It should not have taken as long as it did, but the Gator franchise was just 26 days old when we acquired our first victory of 2020 against the New Britain Hurricanes. I failed to give any love to my pitchers regarding our first W. Former Plymouth Panther Bobby Chatfield earned the win, going five innings striking out two while only surrendering a hit and a run. Zack Larson put a bow on the 11-1 victory, tossing two scoreless innings to close it out. We had a quick turnaround for the following contest, however, as we suited up the next day to take on the Wethersfield Dodgers at Muzzy Field.
It was a really special night personally, as it was my first time returning to Muzzy Field since playing with the Bristol Blues in the 2015 Future League Championship Series. I could talk about that three-game series and that Blues team all day. From the 1-0 victory in Game 2 as Domonic LoBrutto twirled an absolute gem, to our improbable comeback late in Game 3 to force extra innings in front of an absolutely packed house in Bristol, Muzzy became one of my favorite parks that year.
Beyond the epic series, I was very lucky to join a team full of awesome dudes. The Blues invited me to the team with only one month remaining after I had missed the playoffs with the Newark Pilots in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. If you asked anyone from that Blue’s locker room who their favorite and most entertaining teammate was, we would all answer the same: Ryan Costello.
I walked into that locker room only knowing a fellow husky, Griffin Garabedian, and sort of knowing Tim Cate as he was an incoming freshman to UConn. I played a season of TCB with Mike Nocera so it was good to see him as well, but otherwise that was it. I was just finishing up my freshman year, and it is not easy to walk into a 1st place locker room and prove to these guys that I could help them right away. I felt a little anxious. I was shown to my locker, to the right of Tim’s, which was also to the left of Ryan’s spot.
“Oh jeez not another UConn guy, don’t we have enough!” After Ryan said something to the effect of that, as he would often, he had a big smile on his face, a laugh to follow and we introduced ourselves. Right away that eased my stress and I felt accepted quickly.
Cozzy was his usual nickname, others simplified it down to just Coz. He played at Central Connecticut, and not only was he one of the best players on the Blues but he wore his love and passion for the game on his sleeve. Coz approached the game the same way he lived his life: with pure joy, raw intensity and a hunger to win and improve. I learned a lot from him about the importance of being a teammate that positively affects the locker room environment and what good that can do for a ball club. Baseball is hard as hell. The game needs guys like Coz to lighten the mood in the locker room and make the days you go 0 for 4 not weigh so heavily on your mind.
Tragically, we lost Coz in November of 2019 to a rare heart condition while he was overseas for the Australian Baseball League. I won’t soon forget the utter shock and pain from learning of his passing.
I tell this anecdote in remembrance of Coz as well as a thank you to him. For being the teammate and person he was, for always having a big smile on his face, and for competing everyday like it was his last. I will do the same everyday I play. Coz was certainly in my thoughts that night when I returned to Muzzy with the Gators for the first time since ‘15.
We got our second win of the season against the Wethersfield Dodgers, by the score of 3-1. Consensus in the parking lot post-game was that the Gator Gang would have liked to score more runs against that team but otherwise we played a solid game, led by Miles Scribner’s pitching performance. The Tritown Trojan regular went the distance and would have secured the shutout if not for me trying to be a hero deep in the six-hole at shortstop. With a runner on second base, I used a pop-up slide to my backhand and launched the ball as hard as I could from the edge of the outfield grass with two outs in the top of the last inning. I let it eat, but the release point was a tad early. Man, did I sail that throw, I should have just held it anyway as an out was unlikely. I remember joking with some of the guys post-game that the ball may have cleared Bristol and landed over in Farmington, that’s how far it flew out of Muzzy Field. I told Scribby and his dad I owed him a steak for blowing his shutout. I still got you Scrib!
After two wins in two days, the Gators had to wait until Sunday, July 12, to get back to action in a big matchup. The rematch from our first game at the Dunk’, against the Terryville Blacksox. Jacob Shpur, a Springfield College hurler and older brother to Caleb, got the ball for us that day. He was a great arm for us all summer, a crafty right-hander who pitches smart and fills up the zone. That’s what he did that Sunday against a Blacksox lineup with a lot of juice top to bottom. He pitched out of a big jam with runners on 1st and 3rd, one out in the 2nd innings, getting a strikeout and inducing a 5-3 putout to Caleb. Big Shpur punched out a pair of batters that day, while scattering seven hits and three earned runs through 5+ innings.
The Gators did damage in the 5th, getting things started with a leadoff triple by our 2nd baseman and Bowdoin Polar Bear CJ Brito. After a few walks, an Austin Patenaude knock, and an eventful two-strike RBI groundout on my part, we put three on the board as the game was tied after five frames.
Scribby got the ball in the middle of the 6th in relief of Jacob after Andrew Hinkley hit a bomb to dead center. Hink is a solid two way player who I played against while he was at Central Connecticut and was a soon-to-be teammate of mine on another adult league team I would play for later in the year. One of the many solid players on Terryville.
There was a lot of chirping coming out of the Blacksox dugout, mostly because of the many times Scribby faced those guys during his time with the Trojans in the TriState League. All I said to him when he came in with a runner on first and no outs was to roll a double-play ball. I glove-tapped him on the back and walked back to shortstop. Third pitch of the at-bat, boom, 6-4-3 double play. Scribby got the last guy to ground out and I could tell from the start of his outing he was locked in. He was used to a starting roll and pitching deep into games, so we just needed to get one run and he would close it out for us.
