It's been two years since the MLB dropped the Lake Monsters, but they're doing real well in the Futures League
It’s been two years since Vermont’s Minor League Baseball team joined the Futures Collegiate Baseball League — a move that means the players on the field are in college, and not part of the pipeline that often feeds minor league players through to the bright lights of the big leagues.
The shift, thanks to a decision by Major League Baseball to cut back on the number of minor league teams they support, was frustrating for Vermonters used to seeing potential future major leaguers play in the Green Mountain State.
However, in the first year of the league change, the Lake Monsters rewarded the fans who did come out to the ballgame with a championship title — the first for a Vermont-based team in a quarter century.
The Lake Monsters still play their home games in one of the oldest baseball parks in the country, UVM’s Centennial Field, built in 1906. And the team has a winning record so far in the early days of the 2023 campaign.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with C.J. Knudsen, senior vice president of the Vermont Lake Monsters. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Now, two years in, how are you feeling about the Lake Monsters playing in the Futures League? And maybe more importantly, what's the fan reaction been like?
C.J. Knudsen: Well, it's been fantastic. On the field we've had great success. Off the field, we've had even better success. We're drawing a ton of fans. This year, we might end up reaching that 100,000 mark for attendance.
At the time that you and I are speaking, the Lake Monsters are coming off a big win against the New Britain Bees in which the team pounded out 19 hits and a 13-4 win. One of the many players who had a big night at the dish is from Vermont. What can you tell us about Tyler Wells and maybe some other players that Vermont baseball fans should be looking out for with the potential for a big year this year?
Yeah, now more than ever, we're Vermont's team. We have about eight guys from Vermont: Tyler Wells from Danville, Vermont goes to New Haven. We have Colby Brouillette from Georgia, Vermont, Ryan Eaton that goes to Manhattan. We've got some guys from Middlebury College. So literally it's awesome you know, we're having Vermonters play for us. And then we have guys from D-1 national powerhouses that will get drafted and play Major League Baseball, so it's the best of both worlds.
And so to be clear, just because there's no longer this automatic pipeline — in other words, the Lake Monsters used to be the Single-A affiliate for the Oakland A's — there is still the potential for a player who really tears it up to maybe get to the big leagues one day?
Without a doubt. I think probably the first guy that will make it to the big leagues if he stays healthy is Ethan Anderson. He played for us in 2021. He goes to Virginia. He's definitely on the charts to get drafted here in the next year or two. He's a catcher, switch-hitting catcher. And he's also the number one pro prospect that came through the Futures League in 2021. So you're definitely gonna see some guys that are playing for the Vermont Lake Monsters playing for Major League Baseball in a few years.
I'm curious about how many of the new rules adopted by Major League Baseball are also at play in the Futures League. Things like the new pitch clock, the automatic runner placed on second base to start extra innings, prohibition on the infield shifts, things like that.
Yeah, actually, the only one that really we enacted this year for this league is the pitcher's clock. So the 20-second rule is in effect, which we unfortunately violated twice on opening day. So the pitchers are still getting used to it.
But so do a lot of the Major League players, they were not immune to that either!
Exactly. That's really the only change. So we’re still using the standard bases, as opposed to the large pillow bases that Major League Baseball uses. But you know, it's still America's pastime, and fans are loving it. And the players absolutely love being in Vermont, especially the ones from out-of-state, obviously they fall in love with Vermont, and Burlington’s a pretty fun place to spend the summer as a college kid.
And are they put up by local folks in homes? I mean, how do they spend the summers here?
Yeah, pretty much all of them are living with host families, which is unbelievable. These host families have opened up their hearts and their homes to house these players from all across the country. And the host family program has been in effect, really since 1994. And this year, we actually have more host families than players. And so it's quite the experience for everybody.
"[W]e're having Vermonters play for us. And then we have guys from D-1 national powerhouses that will get drafted and play Major League Baseball, so it's the best of both worlds."C.J. Knudsen, Vermont Lake Monsters
I have to turn to some sadder news now. Head Coach Pete Wilk was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. He's undergoing treatment as I understand it. Can you tell us a little bit about how he's doing? How's the team handling that tough news?
Yeah, he's our skipper. We got that sad news from Pete, it came in during the offseason. He's battling right now. His spirits are definitely high. He was hoping to be up here for mini-camp, which started a couple days before opening day. It doesn't look like he'll join us until maybe another week or two. But we're obviously thinking about him all the time. He's still our manager. We can't wait for him to get up here. But he's definitely ready to come back to Vermont with his family and lead the Lake Monsters this summer.
How are things being handled on an interim basis as far as coaching goes?
Right now, our pitching coach Matt Fincher is really kind of leading the charge, but he's also using [Pete] Wilk’s techniques as a coach, and they're in communication daily. And so Matt's really stepped up along with our other coaching staff, and our players and the community. This is obviously super difficult to deal with, from a baseball standpoint, and at the end of the day, from a personal standpoint. We love Pete. Pete was the manager of the year two years in a row, 2021 and 2022. He's our guy, and we can't wait for him to come up here.
And we are going to do a play-for-Pete day at the ballpark where we're going to wear purple uniforms that all say "Wilk" on the back, with his number, and we're going to auction those off to help raise funds for his GoFundMe page.
And when is that happening? What game is that C.J?
I believe it's going to be on July 8.
And the thing that we're really excited about this year, Mitch, is hosting the All-Star game, the All-Star game is taking place on Tuesday, July 25. The last time there was an All-Star game at Centennial Field was July 14, 1986, almost 37 years ago. And so our great baseball fans in Vermont deserve it. And that's going to have a huge impact for the entire area, entire region.
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