What did the sale of the Lake Monsters mean for Vermont baseball?
The sale of the Vermont Lake Monsters in 2021 would bring lots of changes. In some ways, it’s a story of renewal. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public's show that answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience, because we want our journalism to be more inclusive, transparent and fun.
In this episode, Vermont Public reporter Liam Elder-Connors walks us through the changes since the sale of Vermont’s most pro baseball team, and the traditions that have stayed the same.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio; for accessibility, we also provide a written version of the episode below.
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It’s Aug. 20, 2021. A crowd of 2,600 fills the stands at Centennial Field, one of the oldest baseball parks in the country.
It’s the top of the ninth inning. The team that plays here, Vermont Lake Monsters, are poised to do something they haven’t done in more than two decades: win a championship.
They’ve been leading the game, 3-0. But the Massachusetts-based Pittsfield Suns are making a comeback. The Suns have scored two runs here in the ninth inning.
That puts the Lake Monsters’ pitcher Chris Clark in a very tense spot. There are two outs. If he can get one more, then the game is over, and the Lake Monsters win. But there’s a runner on first and second base. One good hit could tie the game — or worse.
Clark looks at the batter. He steadies himself on the pitcher's mound and throws. The crowd roars.
Strike one. The catcher throws Clark the ball. He walks back to the mound, sets his feet in the dirt, and throws again.
Strike two. The Lake Monsters are a strike away from the championship. Clark takes the ball. He holds it behind his back, spinning it, positioning the ball in his hand. He brings the ball to the center of his body. Clark puffs his cheeks out and exhales. He turns his head once, twice — and throws. The batter swings. Strike three.
The entire Lake Monsters team pours out of the dugout onto the field, throwing themselves around Clark. They’re jumping, a frenzied mass that falls onto the ground, too excited to stand upright.
It’s a big night. This is the first time the Lake Monsters have won a championship since 1996. And it’s an even bigger deal because at the beginning of the year, it wasn’t clear that the team would even exist.
Meet our question-asker: Emma Ramirez-Richer
Emma Ramirez-Richer is today's question-asker. Emma grew up in Shelburne. She recently graduated from Middlebury College, and now, she lives in Burlington. She wrote to Brave Little State to ask:
“What does the sale of the Vermont Lake Monsters mean for the team, and what does minor league baseball mean to Vermonters?”
Emma’s question about the Vermont Lake Monsters goes back to last summer, when some news broke that the Lake Monsters were changing owners and changing leagues.
“They were on my radar, because of the selling of the team last year, the news that came out. I was like, oh, man, I haven't seen one of those games for a long time, I wonder what they're all about,” Emma says. “Because that was definitely a part of my childhood.”
Until the Lake Monsters were sold in 2021, they’d been a professional Minor League team, and the sale would bring lots of changes. We’ll get to those changes. But Emma’s curiosity goes back to her memories of going to games as a kid.
“When I was little, I just assumed that the Lake Monsters were a way bigger deal than they were, because they were like, the team that my dad would go take me to see, and we'd root for them,” Emma recalls. “And we’d wear the baseball cap. And … [I] never really understood baseball, but I found it to be, like, a duty. I had to go watch them, root for them, and eat Dippin’ Dots.”
Emma has more general questions. Like: Is the team less relevant in Vermont? And what does the sale mean for the fans?
We decide to do a little investigating together. Naturally, we begin with a game.
The Game, Part 1: The fans
Emma and I meet up on a Saturday night at Centennial Field, to see the Lake Monsters' final home game of the regular season. It’s really hot and muggy, and rain has just come through. The team has dominated this year, winning more than 40 games. Tonight, they're playing the Brockton Rox out of Massachusetts,
“It looks like no one expected it to be canceled,” Emma says. “Even though we just had a torrential downpour, everyone showed up.”
It’s about an hour before the opening pitch. Emma and I wander back and forth on the pavement behind the stadium, past the beer tent and an old shipping container that’s been converted into a wood-fired pizza joint.
