It’s been six years since the Keene Swamp Bats last won the New England Collegiate Baseball League title. The team remains, however, one of the most successful in the league’s quarter century, by any metric.
Debuting in 1998, the Bats led the league in attendance right from the start, setting a then-record at 33,111. It’s topped that mark almost every year since and remains among the league’s most popular franchises.
A great deal of that is due to the efforts the team’s leadership has made to integrate the Bats into the community — from letting fans choose the team name right out of the gate to making team mascot Ribby available for health and educational programs. The Swamp Bats, themselves a nonprofit enterprise, have loaned players, staff and interns to many local causes over the years. This year, in addition to the annual Reading with Ribby and Baseball Buddies programs that connect with young fans and players, the team partnered with The Sentinel to honor 50 top area high school sports stars.
The team has also invested in its home, paying for improvements annually at Alumni Field, and hosts the city’s annual Independence Day fireworks show.
The community has, in turn, embraced the team and its players. Each season dozens of locals open their homes to players from all over the country, feeding and welcoming them as host families. Area businesses offer them meals on game nights and jobs on free days, because, after all, they’re still college students in need of some spending money.
Perhaps none of that would matter if the team were a dud on the field. But such seasons have been few and far between. The team has won four championships and been a playoff contender far more often than not.
This summer is no different. The Bats finished the regular season at 26-18, which may win them the NECBL’s Northern Division — the North Adams SteepleCats played a double-header in Holyoke Friday night, needing to win both to catch the Bats. In any case, Keene will open the playoffs this weekend at Alumni Field.
And they’ll feature a potent offense, led by NECBL all-stars David Bedgood, who’s broken or tied multiple team records, and Randall Bednar, who led the team in RBIs and batting average. Overall, the Bats led the league in home runs, RBIs, slugging and total bases, finishing second in runs and fourth in batting average, at .280. On the mound, Luke Albright tied for the league lead in strikeouts, while the team led the league in that category and tied for most saves.
The Swamp Bats have gone into the postseason before as favorites and fallen short; they’ve gone in as afterthoughts and won. What will 2019 bring? We’ll find out starting this weekend.