Out to the ballgame

In the summertime, nothing beats the sight of baseball players on a field of green in front of a red barn.

Swamp Bat Mobile

Okay, that building isn’t a barn, it’s a carriage house. But it’s barn-red, and it makes a picturesque and quintessentially New England backdrop for the Keene Swamp Bats, who on Friday night sent the Concord Quarry Dogs home yelping with their tails between their legs.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, summer is finally here: on Friday night, I took myself out to the ballgame.

Swamp swag for sale

If you don’t live in or around Keene, you’ve probably never heard of the Keene Swamp Bats. Like an obscure musical that is off, off, off Broadway, the Swamp Bats are more minor than the Minor Leagues, but bigger than Little. The Bats belong not to a league of their own, but to a league you’ve probably never heard of: the New England Collegiate Baseball League, which consists of twelve teams in six New England states. NECB players are the real Boys of Summer: college ballplayers from NCAA-member schools who volunteer to go somewhere other than home for the summer, playing ball for teams with colorful names like the Manchester Silkworms, Torrington Twisters, and North Adams Steeplecats.

For towns like Keene that don’t have major or even minor league sports teams, the college players who visit every summer become adopted hometown heroes. Swamp Bats live with local families, work part-time jobs in the community, and otherwise act like typical home-for-the-summer college kids…except they don’t come from around here. This year, Keene’s roster includes players from schools such as Georgia Tech, the University of Pittsburgh, and Clemson, with no fewer than five Swamp Bats originally hailing from my home state of Ohio.

Cheap seats

Whether it’s the perpetual appeal of an all-American pastime or the fact that there isn’t much to do in Keene on a Friday night, locals come out in force to root, root, root for the hometeam. Friday night was clear and mild, attracting a crowd of 2,945 fans to Alumni Field. If this doesn’t sound like an impressive turn-out by major league standards, keep in mind that these are college “amateurs,” and Keene has a population of 20,000. When’s the last time you went to a ballgame where more than a tenth of the town showed up in the stands?

Baseball balloon

And loyal Swamp Bats fans don’t just show up…they dress and buy the part, decking themselves and their kids with purple and black SwampWear. At Friday’s game, folks in the bleachers, grandstand, and sidelines lawn chairs were sporting Swamp Bats hats, shirts, and jackets while roaming throngs of children clutched black or purple balloons, souvenir bats, and other Swamp Swag. The Swamp Bats might be a team you’ve never heard of, but here in Keene they have an enthusiastic following of fans who either appreciate a night of good clean fun or recognize a cheap date (tickets $3 apiece) when they see it.

So, how was the game? As Saturday’s Sentinel article proclaimed, the Swamp Bats scored “early and often,” racking up in the first inning alone nine runs toward their eventual 11-3 win over the Quarry Dogs. So while the beloved Red Sox were spanking the Yankees in Boston (a game whose scores were announced over the loudspeakers at Alumni Field), Keene’s beloved Purple Sox were strutting their stuff in the setting sun.

Purple sox

Freddy T leads a kids' conga line

But any given ballgame is only partly about the game and the grown fans it attracts. Swamp Bats games are popular with families largely because of the goofy on-field games and contests that keep youngsters entertained between innings. At Friday night’s game, a semi-feral herd of youngsters roamed from stands to concessions and back while their parents sat chatting with friends and neighbors: a chance to catch-up with other grownups while the kids found whatever minimal mischief is possible at a family-friendly event. Whether competing in a shoe-fetching relay race with Swamp Bats mascot Ribby or parading around the stands in a sombrero-wearing conga line led by emcee Freddy T, young fans had plenty to keep them occupied during the game’s down times.

And in case you think Keene teens are too cool for such frivolous frolics, there was a high school contingent at the game, undoubtedly drawn by a desire to find Something to Do on a Friday night. In addition to the kids and families at the game, I saw one group of high schoolers led by a teen sporting a spiked mohawk and black “Abortion is Mean” T-shirt. Encountering a clean-cut kid with a “Rock for Life” T, Mr. Mohawk complimented him on his attire. “Did you buy that at SoulFest,” one teen asked the other. “Naw, I got it online,” the other responded, proving that you will know they are Christians not by their haircuts but by their pro-life T-shirts.

Ribby makes friends

My favorite image from Friday’s Swamp Bats game had nothing to do with baseball itself, occurring well before the first pitch as fans queued into Alumni Field. What’s more quintessentially wholesome than a summer baseball game where a proud Big Brother can show a beaming Little Brother that meeting a huge baseball-loving chiropteran isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds? If baseball fans are made, not born, I suspect Ribby made more than a few lifelong fans through his furry extroversion.