Vermont's Renaissance Gains Steam With A's
—The Vermont Lake Monsters opened the New York-Penn League season with something new at the ballpark: an affiliate lined up for next year.
In June, the Athletics reached an agreement to extend their player-development contract with the short-season Lake Monsters. This long-term security for Vermont represents a huge turnaround from the previous decade, when owner Ray Pecor spent every-other September worrying about a new affiliation. When the Athletics approached the Lake Monsters several months before the original contract was set to expire, the team knew its turnaround was nearly complete.
In the fall of 2010, the future of the Lake Monsters franchise looked pretty dire. The University of Vermont had suspended its baseball program. Minor League Baseball notified Pecor that the team's facilities were in need of an upgrade, and the team's affiliation with the Nationals was about to expire. When Washington signed a new agreement with Auburn that fall, it came as no surprise.
"The Nationals didn't want to be here," Vermont vice president Kyle Bostwick said.
At the same time, Vancouver had pushed the Athletics out the door in the Northwest League in order to get more Canadian flavor with the Blue Jays. In a shotgun wedding of sorts, Vermont became an Athletics affiliate.
It was a dreary, cool autumn day when Oakland director of minor league operations Ted Polakowski first visited Centennial Field after the A's signed that first contract two years ago.
"Obviously, the field wasn't quite what we were used to," Polakowski said.
Despite the weather, and the obstacles ahead of him, Pecor had a sunny outlook. This included his vision for renovating the ballpark and a commitment to improve the experience for both players and fans.
At that time, Pecor and the Lake Monsters were working on a new long-term lease with the University of Vermont, which still owns the ballpark. The two parties would eventually agree to a 20-year lease with rent payments of $1 a year, a significant improvement on the series of one-year deals for about $45,000 a year that the team had been operating on.
While the new contract provides long-term security and saves the team money in rent payments, it also included an agreement for the Lake Monsters to pay for upgrades Centennial Field desperately needed.
"I'd rather pay $40,000 a year and have them pay for the improvements," Pecor said.
So over the past two years, the team has invested more than $1 million in the ballpark, including renovating the home and visiting clubhouses, replacing the lights and rebuilding the playing field. Pecor says he has more in mind.
"We are embarrassed by the dugouts," he said. "They are not professional dugouts."
Pecor says he is also committed to improving the fan experience at Centennial Field. The team has already replaced the old scoreboard with a state-of-the-art video board. Further potential improvements include seats closer to the action and replacing the concrete bleachers on the first-base and third-base lines with more comfortable seats, he said.
When asked about the tumultuous fall of 2010, both parties said they had their doubts about the relationship at first. The Athletics were looking forward to experiencing a new league, but had concerns about having one team so far away from the rest of their affiliates. Bostwick remembers calling Pecor with the news about signing on with the Athletics and being as surprised as anyone.
"We didn't know what we were getting into, and neither did they," he said.
Two years later, both front offices appear thrilled with the partnership.
"The people in that organization are committed to turning young men into ballplayers," Pecor said, citing a recent example of Oakland sending roving instructor Rickey Henderson to Burlington to teach the young ballplayers.
Polakowski was equally complimentary, crediting not only the work done to the facilities but also Vermont's dedication to making players feel comfortable. The primary concern turned out to be less of an issue than originally anticipated.
"It took about half a day to move a player from Vancouver, and Vermont takes a day," Polakowski said.