Suns and ’Cats bring fans out for summer baseball
photos by Gregory Cherin
Nothing says summer like the crack of a bat, the thwack of a glove, or the joy of a long ball sailing over centerfield. Who can resist the seventh-inning stretch, standing up to shake a leg, belt a strain of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and crunch a few peanut shells underfoot? It’s summertime in the Berkshires, and that means play ball.
The Pittsfield Suns and the North Adams SteepleCats are two collegiate-league baseball teams that play a summer season in our region. Both organizations stress skill development and keeping players healthy. Both have also successfully advanced a handful of players to the majors. Collegiate leagues are similar to minor leagues because professional scouts closely monitor both. They’re different, though, because the minor leagues are professionally affiliated, with players collecting a check for their efforts. Collegiate-league players are college students who must maintain an amateur status and so don’t get paid. Most of these student athletes are from Division I universities.
One exception is Bobby Kinne, who plays third base for the Suns. Kinne is a freshman at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, a Division III school. He graduated from Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington in 2014. “It’s a great learning experience,” he says. “The players have a lot of talent, and the coaches really know the ins and outs of the game.” Kinne is staying with his folks during the season.
Other players are being hosted by families who volunteer to take them in for the summer.
“We really wanted to see baseball work in Pittsfield,” says Kevin McGuire, general manager of the Suns, speaking of efforts to reinvigorate the baseball brand in the county seat. The Suns arrived in 2012 as a member of the expanded Futures Collegiate Baseball League and have recently signed a five-year contract extension with the city and Wahconah Park, where they play. “Pittsfield has been great to us,” says McGuire, “and we do our best to give it back,” with ticket sales for nonprofit causes and outreach to the community. “Of course, we want to win a championship,” he stresses, “but we want the fans to be entertained as well. When they leave the stadium, we want them feeling good, not even necessarily remembering the score of the game.”
The organization seeks to achieve this by fielding a group of outstanding players and by offering up to 17 breaks per game—exciting the crowd with on-field spectacles, theatrics, and competitions. It’s working. They’ve succeeded in raising attendance levels to around 1,800 a game, up from 600 when the previous team
was in town. The Suns are the most recent of a long succession of professional and collegiate baseball teams to play in Pittsfield—dating back to 1859 when Amherst defeated Williams College in a whopping 73-32 rout.
The North Adams SteepleCats are a member of the New England Collegiate Baseball League and play at Joe Wolfe stadium. The SteepleCats, who have been a welcome attraction to their fan base since beginning play in 2002, also arrange for players to stay with local families. “Host families are our lifeblood,” says Dan Bosley, former state representative and current president of the ’Cats. “We couldn’t do it without them.” The SteepleCats, named in honor of the beautiful steeples spread across North Adams, also focus on keeping fans entertained. One way they do that is with their mascot, Slider, who lives under the stadium and only emerges to incite the crowd or to make appearances on behalf of charities and community relations.
Bosley says that team building is enhanced with adventures like white-water rafting and high-ropes courses. “At this stage in their careers, these guys should be having fun with the game.”
Of course, coaches are also focused on creating better ball players. Jonah Bayliss, who grew up in Williamstown, is the general manager of the SteepleCats. He is the only GM in the league with professional experience, having pitched as a reliever for the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburg Pirates.
“All of these guys have tons of talent,” says Bayliss. “What we try to teach is a mentality, a flexibility to adapt to situations, a
n ability to flip a switch and be super-focused in the game but then also the ability to turn it off and relax.”
Bayliss shares this approach with head coach Mike Armstrong, now in his sixth year of coaching college baseball, his first year with the ’Cats. “Baseball is certainly a game of repetition,” says Armstrong, “but it’s also in how you approach it, respect it, and prepare for it.” He adds with a laugh, “It’s like Yogi Berra said, ‘Baseball is 90-percent mental, and the other half is physical.’ ”
The boys of summer are playing their hearts out this season, hoping to beat the odds and advance to the major leagues. And who knows what the future may bring? It’s like another pearl of Yogi’s wisdom: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
At the Opener, young Adwen Hudson is left holding the ball at a Suns game.