A Keene Swamp Bats baseball game has a lot of moving parts, and the baseball, at times, can feel incidental. That’s what makes a summer night at Alumni Field watching the purple and black so much fun.
But, then, this is art perfected. It’s synchronized motion. Nothing unintended, just a family-friendly script perfected over more than two dozen years of, well — call it rehearsal.
Somehow, to a certain measure of amazement, the show just keeps getting better.
The 2019 edition was full, to say the least. Nearly 50 games were played, about half at home, as the hometown team vaulted into first place in its division in the closing stretch of the regular season, prevailed in a dramatic best-of-three divisional series, and then swept its way to a fifth New England Collegiate Baseball League title against the league’s formidable newcomer.
The Bats, as we like to call them, hadn’t won the Fay Vincent Cup since 2013. And, to make it sweeter, this year’s title marked the first celebrated at home, as Keene, on a night shrouded by dark clouds, intermittent rain and occasional lightning in the distant center-field sky, defeated Martha’s Vineyard at home 4-2, touching off a weather-delayed but spirited, late-night celebration.
Summer baseball is a grind, to put it lightly. The best chance for a day off is a rainout; players live with host families, often far from home; they do odd jobs in the community to make a few bucks; and in many cases a long collegiate season — never mind classes — precedes their arrival.
But that energy — the fan contests, the children’s on-field games, the ballpark food, the sponsor theme nights, the attention to the finest detail — is infectious. One does not need to be a baseball fan to enjoy a night out at a Swamp Bats game. It’s bigger than that, by design.
“You know,” Bats President Kevin Watterson said, “you really have to marvel at this community. There are so many great events, many of them just occurring once a year. We do this 22, maybe more, times a year, and on an off night — maybe it rains — we have 800 people here. For Fourth of July fireworks night, we have 5,000.”
If the nonprofit organization has a distinguishing feature, it is its sheer volunteer base and its hands-on board of directors, some of whom have been a part of the ride for all of the franchise’s 22 years.
Game-day setup and teardown is no small thing. And that motion — that intoxicating whirl of game-day animation and buzz — is unmatched. It’s a larger-than-life, high-fiving mascot named Ribby who goes into area schools and reads with children all year long; it’s a purple compact station wagon that buzzes around the field once a game so that fans along the perimeter can try to toss tennis balls into its netted windows and win prizes; it’s singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch; it’s face-painting and “Dash in the Grass” and ice cream, popcorn and hot dogs.
It’s also fastballs and long balls, comebacks and swinging strike threes. In some cases, it’s future big-league players doing what they do best on a small, intimate built-for-baseball stage in a quiet corner of the state.
This year’s team, it turns out, was one of destiny. It wasn’t dominant from the start, but the best team in the league did prevail. The squad featured eight league All-Stars, a pitching cast that Watterson described as maybe the best in franchise history, big bats and a flair for drama.
It featured, too, “great coaching,” Watterson said, which he called the hallmark of all of the previous Swamp Bats title teams. “We’ve always had good coaching, but this year we had coaches focused first on helping players get better. In my mind, after that, wins take care of themselves.”
The Bats’ title-clinching win was set up with a wild 14-10 win on the Sharks’ home field. Before that, the team survived a crazy-good series against the Valley Blue Sox of Holyoke, Mass., the Game 3 rubber match a hard-to-believe script.
Needing one more out, Keene surrendered three successive solo home runs that forced extra innings, fell behind in the top of the 11th, then rallied to win it in the bottom of the frame on Kyle Ball’s walk-off single. Each of the three games in the drama-dripped series was decided by one run.
Then, a night after the 14-run outburst, the Bats topped a two-run Sharks second inning with four in the bottom of the frame, three coming on a David Matthews’ home run. There was no further scoring. Jonathan Edwards and Marc Davis combined for 16 strikeouts. Power. Pitching. Drama.