We’re looking for some people who can help answer Emma’s question about what the sale of this team means for fans. The first fan we meet is Dan Gillen.
“It's a great fun for the families,” he says. “And it's rather comfortable, price-wise. Plus you get to meet the people from the local community.”
Single game tickets cost $9. Dan’s got season tickets, which range from $125 to about $400, depending on where you sit and how early you buy your pass. Dan is a regular at Centennial Field. He’s been coming since the 1980s. I asked him what he likes most about coming to the games.
“Well, just seeing up-and-coming individuals. I enjoy watching pitching, hitting, who appears to have what it takes to move on,” Dan says. “And over the years seeing Ken Griffey here and stuff, I think he was here three games, four games. We both looked and said, 'This guy’s not going to be around here too long,' just the way he caught the ball in the outfield, ran, hit. It was an amazing thing.”
Dan is referring to Ken Griffey, Jr. You might have heard of him. He’s one of the best home run hitters in Major League Baseball and an excellent defensive player. At the start of his career, he briefly played in Vermont on a team that was a precursor to the Lake Monsters.
Dan says one difference he sees now with the new Lake Monsters team is that the players appear more supportive of each other.
“...If somebody makes a bad play, good play, they come out and reassure,” Dan says. “It's not ‘Oh, look what you did. You struck out with the bases loaded.’ They kind of support each other. We like that. It's more like a caring situation.”
Not everyone at the ballpark tonight is as devout a fan. Some people, like Blake and Stephanie Kruger, are just here to hang out — and see a little bit of baseball.
“I like that the beers are cheap and the food's cheap and the tickets are free [for] health care professionals tonight,” Blake says.
I asked him straight up if he likes baseball.
“God it’s boring — ha, cut that!” Blake jokes. “I don’t know. I like supporting a local team, right? It’s fun to do that. I got the shirt.”
“I really don’t have much to add,” Stephanie says. “I am incredibly warm without the canopy, but excited to watch the game and get these drinks down.”
And then, sort of in between the hard-core fans and the recreationalists, you’ve got people like Jordan Litner and Alexa Ing Litner.
They come to a few games a year — enough games to have their own secret parking spot.
“We go to a side street parking spot we always take,” Jordan says.
“We’ve said too much!” Alexa jokes.
When Jordan and Alexa come see the Lake Monsters, they’re here for the whole experience. From the food (“The Lake Monsters pizza is the best tasting pizza around,” Jordan says) to the entertainment (“The hot dog and ketchup race, because they do a very good job pretending to like fall down and stuff," Alexa adds).
And of course, actually watching the game.
“Last year and this year, they're actually really good. It's fun to watch them win again,” Alexa says.
“Yeah they just totally dominated the last two seasons," Jordan adds.
Jordan and Alexa moved to Vermont from Manhattan, shortly before the pandemic. And Jordan says having a team like the Lake Monsters adds some vibrancy to Vermont.
“I'm just very grateful the Lake Monsters were bought and, you know, survived through the minor league cuts, and we have baseball in Vermont.”
How we got here:
What Jordan is talking about — the Lake Monsters surviving the minor league cuts — is an important part of this story. It’s actually how the team ended up getting sold in the first place. But to understand that part of the story, we need to get into some history.
Baseball has been played professionally in Vermont for a long time. There’s a league that dates back to the early 1900s. The Lake Monsters started in 1994, though at the time, they were the Vermont Expos.
Now, we can’t tell this story without getting a little into the weeds about how professional baseball is organized.
The highest level of professional baseball is Major League Baseball, known as the MLB. That’s teams like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. Then, below those teams you have Minor League Baseball, and each MLB team has minor league teams that are part of their franchise. Those minor league teams, sometimes called farm teams, are where they develop young players or where players rehab after an injury.
In 1994, the Vermont Expos were a minor league team that was affiliated with the Montreal Expos. And at first, the Vermont Expos were pretty good.