A CTL regulation ballgame is seven innings, and to our disdain it took more than seven to come to a conclusion as it remained deadlocked at three. At long last in the top of the 9th, the hero would be our guy “Stick and a Bagel” (10) Coleby Bunnell who provided the clutch game winning knock, driving home Landon after his big double to start the inning. Scribby closed it out in the 9th, and we secured our biggest victory of the season so far. We had the ‘Sox on the schedule one more time, and the whole league soon learned that someone would have to beat those guys late in the postseason if they wanted the 2020 CTL crown. But in the moment, that win on a picturesque summer Sunday and improving the Gators to 3-1 on the season felt phenomenal.
That whole weekend I had started binge watching the Ken Burns Baseball documentary and doing hours of baseball research online. This was in preparation for a Summer School class I signed up to teach at the Marvelwood School in Kent where my Mom works. Yeah, I said teach. Crazy, eh? From July 13th-17th I would be making my best effort to jam-pack the most significant parts of baseball history, as I viewed it, into just 5 two-hour lecture sessions. A truly impossible task that I attempted to the best of my ability.
The Gators could only enjoy our victory over Terryville for the night. Right after my first day of teaching the History of Baseball, we prepared for a Monday night rematch way over in Wethersfield against the Dodgers. UConn and Cali native Jeff Kersten came to throw a flat-ground bullpen while seeing what all the Gator Gang buzz was about in our process of recruiting him to the team.
As I mentioned earlier, I felt like we had shortchanged ourselves offensively against those guys in our first matchup. Credit to their starter in that first game at Muzzy, but we left a lot of runners on base. This time around we cashed in, using a ten-run 3rd inning to cruise to a 13-0 final score in four innings. Sure enough, Jeff Kersten was interested in joining our already talented squad.
The next day, after a few days of planning, Coleby Bunnell, Caleb Shpur and myself left before dawn that Tuesday morning for a business trip up north… way north.
I had done some research and made some phone calls in the days prior with Dove Tail Bats up in Shirley, Maine. I had received many custom bats from them the last two seasons, dating back to the days playing with the Aberdeen Ironbirds. They had a team deal for a dozen high-quality Rock Maple bats of multiple models with custom Great Falls Gators labels.
Caleb and I rendezvoused at Housy just after 4 a.m., followed by picking up Coleby in the middle of Litchfield, and we were off. I had to get to my sister Ellie’s house in Portland with enough time to set up and present my two hour lecture for my History of Baseball class before going further north. It all sounds a lot more hectic than it felt in the moment, merely a matter of getting the driving out of the way.
After my class was over, we took off for Dove Tail Bats Headquarters in Shirley, about two and a half hours north of Portland. About an hour into that leg of our journey, we got off the main highway and it was all backcountry state routes the rest of the way. The boys were officially out there in Upstate Maine.
At long last, around 2 p.m. we arrived. Theresa Lancisi, co-founder of Dove Tail with her husband Paul, greeted us and helped us through the process of ordering our team bats. I recalled in conversation with Theresa the time I met her husband in Spring Training as he was marketing his bats at Orioles camp in Sarasota. He saw that I already had a Dove Tail of my own and gave me two free shirts which I greatly appreciated. He was not at the warehouse the day we came, although Theresa was just as generous during our visit, offering a free shirt as we made our purchases. Due to Covid-19 protocols, we were able to get a limited look at the facility in the back where they made the bats, then we left for an hour while our weapons were produced.
We drove up the road into Greenville, Maine. We hopped out of the car in a parking lot in the middle of town and there was mighty Moosehead Lake. I had only heard my father babble about this lake as his Fahmington, Maine accent subtly attempted a comeback, but never knew anything about this mystery place to which he referred. Until that day with my fellow young Gators, and even on a cloudy day it was beautiful.
We returned for our bats after getting enough of Moosehead Lake’s glory. The boys and I loaded up the lumber, got some grub and headed back for Portland. We had to pull over shortly into the trip south to open the fresh box of bats and experience them in all their beauty. We felt out the bat models that we wanted briefly before officially putting in the order, so this was our first touch of the official Gator bats. They were magnificent.
Us Gators were on the same page when we got back to Portland. We asked Ellie where the nearest field was and if she wanted to come take some swings with us. There we were, walking down the street of Portland, Maine with a dozen fresh Dove Tails, a bucket of 80 baseballs and our gloves going to get our Gator reps in. Ellie was out there flagging down fly balls like a champ while a hobo beyond the outfield fence mistook me for a woman until I had my chance to swing a bat. Despite a damp field and no L-screen, those Gator reps were truly unforgettable. We celebrated by ordering way too much fried chicken that took way too long to make anyways, had a few cold ones and conked out after our long day.
It had been quite a ride the last few days. From Sunday morning when we were preparing for our huge win over Terryville, to having brunch outside on a sunny Wednesday morning at Miss Portland Diner after my third class teaching the History of Baseball, we had accomplished quite a lot in 72 hours. Coleby, Caleb and I made the trek back that afternoon as the Gators would return to action the following day against the Arch 2 Indians.