A Ballpark Less Traveled
“Hi, my name is Paul, and I’m a ballpark addict.”
Now, while I’m pretty sure that there are no recovery groups out there to help those of us with ballpark addictions, I think that maybe there should be after my adventures this past weekend. Most of us are familiar with the symptoms of ballpark addiction-the obsession over schedules and maps, the planning and re-planning of road trips that might never be taken, the recording and cataloguing of every visit to every park.
The weekend of July seventh and eighth started off like many weekends do in the Baker household, with an innocent question from my wife; “where do you want to go this weekend?” Now, fortunately for me, my wife shares my passion for sports and traveling, and is more than happy to ride shotgun (ok, full disclosure-she usually drives) as we roam the northeast and beyond on our various adventures. Living in Massachusetts, there is no shortage of options from which to choose when confronted with a beautiful summer forecast. The issue usually boils down to two concerns: how far do we want to drive, and can we afford this trip?
For Saturday night, we settled on a visit to the Keene Swamp Bats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Keene plays their home games at Alumni Field, a ballpark which appears to have come straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, complete with a vintage 1940 wooden grandstand that runs along the first base line.
Keene is not a place you stumble upon by accident, and the ride there for us consisted of almost three hours of driving, much of it on country roads. When faced with a long Saturday night drive, we often opt for a Sunday game close to home. Our likely destination would be either the Pawtucket Red Sox or the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod Baseball League. Either drive would take no more than 45 minutes, and we could decide where we wanted to go on Sunday morning. Weekend plan completed.
Or was it?
As you may know, most ballpark addicts are unable to leave well enough alone, and feel the need to constantly tinker with even the most complete of itineraries. Naturally, I spent some free time poring over the schedules of nearly every team in New England. After all, you never know when you will be able to jam an extra game into your schedule. After a bit of searching, I found what I was looking for.
I asked my wife, “how about a doubleheader on Sunday?”
I had discovered not only a way to see two games on Sunday, but one was at a ballpark we hadn’t visited yet! Having visited every professional, Division One college and summer collegiate ballpark in New England, this was not an opportunity that often presented itself. The New Hampshire Wild of the Empire Pro Baseball League were playing a doubleheader on Sunday at their new home, the Warren H. Doane Diamond at Memorial Field in Concord, New Hampshire.
My wife was unimpressed. “I thought the Wild folded last year.”
She was right. The Wild, part of the fledgling Empire Baseball League, played in 2016 at Arthur and Martha Pappas Field on the campus of Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. We had actually attended a game there, rating the experience as one of the worst we had come across in our travels. It wasn’t that Pappas Field was a bad facility, it was that there were under 50 fans in attendance the night we went, and about a million mosquitos. Regulars told us that night was a “big crowd.” The Wild did not play in the 2017 season.
The Empire Baseball League was founded in 2016. It advertises itself as a league meant to give players just out of college or professional ball a chance to stay in shape and attract attention from affiliated or independent teams. Players pay to try out for the Empire League, and earn between $200-400. Housing is provided, but meals are not.
While not thrilled with the prospect of seeing a third Empire League game (We also went to an Old Orchard Beach Surge game at The Ballpark in 2016), she agreed after learning we could pair a visit to Concord with a visit to LeLacheur Park, home of the Lowell Spinners, another park we hadn’t visited in a few years.
Our usual preparations for a day trip involve, for me, the gathering of items I may need for the day (i.e. writing utensils, a camera, notebooks and business cards should I be doing a review for Stadium Journey that day), and for her, the gathering of more practical items, such as sweatshirts, sunscreen and a cooler with cold water. For some unknown reason, the cooler stayed behind this day.
After spending a postcard perfect evening in Keene the night before, we headed back to New Hampshire looking forward to another great day at the ballpark. The ride to Concord is an easy one, consisting of about two hours of highway driving. On a Sunday morning, the notorious Boston traffic is not an issue.
We pulled into the facility’s parking lot about ten minutes before gametime, only to come face to face with-a football stadium! There was no signage anywhere advertising that a ballgame was about to be played, or even that there was a ballpark anywhere in this complex. After taking a second to get our bearings, we figured out that the ballpark was a little further away from the lot, past some tennis courts across a grassy field. Not an ideal location or easy access.