“The Expos franchise started in 1994. [In] 1994, 1995, 1996 they made the playoffs. [In] 1996, they won the championship of the league,” says Rich Haskell. He’s the announcer at the Lake Monsters games, a job he’s had since the franchise started in 1994.
“And everybody for three years just basked in nothing but winning all the time. And they just assumed it would continue.
“Well, for the next 20 plus years, that franchise for the most part was a disaster. As far as winning and losing, crowds still showed up. Everybody loved the team, everybody loved Champ, but there was a lot of losing," Haskell says.
In 2003, the Vermont Expos had a terrible season — they only won 19 out of 75 games. C.J. Knudsen, the current vice president of the Lake Monsters, was the general manager of the team at the time. In an attempt to inspire the slumping team, Knudsen vowed to sleep in the home dugout until the team won a game.
“The first night of my slumber, I was getting ready to fall asleep and all of a sudden a big skunk ran into the dugout. And so I didn't get any sleep at all that night,” he says. ”And seagulls start waking up around four in the morning, and the light towers are blowing in the wind, and you have a cemetery [near] right field. So lots of lots of eerie random stuff.”
Knudsen slept in the dugout for seven nights until the team finally won a game.
In late 2004, the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D.C., where they were renamed the Nationals. That meant the Vermont Expos needed to change its name, and they asked the fans to help. The New York Times reported that contenders included the Maplebombers, the Green Mountain Boys — and my favorite, the Howlin’ Howards — a nod to Gov. Howard Dean’s infamous shout during his 2004 presidential bid.
Ultimately, the team went with the name they have today: The Lake Monsters. And for the next 13 years things didn’t change much. The team did switch their affiliation from the Washington Nationals to the Oakland Athletics, but every summer fans could count on baseball at Centennial Field.
Then, in 2019, trouble started brewing.
“Basically, for a really long time, more than 100 years, you'd had this system where Minor League Baseball was independently operated as its own entity.”
Says another Emma — Emma Baccellieri. She covers baseball for Sports Illustrated. She says there was a longstanding agreement between Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball, and it was basically a deal that laid out how the two leagues were connected to one another. But it “kept them as separate groups that operated independently.”
Baccellieri says that in 2019, when that agreement was up for renewal, the MLB decided it was time to end the deal.
“Instead, it kind of wanted to just let the agreement lapse and then have Major League Baseball take over the operations of Minor League Baseball," she says.
Baccellieri says MLB made several arguments for consolidation. The organization said it would be more cost efficient, that things would be streamlined and it would be a better experience for players, including boosting pay for minor league players — a long standing issue.
“But part of what they had signaled at the end of 2019, going into 2020, was, if we do this, also, a lot of teams will disappear ... At least 40 teams will be cut as part of this streamlining, cost-cutting process.”
The Lake Monsters were one of those teams. In December 2020, it was official: The Lake Monsters got dropped from the Minor Leagues.
The saleFor a few months, the future of the Lake Monsters was not looking good. But then, as you may have guessed, the team did not disappear. Instead, they were bought by a businessman named Chris English.
“It's sort of been a passion of mine to use, sort of, resources that I get in my sort of day job, and invest in communities that, where, baseball can be, you know, fun, or where it needs to be, you know, revived,” English says.
English also works in finance, including founding a company called RockFence Capital. According to an article in Sportico, RockFence provides loans to baseball players. The players then pay back the loan, plus interest, to the company using their future earnings. If they leave baseball they don’t pay back the loan.
Similar companies have been criticized for taking advantage of financially desperate players. There are no specific allegations like that about RockFence — in fact, there’s little public information about the company.
English, citing non-disclosure agreements, won’t say much about it.
“We work with elite Major League Baseball players on their, you know, helping them with their on- and off-field, you know, financial performance,” English says.
The Lake Monsters are not the first team that English has owned. Most recently, he owned the Massachusetts-based Brockton Rox, who the Lake Monsters now play against.
