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Swamp Bats: Keene, team a perfect match

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 22. 2018 12:59AM
Swamp Bats pitcher Griff McGarry spends some time with the kids on "Reading with Ribby" day. (COURTESY KEENE SWAMP BATS)

KEENE - Among the things that grab your attention when you enter Alumni Field for a Keene Swamp Bats game are the portable tents set up in the area behind home plate, all of which house the vendors for that night's contest. The tents, plus the nearby concession stand, create something that looks and smells like a fair atmosphere.

Then there are the Alumni Field seats. Here's what's unusual about them: They're almost all occupied.

If the Swamp Bats don't finish a season as the New England Collegiate Baseball League's attendance leader, they're never far behind. In their 21 seasons, the Swamp Bats have never finished lower than third in league attendance.

Keene averaged 1,629 fans through its first 16 home games this season, which ranked third among NECBL teams behind the Newport (R.I.) Gulls (1,911) and the Valley (Holyoke, Mass.) Blue Sox (1,649). Nine of the league's 13 teams are averaging fewer than 600 fans per home game.

Tickets to see the Swamp Bats play in Keene - a city with a population of about 23,000 - are $5 for adults ($3 for seniors). Anyone 10 or under is admitted free.

"Every time we play, people show up," Keene manager Lyndon Coleman said. "It's amazing how many show up and how many people are engaged in the team. It doesn't even have to be a big game and people are coming out here to watch. It's a testament to the product that Kevin Watterson has put on the field, too."

Watterson is Keene's general manager. He's a longtime baseball fixture in Keene and now puts in countless hours throughout the year as a volunteer with Keene's NECBL team. Watterson has been with the Swamp Bats since Day 1.

Little-known fact: Watterson once suffered a heart attack that left him flat on Alumni Field near second base.

"When we started, our total focus was putting together a special baseball team," Watterson explained. "We wanted to put a team on the field that was special. Something akin to the Cape Cod League.

"The first year we had an unbelievable year (on the field), but our average attendance was only about 800. I can remember going to a meeting with a real mover and shaker in town, a woman by the name of Nancy Sporborg, and she said, 'Kev, I don't know what you think you're doing, but if you want to have an impact in this town you better forget about baseball and you better start connecting with women. They set the recreational agenda in this town.'

"Year two we flipped the page. We were all about community and baseball, and 21 years later we're about community and baseball."

The Swamp Bats' commitment to the community includes a reading program (Reading with Ribby, the team mascot) and a dental-hygiene program (Brush and Floss with Ribby).

"We're in the schools promoting reading and dental hygiene," said Sara Pelkey, the team's director of operations. "That's what engages the fans and community. I speak to the players every year and tell them community service is required, no ifs ands or buts. There's no one in Keene who doesn't know who the Swamp Bats are."

The Swamp Bats' Erick Zecha, who hails from Keene, enjoys a moment with young fans during "Reading with Ribby" day. (COURTESY KEENE SWAMP BATS)

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The NECBL was born in 1994 and currently includes at least one team from each of the six New England states.The NECBL is considered one of the top college-level summer baseball leagues in the nation, perhaps second to only the Cape Cod League.

"We're not as good as them yet, but we're not far behind," Watterson said.

According to the league website, players in the NECBL must be enrolled in an NCAA-sanctioned college or university, be in good academic standing, have completed at least one year of athletic eligibility and have at least one year of eligibility remaining.

NECBL players typically come from Division I college programs, although there are Division II and Division III players in the league as well. Many players are placed in the NECBL by a coach from their college team.

The league is divided into two divisions: the Northern Division and the Southern Division. In addition to Keene, the Northern Division includes one other team from New Hampshire: the Winnipesaukee Muskrats of Laconia. Two other clubs, the Upper Valley Nighthawks of White River Junction, Vt., and the Sanford Mainers of Sanford, Maine, play just over the state's borders. Each team begins its season in June and plays an eight-week, 42-game regular-season schedule.

Watterson said 98 players who played in the NECBL were selected in this year's MLB First-Year Player Draft. He said 112 former NECBL players were drafted in 2017. Three former players were on the Los Angeles Dodgers postseason roster last year: starting pitcher Alex Wood, outfielder Andre Ethier and relief pitcher Josh Fields. 

Keene has won six regular-season division championships (2002, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2011 and 2012), six postseason division championships (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2011 and 2013) and four league championships (2000, 2003, 2011 and 2013). 

"The community loves to turn out for these games," Keene mayor Kendall Lane said. "Business community very, very supportive. We haven't always led the league in attendance, but the crowds at a lot of these other places are pretty sparse compared to Keene.

"I also think this is a good baseball town. This always has been a good baseball town."

Perhaps the best thing the Swamp Bats did from a marketing standpoint was select a unique nickname. The team had a pick-the-nickname contest prior to its first season and Swamp Bats - there's a swamp close to the field - was selected from more than 1,000 entries.

"A lot of the old-timers wanted something more traditional, but it was easy to brand that name," Watterson said.

The Swamp Bats' Griff McGarry, a student at the University of Virginia, delivers a pitch during recent NECBL action. McGarry is 3-1 with a 2.51 ERA this season. He's fanned 52 batters and walked 19, allowing just 13 hits, in 28 2/3 innings. (COURTESY KEENE SWAMP BATS)

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This year's Keene roster features players from 12 states, including three from New Hampshire and one player from Venezuela. The New Hampshire residents are pitcher Brandon Heath (Charlestown/Keene State), pitcher Erick Zecha (Keene/RPI) and pitcher Andrew Houde (Springfield/Keene State).

Center fielder Jacob Koos, who will be entering his senior season at Stetson, is one of Keene's top players this season. He hits in the leadoff spot and broke the team record for stolen bases in a season during Wednesday's 11-2 triumph over the Sanford Mainers. Koos entered the weekend with 23 stolen bases in 22 games (he joined the team on June 18). The NECBL single-season record for stolen bases is 44.

"This is my third summer playing and this is the best atmosphere I've played in so far in all three summers," said Koos, who has also played in the Valley Baseball League and the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League. "When I played in Bethesda (Md.) we might get 1,600 for a game ... but not for every game.

"Everywhere I've been the players have been treated really good, I just feel like here it's more welcoming, I guess. There's entertainment between every inning. The summer-ball atmosphere . I just love it. I was working the (Swamp Bats) summer camp two weeks ago. I come to the game and all the kids remember my name and they're yelling for me. It was cool."

Like all of the Swamp Bats, Koos lives with a host family.

"I tell the guys back in Florida it's a lot different here," Koos said. "It'll be a different experience if they come play here. Like my host family ... they have 20 chickens. I get fresh eggs every morning. You don't get that in Florida."

The Swamp Bats began the weekend with a 20-14 record and were tied for second place with Sanford (three teams from each division qualify for the playoffs). Keene was leading the NECBL in runs (221), hits (339) and fielding percentage (.973). 

The Swamp Bats are also chasing the league record for stolen bases in a season. Keene had stolen 97 bases through its first 34 games. Vermont set the league record with 118 stolen bases in 2001.

Coleman, who is the head coach at Pasco-Hernando State College in New Port Richey, Fla., spent three summers coaching in the Valley Baseball League before landing the job with Keene.

"There are more teams in this league that do a really good job connecting with the community than the teams in the Valley," he said. "There's more community involvement with the players here, and, from a general manager's standpoint, there's more giving back. The community gives to the players and the players give back to the community.

"Our players, to come here, be housed within the community, stay with host families, get engaged with the Little Leagues - with the kids and all that kind of stuff. It's a kind of a harmony that's something special here in Keene."

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