From the outside, Warren H. Doane Diamond at Memorial Field looked just as advertised. Built in 1936 and renovated in 1999 in an unsuccessful attempt to lure the Watertown Indians, it’s a simple facility. It served as home to the Concord Quarry Dogs of the New England Collegiate Baseball League from 2001-2007, leading the league in attendance during their inaugural season.
The initial clue that we might have stumbled upon a unique experience was the presence of a rope strung along the exterior of the ballpark, about 25 feet beyond the back side of the bleachers. It was as if this rope was marking where a fence was supposed to be to separate the ballpark from its surroundings. It was akin to Les Nesman’s pretend office walls on WKRP in Cincinnati. All that was missing was a “Keep Out” sign. Some spare uniform parts were draped over the rope, as if they were drying in the sun.
A young man guarded the gap in the rope, and informed us that admission was five dollars. We paid and proceeded underneath the press box and into the ballpark. Doane Diamond has a quintessential New Hampshire feel, with a row of tall pine trees ringing the outfield fence. It’s a bare bones ballpark, consisting entirely of metal bleachers, with a good sized press box atop the seating bowl behind home plate. You could hear the familiar sounds of players warming up as you entered the ballpark, but it was quickly evident something was missing.
Empty Stands at Memorial Field. Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey.
The bleachers at Doane Diamond stretch from shallow left field around home plate to shallow right field, with a couple of gaps where the dugouts are located. Having been to a couple of Empire League games before, we weren’t expecting a big crowd, but even this surprised us. There was a family sitting out in the furthest right field bleachers, a small group of fans who had driven from upstate New York with the visiting Bucks behind home plate, and a few couples in attendance. A quick count during the national anthem tallied 11 fans in total. That figure would swell to 18 by the second inning.
My wife immediately quipped “maybe the fans are waiting for the second game.” I replied that I never thought I’d see a smaller crowd than we’d seen in Rindge, and we went about finding a place to sit. Since neither of us likes to look through netting, we headed down to the furthest bleachers on the third base side. We had the entire section to ourselves.
There is something great about being able to stand up and wander around a ballpark without blocking an entire section of fans. I quickly found a perch at the top of the bleachers, which I traded after an inning for a spot on the railing next to the field. No matter where you sat (or stood), you could hear the coaches instructing their players, catchers talking to the umpires, and players ribbing each other throughout the game. As a baseball junkie, it was heaven.
After a couple of innings on the aluminum bleachers getting baked by the hot July sun, we decided it was time to get a drink. Unfortunately, a quick tour of the grounds revealed no concessions. Remembering that there were a couple of soda machines by the rest rooms, we took the short walk over. No luck there, they were both out of order. After a quick discussion about leaving, we returned to the ballpark, with a few words to the unlucky young man who seemed to be the only person working at the game. For the next few innings I got to hear my wife talk about how these teams could make money just by having a cooler with bottles of water available to sell. As it always does, the conversation ends up about marketing and the long-term viability of a league that isn’t even smart enough to sell water on a 90 degree day. As someone who spent a dozen years working in stadium concessions, I must admit I enjoy egging her on.
Adding to our perverse enjoyment of the afternoon was the music selected between innings. “Rock and Roll All Night” by Kiss was played one break, but it wasn’t performed by Kiss. “Nothin’ But A Good Time” by Poison played, just not the Poison version. In the ultimate sacrilege, “Centerfield” was performed by someone other than John Fogerty. Unfortunately, Neil Diamond’s version of “Sweet Caroline” made the cut.
The visiting New York Bucks did little to add to the enjoyment level for the home fans, ending up with a 12-0 victory over the Wild. After spending two and a half hours in the hot sun with no refreshment, skipping out on the second game was an easy decision. As we reached our car, we turned around to see the entire Bucks team behind us headed to their cars. Not only did these young men have to drive themselves from Canton, New York to Concord, New Hampshire, they had to go buy themselves snacks at a local store between games.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, my wife said “when this team moves to another place next year, we’re going to skip that ballpark.”
I calmly replied “You know we’ll check it out at least for one game.”
She smiled and nodded. “Yeah, we will.”
And we were off to Lowell, where more than 18 fans waited.
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