Kate Avard first discovered the Valley Blue Sox as a summer intern with the club in 2016, while working toward degrees in sport management and kinesiology at UMass Amherst, and she was excited to return to the franchise as its general manager in 2020.
It wasn’t the experience she had hoped for, to say the least. But she’s happy to see the team finally taking the field in 2021.
“We didn’t get to play last year, and I think everyone across the league — players, staff, and interns — are all very excited to be able to play this season,” Avard told BusinessWest.
Last year’s lull particularly smarted for the Blue Sox, who were coming off three outstanding seasons — New England Collegiate Baseball League championships in 2017 and 2018 and a nailbiter loss in the division finals in 2019.
“We’ve gotten tons of interest from players wanting to get back out there for us,” she said. “The same thing with interns — we pull interns from across the U.S. Everyone wants to get back out on the field, and that goes for all the organizations in our league.”
Chris Thompson had a different pandemic experience last year. The co-founder of the Westfield Starfires was grateful that the Futures Collegiate Baseball League actually went through with a season, albeit one with strict pandemic protocols and limited fans. He, too, is looking forward to a more normal campaign in 2021.
“It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again.”
“We’re proud to be part of such an innovative and forward-thinking league,” he said. “In the last year, we were able to manage the intricacies of multiple states and municipalities to pull off a season — some of the only baseball played in North America. We’re pretty proud of that — of showcasing our team and being able to provide a safe, positive experience for fans at Bullens Field.”
In fact, the Futures league not only played last year, but managed to grow its footprint during the pandemic, welcoming two new teams, the Burlington (Vt.) Lake Monsters and the Norwich (Conn.) Sea Unicorns, into the fold, which speaks well of continued interest in baseball, Thompson noted. “We’ve been able to attract new ownership groups, which is really exciting for us.”
Despite the lost season of play last year, Avard said the Blue Sox’ director of Baseball Operations, John Raiola, was able to maintain relationships that have long fed Holyoke’s summer franchise. “He knows all the recruiting very well, so he was able to stay in contact with a lot of programs and schools that we’ve previously drawn from. We definitely didn’t go silent last year.”
Meanwhile, the Starfires have been in contact with college coaches around the country as well, Thompson said, though national recruiting is a little more difficult because Westfield is among many teams that have put host-family programs on hold during the pandemic. “Teams are taking a more local and regional roster approach for 2021.”
The Blue Sox, on the other hand, have continued to solicit host families to house the college players this summer.
“We rely on our host families to welcome them and show our players why Western Mass. is so great,” Avard said, while those players, in turn, help the team provide low-cost, family-friendly entertainment for local fans.
She added that the team is following all state health mandates for capacity and social distancing at MacKenzie Stadium — restrictions that were significantly loosened days before press time. Still, the park will be equipped with hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations in a nod to the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.
“It’s America’s pastime,” Thompson added. “We’re going to have a great atmosphere at Bullens Field. It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again, while following all the CDC protocols.”
The Starfires, which were named after a fighter jet once stationed at Barnes Air National Guard Base, will open the season with a new mascot, a black squirrel named Stanley Starfire, who shares a namesake with Stanley Park. “We continue to pay homage to the city of Westfield.”
Thompson is also excited about a partnership with Amherst Brewing Co., which created a new Starfires IPA for sale at the park and at the local Hangar Pub & Brewery. But he’s mostly excited about baseball. “The players are fired up and looking forward to getting back on the field.”
The two local collegiate teams — which both start play in the coming days and continue into August — aren’t the only options for fans, of course. The Hartford Yard Goats, the double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, still draw impressive crowds just down I-91 in Dunkin’ Donuts Park, while the Red Sox moved their triple-A affiliate to Worcester, where they recently kicked off play in Polar Park.
“I personally think baseball is integral to this area,” Avard said. “We have so many different teams in so many different levels, and I’ve seen so much support from the fans. People were reaching out to us in January, asking about the season, asking if we’d be back at MacKenzie.
“Baseball is one of the biggest sports around here,” she went on. “Everyone is so excited to be back on the field. As an outdoor activity, it’s a great way to start bringing things back to normal this summer.”