Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 9, 2015

Light Years From The Show, The Great Game Goes On

It is a picture postcard of a summer Sunday afternoon, sunny and comfortably warm, with but a zephyr of a breeze. The downtown sidewalks of Portsmouth are busy with tourists as I step out of my front door. But as I make my short walk away from the center of town the crowds fall away. It’s an easy stroll of less than ten minutes to my destination. Cutting across the parking lot of Temple Israel, I head up Court Street to its intersection with Pleasant. Then down the latter for a block before angling right on Parrot Avenue, which curves around the South Mill Pond. Off to my left in the middle distance, atop the aptly named Hospital Hill, sits the hulking complex that once served the medical needs of area residents. With the old city-owned hospital long since sold to a national for-profit chain and relocated to a modern structure out by the Interstate, the buildings now serve as our municipal center, home to city hall and the police station while also providing office space for assorted non-profits.

My strides are away from Hospital Hill, around the tidal inlet that serves as the site of our local fireworks displays every July 3rd and New Year’s Eve. Even as I make the turn around the corner of the Mill Pond I hear from the distant loudspeakers a young female voice offering up a fine rendition of the National Anthem. Passing Little League diamonds and public tennis courts, I approach the old ballpark that is the heart of Leary Field, the city-owned athletic complex.

They have played the Great Game on this site for well over a century, since the days of the Portsmouth Baseball Club and the Atlantic Corporation league in the late 1800s. The field also played host to games of the Sunset League, organized in 1908 and still operating out of Concord, New Hampshire as the oldest amateur league in the country. Almost half a century has passed since the 1966 dedication that gave what had been called simply the South Playground a new name to honor an otherwise long-forgotten mayor from the 1950s. Along with a bronze plaque affixed to a granite obelisk that ceremony paved the way for construction of a covered wooden grandstand behind home plate. The dark green seating is still there, calling to mind a slower and simpler time. The grandstand is bordered by picnic tables scattered down the first base line and a newer metal grandstand along the third base side of the field.

The 14-year old chosen to sing the Star Spangled Banner has finished her job to cheers and applause from the 200 or so scattered about the various seating options as I hand over the $5 admission and find a seat. It’s the final day of the regular season for the Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England, and the Seacoast Mavericks, who have called Leary Field home for the past three years, are wrapping up play with a game against the Nashua Silver Knights.

Like the older and better known Cape Cod and New England leagues, the FCBL is a summer league of collegiate players who join to gain experience and hopefully exposure to major league scouts. The ten teams of the wooden bat league play 56 games, with eight of the ten then advancing to the playoffs. Half the members of each roster must have a local connection as either a New England native or by attending a college in the region.

The standings at the top of the FCBL’s East Division are tight, and playoff seedings will still turn on the outcome of some contests on this final day, but this game is not one of them. It’s been a tough season for the Mavericks, who take the field with a record of 15-40, easily the worst in the league. Our local heroes have lost six in a row and nine of their last ten. But that does nothing to diminish the warmth of the greeting that the players receive. Nor for that matter does the fact that this is not a meaningful game in the standings lessen the fervor of the 30 or 40 Silver Knights fans who have driven over from Nashua, accompanied by an air horn, a cowbell or two, and even a snare drum.

But if the Mavericks are wrapping up a disappointing season as a team, they have not lacked for fine individual performances. Austin French, a tall 21-year old senior at Brown University and native of Orange, Connecticut takes the Leary Field mound in the top of the 1st and proceeds to strike out the side. The three Ks give French 66 strikeouts on the year, which the public address announcer soon reveals is a new FCBL single-season record. By the time French leaves with one out in the 5th inning he will have added significantly to his new mark, fanning nine Nashua batters in all.

Nor is French the only member of the team having a great year. Just yesterday the league announced that left fielder Ryan Gendron, a native of Nashua and senior at Southern New Hampshire University was the winner of this season’s Most Valuable Player Award. Gendron starts his final day of play with a .320 batting average and 21 home runs. The latter number quickly increments by one when the 22-year old launches a towering 2-run shot over the scoreboard in left field in the bottom of the 1st to cap a 3-run opening at-bat for the home squad. Gendron will add a single in the 3rd and finish his season with 22 homers and a triple-slash line of .324/.458/.758.

But Gendron alone can’t carry the Mavericks, and French, like many young power pitchers, can also be wild. The early 3-0 lead becomes 4-1, but Nashua rallies to tie the game in the 5th, and then starts to pull away in the 6th, opening a 7-4 advantage. The home nine chips away, and manages to get as close as 7-6 after the 7th, before Nashua ices the contest with a late barrage.

The early evening summer sun has now slid behind the tall maples that abut the western boundary of Leary Field.  As the Seacoast Mavericks come up for their last licks trailing 13-6, the infield is in shadows. Were this a major league ballpark and the season’s final game of a last place team, no doubt there would be boos and catcalls from the few remaining fans. But here everyone has stayed and applause and cheers still ring out, on a lovely New England summer evening.

It’s about an hour’s drive south to Fenway Park; but in another sense that and every other major league stadium is on the other side of the baseball universe from Leary Field. For most, perhaps for all of these players, the dream will soon be put aside, and a career at “real” work will beckon. Numerous FCBL players have been drafted by big league franchises, though not one has yet reached the majors. Yet without a doubt, because in the Great Game all things are always possible, one day someone will. Until that day comes and even after it does the FCBL will continue to provide an opportunity for players who want only to play, and a timeless entertainment for those of us in the old wooden grandstand down by the Mill Pond.

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