English no longer owns the Brockton Rox. He sold them after he bought the Lake Monsters. According to ESPN, English bought the Lake Monsters franchise from Ray Pecor, their original owner, for $1 million — far lower than what similar teams have sold for. For example, in 2011, the Staten Island Yankees, who played in the Lake Monsters’ old league, sold for $8 million, according to court records.
English is originally from Montreal, but he has ties to Vermont. He has family in Shelburne and he owns a house in South Woodstock. He’s also been interested in the Lake Monsters for a while.
“For years, I had asked people in the Burlington area whether Ray would ever consider selling the team. And the answer was always no, no, no, no, that's just Ray’s thing. He loves it,” English says.
I asked him what vision he pitched that got Ray Pecor to sell.
“I think, number one, that we would be as committed to investing in the community and investing in the ballpark, and keeping the traditions the same — keeping the culture what it is,” English says. “It's still small-town community baseball, but having the financial resources to make sure that it is going to be here for 10 or 20 years.”
Meet the Monsters
When Chris English bought the Lake Monsters, he basically had to rebuild the team from scratch.
“We started March 15, with no staff, no roster, no nothing.” English says.
English started to hire people to manage the team, including C.J. Knudsen.
Then, of course, they needed players. And here is where the new Lake Monsters are different. Before, when the Lake Monsters were a minor league team, they had no control over who played for them – the major league affiliates just sent them players. Now, Knudsen says, the Lake Monsters' front office gets to pick their team:
“Yeah, we actually scout and recruit the players.”
All the players are all college students — that’s another difference. When the Lake Monsters were bought they joined a new league called the Futures League. There are eight teams in the league, all based in New England, and everyone on the teams must be a college player.
“It allows them to maintain their skills, or even improve their skills during the summer as opposed to taking the summer off,” Knudsen says. “It allows them to get seen by a lot of professional scouts.”
More than 150 Futures League players and alumni have been drafted by major league teams, according to the league’s website.
And here’s a big part of the answer to Emma's question about what changed when the team sold: Money.
The players on the Lake Monsters aren’t paid. College athletes in all sports aren’t paid. This is a rule put in place by the NCAA, an organization that regulates college sports. However, recent court rulings have started to change that in limited ways.
Players pay $1,000 a season to play on the team. More than half of the fee covers housing, which includes paying local families who host out-of-state players. The rest of the money covers food.
English, the team’s owner, says there are scholarships for players if they can’t afford the team fees.
“No player who wants to play and has the skill to play would not be able to afford playing here,” English says. “To answer your question — yes, we have scholarships.”
English says the team also plans to develop relationships with historically Black colleges around the county. He says it’s part of an effort to make the Lake Monsters a more diverse team.
Major change number two: There are actually players from Vermont on the Lake Monsters.
“To be here — now it's, looking back on it — it's kind of just, it's surreal,” says Wyatt Cameron, a pitcher on the Lake Monsters. “Honestly, like, I ... wouldn't have never imagined it. [It's] unbelievable, the best thing, probably, baseball-wise, that's ever happened to me.”
Wyatt grew up in Salisbury and his grandparents took him to Lake Monsters games as a kid. He says he never imagined that one day he’d be playing on Centennial Field — so he says to be here, as a pitcher for the Lake Monsters — it’s a big deal for him.
“Just as many years as I can play here in front of the crowd, be in the hometown, you know, just the home state. Just something about it, just, it's different. There's nothing better than it.”
The Futures League, where the Lake Monsters play, requires all its teams to have a certain number of players from New England or New England colleges. That means Vermonters have a pretty good chance of getting on the team.
“There is opportunity now ... because being from Vermont, you're always looked at as, like, ‘Oh, you're just from Vermont, like, you probably can't really play baseball that well, ‘“ Wyatt says. “ Like, you don't have the experience that a lot of these other guys have. But now we've got that experience. We've got that opportunity and you just got to use it.”
