Before Watterson will see a pitch, he will check in with dozens of Swamp Bats volunteers. Then he will carry an industrial-sized plastic red tray filled with hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and drinks up a steep set of stairs to a booth with a spacious perched view of Alumni Field.
Time to feed the press.
If you look back, even for an instant, you may lose him. Pace is everything for Watterson, not only one of the Swamp Bats’ founders and its president, but a husband, father, successful business leader and community advocate.
“Every day I wake up excited,” he says. “I love my life ... I love what I’m doing.”
In many ways, baseball so conclusively defines him: passion, competition, tradition, a matching of wits and strategies.
He grew up in a prominent baseball family and over time earned immense respect for his knowledge of the game and his ability to evaluate talent at the game’s highest levels.
He worked early in his career as a scout for the New York Yankees and for the past 15 years has been one of the many tireless forces behind the Swamp Bats — a simple story about a community that falls for a baseball team with a peculiar nickname. Charmed, it opens its arms, hearts and homes each summer to a couple dozen wishful Major League prospects, some of whom go on to hit the big time.
Game crowds regularly top 1,000 (fans put chairs out along the third- and first-base lines as early as noon on game days to reserve their favorite spot), the baseball is top-notch (three league titles, five title-game appearances) the crack of the bat is real (wood, not aluminum) and the memories intimate.
“What this has become for this community goes way beyond baseball,” Watterson says, “and clearly that is nothing we had envisioned when we set out to start this team.”
Charlie Burns, a member of the Swamp Bats’ original board and an every-game regular, says it works because it was “done the right way from the start.”
The fact that the team is a nonprofit means “the source of the expenditures is the community,” Burns says. “And then, in all my years out here, I’ve not heard one four-letter word uttered. What public area of this size — anywhere — can say that?”
Small sacrifices; a business success
Watterson might say that such a story as the Swamp Bats could only be scripted in Keene — “a special city and a special place” that inspired him to return here to raise a family and start a career.
He could have settled in, lived quietly and snugly, and taken up golf. But he didn’t.
Instead, he brought prominence to a now highly successful local business, helping to grow it from the ground up; immersed himself in the community he so believed in by becoming a volunteer and advocate, especially for the less fortunate; coached and directed local youth sports teams and programs for more than two decades; and helped to turn a shared baseball dream into reality.
“Most people want to create,” Watterson says. “I know I always have.
“Baseball jazzes me; I’m a baseball guy. But in everything I do, I’m creating — trying to come up with something new, something different, something better.”
When Jeffrey A. Clarke, owner of Clarke Distributors in Keene, wanted to start a new company in 1982, he picked Watterson to help him make it happen. Before then, Watterson had spent five years managing the Cheshire Fair Association.
The company that Clarke started and Watterson runs, g. housen, today employs more than 150 people. Based in Brattleboro and with offices in Vermont and Massachusetts, the company delivers beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages to parts of New England.
Among the beverages it introduced to its market, before they became popular in these parts, were Snapple, SoBe, Vitamin Water and Honest Tea, Watterson says.
“Where we’ve been able to take that business, that’s what I’m most proud of,” says Watterson, the president of the company since it was formed.
His business instincts are regarded as spot-on and ahead of the curve, says Clarke Distributors President Richard W. Clarke.
“I think Kevin’s special trait is his ability to read people, and as far as running a business, he’s capable of adapting his style to what he thinks he’s reading,” he says. “That has served him well. He also has a great way of creating and building sustainable relationships. In this business, that’s it. In baseball, that’s it, too.”
Among his volunteer work, Watterson is chairman of the board of directors for Southwestern Community Services in Keene, which, among other things, provides housing for elderly and low-income families and directs local homeless and fuel-assistance programs.
In fact, he is a 25-year member of that agency’s board.
“He’s committed, and everything he touches is successful,” William Marcello, the agency’s CEO, says. “He cares about people and he’s not a rubber-stamp guy. He’s the one who is always asking, ‘How can we do what we do even better?’ ”
Marcello says when his agency sets up water stations for people in the homeless programs when the weather turns very hot, it’s Watterson who makes sure cases of water, from his company, are delivered, at no cost and without having to be asked.
“When someone who cares like that is part of the fabric of the community, then you know why it’s so special,” Marcello says. “Kevin leads by example. People don’t want to let him down because he works so hard.”
Lessons, priorities drawn from family
Watterson is the product of a hard-working, blue-collar family, he says. His parents were the “original 50-50 husband and wife” and his three brothers and a sister, like him, were inspired by their parents’ work ethic. Watterson says he has drawn most of his life lessons from his father, John, a one-time civic leader and longtime area baseball coach, who passed away in 2006, and his mother, Barbara.
All of the boys — Daryl, Brian and Toby being his brothers — excelled in athletics, in high school, in prep school and in college. All were baseball standouts in particular. His sister, Kim, competed in gymnastics.
“But academics came first,” Watterson says. “There was no room to fail in school; it wasn’t allowed.
“Athletics helped keep me between the guardrails, though, and kept all of us grounded.”
His competitive spirit never waned, he says.
“My desire to win, it’s a strength and a weakness. I never was a good loser.
“But I have matured.”
Watterson attended Keene High School and Phillips Exeter Academy and appeared headed to Brown University to play baseball. But when Bill Livesey left Brown to coach baseball and soccer at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Watterson followed him.
He had a solid career at the Division II level in baseball and soccer, and calls Livesey, who has been director of player personnel for the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, a mentor and “second father.”
Watterson himself found pro baseball scouting to be a “grind” — long hours, little pay. He dabbled in it after college, then he left, eventually returning to the Monadnock Region. He reconnected with an old high school friend, Heather Gemmell, they fell in love and married. They have two sons, Jon and Ryan, once baseball players, too. Jon, the eldest, played four years at Division I Princeton and was one of several local talents who have suited up for the Swamp Bats.
Watterson says he makes his on-the-go lifestyle work because he’s good at compartmentalizing, he doesn’t golf, and he’s “fortunate that Heather allows me the time to do these things. She believes in them, too.”
The Wattersons have been married 35 years.
“We do kiss each other goodbye in June and catch up in September, it’s really true,” Heather says of the Swamp Bats season. “I’ve gotten used to it. It’s easy, too, because he’s an incredible man, a hard worker and a family man.”
She says the only way she’s ever found to slow her husband down is to take him to Aruba, which they have done once a year for the past 10 years as a vacation destination of choice.
“The first few years we went,” she says, “cellphones didn’t get reception and there were no BlackBerrys. Now that he has one you’re not going to stop him from doing a little (Swamp Bats) recruiting anywhere, even in Aruba.”
Team turned overto its community
On occasion, you might find Watterson in straight-away center field at a Swamp Bats game, on the outside looking in. It might appear that he’s pausing to admire the product on the field, but he’s not. That’s too much like looking back.
“I’m trying to remember the next task, to think about what we might have forgotten that night,” he says. “And I’m out there sometimes to shake a lot of hands ... to thank our fans.”
Watterson says the allure of the Swamp Bats is easily explained.
“The atmosphere is always engaging at Alumni Field and the energy and the excitement that takes place on and off the field for those 2 hours and 20 minutes, it’s amazing.
“We’re just the stewards of the team now. It wasn’t that way early on. This is really the community’s team. That’s the beautiful thing, and that’s the way it should be.”