There are many Americans who feel baseball is no longer “the national pastime,” that it’s been eclipsed in popularity by faster-moving sports and, more broadly, by time spent staring at devices — TVs, cellphones, tablets or other screens.
At the highest level, the sport’s executives are scurrying to figure out ways to quicken the pace of the game, the better to maintain the attention of fans for a full game. Of course, that there is no clock rushing the action is one of the attractions of baseball. George Carlin noted baseball is pastoral, compared to the rigidly timed play clock of football. It’s one of the things that sets baseball apart: The game seems almost — though not quite yet — anachronistic. Like sitting down for hours with a good book, it’s something that takes you away from the bustle of modern life for a while.
And that’s exactly its magic. For those who appreciate it, an evening spent watching a game is unlike most other 21st-century American entertainment options. And so it is in Keene and other cities and towns that host the New England Collegiate Baseball League, marking its 25th season.
Here, where the Keene Swamp Bats have been a mainstay for more than two decades, an evening at Alumni Field is memorable for many things.
It brings the smell of popcorn, hot dogs and fries.
It entails setting up folding chairs along the third base line — and bringing a glove, because those line drives move pretty fast.
It’s keeping an eye on the kids as they play catch beyond the first-base grandstand. It means teenagers strolling along outside the fence, the unofficial summertime place to see and be seen, while occasionally dodging foul balls.
It’s watching the sky to see the colors of a summer sunset over Wilson Pond or gauging whether those darkening skies mean a passing storm is heading this way.
Maybe best of all, it means the sounds of the game: the cheers and groans of the fans; the varied snippets of players’ walk-up music; the occasional thump of a home run smacking the side of the red barn in right field. And it means one of the unique sounds in sports, or elsewhere: the crack of a wooden bat meeting a leather-bound baseball thrown at speeds of up to 100 mph.
That’s a sound no longer heard in very many settings. Leagues from tee-ball through college have mostly abandoned wood bats for aluminum versions that last longer and add a little bit of zip to hits. One of the most valuable features of NECBL play for hitters is getting used to the feel of wood bats before — they hope — they head to baseball’s minor leagues and maybe even the majors.
The Swamp Bats open their 2019 season Wednesday evening at Alumni Field, weather permitting. If the forecast showers interfere, they’ll start Thursday.
Over the Swamp Bats’ history, they’ve won four New England Collegiate Baseball League championships and have more often than not been a playoff contender. They’ve sent many payers on to the pro ranks, including a handful of major-leaguers. And the behind-the-scenes core, from Kevin Watterson and Vicki Bacon on down, has been the model for how to run a small-city nonprofit team.
They’ve also perennially been among the New England Collegiate Baseball League leaders in attendance. Given that the league includes picturesque fields in Newport, R.I., and Mystic, Conn., among its settings, that’s no small feat. But right from the start, the Monadnock Region, an area with a long baseball history, took to the Bats — including welcoming the players into their homes and giving them summer jobs. It’s been a great fit all along.
Television ratings might bear out the sport’s declining influence nationally, but there’s little doubt there remain baseball “hotbeds,” and Keene is among them.