Replaying The Old Ball Game
No gloves, no helmets, pitchers throwing underhand and no walks. You call this baseball? Actually, it's base ball, two words. And Sunday afternoon, it came to Fort Trumbull.
The Thames Base Ball Club, sponsored by the New London County Historical Society, played its first “home” game Sunday at the fort. The team competes in the Vintage Base Ball Association, whose members play the game according to 1861 rules.
The game, against a powerhouse from Waterbury called the Connors, was Thames' third overall. Waterbury won, 20-16, stretching its winning streak to 18; it's won 22 of its 25 games. Thames is still looking for its first victory.
In the vintage-rules league, managers –– they used to be called secretaries –– arrange for “matches” against other clubs, leaving the schedule in flux throughout the summer. Edward Baker, manager-secretary for the Thames team and executive director of the historical society, said he doesn't yet know when the team will play again at home. Baker said the team has many invitations from other teams to play.
Waterbury, meanwhile, has played in tournaments throughout the summer, including events they won on Long Island and in Massachusetts.
The players Sunday ranged in age from high school students to gray-bearded men.
The score, for some, was an afterthought.
“We call it a competitive re-enactment of baseball,” said Thames player Felix Reyes, who had a home run, a double and a single –– a triple shy of a feat now referred to as hitting for the cycle.
Reyes is a 1999 New London High School graduate who played on the high school team as well as a state championship American Legion squad. He adjusted quickly to playing without a glove, he said, thanks to drills that his former high school coach, Gil Varjas, used to run.
Varjas, he said, always told his players to treat the ball like an egg, and ran drills in which players had to field the ball without gloves in an effort to develop “soft hands.”
The teams wear vintage-style uniforms that appear historically correct, though they're made of a polyester blend. The pants stop at about the knee. The Thames team wore striped socks. The pants and shirts were baggy and the short sleeves went to the players' elbows.
The vintage games are nine innings, as are today's baseball games. Baker pointed out, however, that in vintage baseball there are no half-innings; they're “innings” and “outings,” depending on whether the team is at bat or in the field.
A coin toss started the game, with the winning team choosing whether it wanted to bat first or last in an inning. That explained why Waterbury, although it was the visiting team, batted last in what is commonly known as the bottom of the inning.
Players hollered “two hands!” for two outs. Infielders often fell to their knees to block hard-hit grounders because they had no gloves.
Players were not allowed to overrun first base and could have been tagged out if they did. None of the bases were anchored, and players had to retrieve bags that moved after they'd slid into them.
A batted ball that hit in fair territory and then went foul was considered a fair ball, making possible a play called a “fair foul,” whereby a batter could hit a pitch into the dirt in front of home plate and make it bounce backwards, a nearly automatic double.
The game also featured the one-bounce rule –– any ball caught after one bounce was an out. That enabled Thames left fielder Ryan Coats to make several put outs that would otherwise have been extra-base hits, including an off-the-bounce, over-the-shoulder grab.
While Boston's Fenway Park has its Green Monster, a left-field wall that often confounds players who have to handle the balls that carom off it, Fort Trumbull has The Hill.
With no fence at the New London field, outfielders have to chase down any long hit that goes as far as the hill beyond left field, crossing a paved path to get there.
The vintage-league pitchers were limited in what they could do, but Thames hurler Bob Farwell knew how to work the batters Sunday. Farwell, of Mystic, said pitchers have to stay within an area outlined by four pieces of iron that indicate where a pitching rubber would otherwise be located.
Farwell's routine included starting with a foot on one of the squares, his back to the batter. He then took two long strides, making a semi-circle, before releasing the ball. He followed the cardinal rule observed by any modern pitcher, varying the location of his pitches in the strike zone –– in, out, up and down. He also varied the arc of his pitches.
“That's just me,” Farwell said of his unusual pitching style, which he said was not modeled after any vintage technique.
Waterbury player Jeff Laperriere, or “Noodles,” rolled his pants legs up and played barefoot, intending no homage to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, who didn't play until nearly 50 years after the vintage era.
Laperriere, a catcher who hit a home run Sunday, said he had been dared to play barefoot at a tournament in Long Island a couple of weekends ago and added that he would continue to do so.
All the Waterbury players have nicknames, according to player Ray Behr, who also coaches at Chase Collegiate School, formerly St. Margaret's-McTernan School, in Waterbury. They include “Muffin Man” and “Sugar Bear” –– Behr's nickname – and “Grizzly Bear,” Behr's son, Steve.
“It's such an enjoyable time,” Ray Behr said during an unofficial second game between the teams, adding, “You smile, relax, and have a good time.”
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