Wyatt isn’t the only Vermonter on the team this year who dreamed about playing for the Lake Monsters. Tanner Wolpert, also a pitcher, is from Williston. He says he never thought he’d get to put on the Lake Monsters uniform.
“For me, like, the little kids running up to you, it's hard to, like, wrap your head around that, because you used to be those little kids.
“But then you sort of started just like gaining respect for that. And, it's more like playing for the state instead of playing for your team. I guess, like, you're representing Vermont.”
Tanner says sometimes kids ask for shin guards, bats and gloves from the players. And that when they do — it’s “pretty cute.”
Does he really give them his shin guards?
“No, unfortunately not," he says. "But it's always really hard to turn down the kids because, you know, they look up to us like we're still minor leaguers — like professional athletes. So it's definitely hard to say no, sometimes.”
Something else that’s different about the new Lake Monsters: They’re winning, and winning a lot. During their first season in the Futures League they won 42 games, and were the league champions. This year, during the regular season, they won 44 games, nearly 70 percent of their games. And they made it to the league championship for the second year in a row – but lost the final game.
The team has also upgraded the ballpark, including new 16-seat box suites that cost $1,600. English, the owner, says most of the stadium upgrades are done, though he says they’re hoping to add a few "tiny-house" style concession stands.
“It'll be a cute little area, like a little village, English says. “But other than that the ballpark in great shape we're drawing now almost as much as per game as the Lake Monsters did in their heyday.”
So, those are some of the things that changed since the sale of the Lake Monsters. But for all that’s different, there are lots of things that have stayed the same: the uniforms, 25-cent hot dog night — and, of course, the mascot.
“I say the exact same thing for 27 years, you know, ‘Up from the depths of Lake Champlain, there he is, it's Champ!’” says Lake Monsters announcer Rich Haskell. “‘Bad to the Bone’ plays, Champ comes out, we put the hex on the other team's dugout. Every night for 28 years has been the exact same process.
“Every year, we kind of look at each other in the press box and I say to the sound guy, Jim, ‘Should we maybe play something other than 'Bad to the bone'? You know what would happen if we didn't play 'Bad to the bone’? We'd have 10 people in that press box within five seconds.”
The Game, Part 2: 'I still feel that pride'
Back at the game, our winning question-asker Emma and I indulge in some nostalgia: Dippin’ Dots, one of Emma’s favorite ballpark snacks from her childhood. I’ve never had them.
“They’re an experience,” Emma says. “Like — don’t expect ice cream.”
We get to the cart and order two cups of Rainbow flavored Dippin’ Dots, which look like multi-colored frozen pebbles. I’ll admit, I found Dippin’ Dots to be a little weird – both in taste and texture. They were also incredibly cold – that trait is probably due to how Dippin’ Dots are made: freezing ice cream mix in liquid nitrogen.
Anyway, Emma and I finish our frozen snack as the game gets underway.
“I don't get it, because it's just, like, people throwing balls around and running around, and I never caught on,” Emma says. “So, I like this part, which is the walking around and seeing people you know, and eating good food.
“I like to not feel alone in that, I'm not the only one who doesn't get baseball," she says. "But I feel like I still feel that pride, and I wear my hat with pride.”
With that, Emma joins her friends to watch the Lake Monsters. Tonight’s game is a close one. At the bottom of the ninth inning the score is tied 4-4 until Brian Schuab comes to bat. You can feel the crowd in those moments, hanging on to each pitch, waiting and trying to will Schuab to hit the ball out of the park.
And tonight — he does.
Thanks to Emma Ramirez-Richer for the great question.
Liam Elder-Connors reported this episode. Angela Evancie produced it and did the mix and sound design. Engineering support from Peter Engish, and additional editing and production from the Brave Little State team: Myra Flynn, Josh Crane and Angela Evancie. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Kate Phillips and Kevin Trevellan.
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