The Montpelier baseball team held three outside practices before its season opener at Peoples Academy on Tuesday.
It’s not a perfect situation for the Solons, but it’s better than some years when they had zero outdoor exposure during preseason.
“A few years ago we had a schedule like this and then we had some weather, and the last week of the season we played six games,” MHS coach J.B. McCarthy said. “That’s almost half your schedule in a week. But that’s what spring is here in Vermont. ... Most schools are in the same boat. And you don’t have a lot of pitching, so it’s hard to play five games in a week. You can play three competitively, but you just kind of hang on for the last couple. You pick and choose who you are going to throw.”
The Solons were unable to play an early-season game against Northfield due to unplayable conditions. Montpelier’s pitchers and catchers have been especially restless after holding their first practice on March 11. The remainder of the team hit the gym March 18.
“Typically you count on five to six weeks in the gym,” McCarthy said. “It’s a slow start for the sport. Last week, the high school field dried out really well, and we were outside a bit. I think there is a lot of sand under there. But the Rec Field is nothing but clay under that whole field, and it just takes a long time to dry out and get firm. They like to have it in somewhat good condition so we don’t get out there too early and beat it up for the Mountaineers. Everybody we play, they love to ask, ‘Do we get to play out there?’”
The Solons split their time between both fields and have the luxury of alternating venues to avoid overuse issues. McCarthy is an experienced grounds crew member for the Vermont Mountaineers, a New England Collegiate Baseball League team that plays at Recreation Field in the summer. The field was constructed in 1940, featuring a grandstand with a capacity of 1,200 seats, and in 1947, Hall of Famer Robin Roberts played there for the Twin City Trojans.
Recreation Field has been the Mountaineers’ home since 2003, drawing dozens of future MLB stars to the Capital City. It is one of the NECBL’s crown jewels, and this year the Mountaineers will host five straight games from June 5-12. High school players also jump at the chance to play there, but McCarthy has to exercise caution in order to keep the field in good shape for the long haul.
“I talked to a guy from Illinois who plays for the Mountaineers, and they don’t start their high school season until June when school is out,” McCarthy said. “They play their high school season in the summer. It makes a lot of sense.”
The Solons have grown accustomed to improvising during preseason, even if it means they don’t get to take full cuts at real baseballs. In past years, the team has used the tennis courts and parking lot as makeshift practice areas when the field is still not dry. Updating the daily practice schedule often involves last-minute arrangements depending on the forecast, and McCarthy knows his team can only accomplish so much without a playable field.
“We don’t have any netting in the gym, and even if we did it’s just not the same,” he said. “Taking ground balls off the gym floor, after the first couple of days it’s too easy for these guys because it’s so consistent. We don’t have a mound to throw off, and we can’t throw farther than 80 feet because basketball courts are 84 feet long. They are OK for probably about three weeks, because we do some different things. But after awhile they start to get anxious to get outside. We use the whole visualization techniques, which is good stuff, but they just want to play.”
The Solons work a lot on mechanics while inside, using soft-and-spongy balls that athletes can throw around with decent velocity. Players also spend a lot of time swinging a bat and attempting to eliminate any hitches. But when it comes to fielding, it’s difficult to simulate real-game situations.
“Angles aren’t the same and distances aren’t the same,” McCarthy said. “We don’t have 90 feet between bases in the gym. They all think they throw the ball hard in the gym. And we go outside this week and it’s, ‘Whoa, it’s a long way to second base.’ The first couple of days outside is kind of funny because their whole depth perception is off. Dealing with fly balls is a circus the first few days. But they get back into it and it doesn’t take long.”
Committing a few defensive miscues will be a forgivable offense when the Solons begin their season in trial-by-fire fashion. After taking on Peoples, Montpelier will travel to play U-32 on Thursday before visiting Oxbow for an 11 a.m. game Saturday.
“I keep telling them, ‘Don’t blink because it’s gonna be 70 degrees and we’ll be sitting in the sunshine and you’ll be complaining that it’s too hot,’” McCarthy said.