Written by Matthew Rudnicki
For the past 27 years, professional baseball has been a celebrated attraction in Burlington until a Minor League reshuffling earlier this year thrust the Lake Monsters - Vermont's beloved hometown franchise - into an uncertain future.
In what was a lynchpin move for remaining in the state, English and the team inked a deal with the University Of Vermont to remain at Centennial Field, the legendary ballpark that has always been home to the Lake Monsters. A nationally renowned stadium built in 1906, Centennial Field has been host to thousands of players over the years, many of whom went on to careers in the Majors. "We signed a five-year lease and we're planning and hoping that we'll be here for many years to come," says Knudsen, who graced the field himself as a local High School player years ago.
With barely a month to prepare for the 2021 season, The Lake Monsters are hustling to get ready for opening day, scheduled on May 26th. Their 68 game season will be played within the independent Futures League, a high-level collegiate wooden-bat league formed in 2011. Even with the loss of an official MLB association, fans can expect great baseball, potentially surpassing the level of play in the now-disbanded New York-Penn league - the Class A Short Season league they formerly belonged to.
"The cool thing about the Futures League is it's independent," says Knudsen. "We have the ability to create as much fun and as much entertainment for the fans as we want to." Part of that will be the inclusion of a 10th inning home run derby, a fixture of the Futures League, should the game be tied. "You can definitely argue that this level of baseball is better than the Penn League," he adds, "which was geared towards younger players. These guys are pursuing their dream of hopefully playing professional baseball and making it to the Majors."
English and the team have big plans for expanding the fan experience at Centennial Field, already teasing major renovations for the 2022 season. A stadium club down the right-field line, farm-to-table dining, and close-up loge boxes on the field are a few of the perks attendees should hope to enjoy.
So what can fans expect for the 2021 season?
"It'll be the same logos, same uniforms, and the most important thing is Champ [the fan-favorite Lake Monster's mascot] is still going to be dancing on the dugout," says Knudsen. "From a fan perspective, it's going to feel and look identical." With 25-cent hot dog night, firework displays, and family-friendly movie showings in the mix, the summer is already shaping up to be a hit.
All details on the program can be found at vermontlakemonsters.com, as well as the most up-to-date protocols on navigating Covid. "Fan safety is our top priority," assures Knudsen, who says the club will abide by all state and city regulations. Expect to see hand sanitizer stations, regular disinfection of the stadium, and limited capacity seating until restrictions loosen up.
In what could have been the Lake Monster's final inning, Knudsen is relieved that the franchise has found a way to stay in Vermont. "Burlington is an awesome city for a thousand different reasons. You can literally feel the energy driving into town...it's palpable. We're very fortunate to have that."
As anticipation for the season's start grows to a feverish pitch, Knudsen looks forward to the start of a new chapter. "It's a perfect summer night out." he says. For fans of the sport, locals and visitors alike, the sentiment is shared.