A familiar face is back in the newly expanded dugouts at historic Centennial Field as the Vermont Lake Monsters return for their 20th summer of minor league baseball in Burlington.
Rick Magnante returns for his third season as manager of the Oakland Athletics’ affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League. It is the first time the team has had that degree of continuity at the top, something Magnante sees as a bonus.
“I think there is always an advantage when there’s continuity and if you can bring that continuity to every level in developing players, it can only enhance their careers,” he said.
Three Lake Monsters – catcher Reynaldo Mateo and outfielders Austin Booker and Kelvin Rojas – played in Burlington last summer. Outfielder Xavier Macklin also returns after missing all of 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Joining them on the 23-man roster are eight players selected earlier this month in the first-year player draft, topped by Virginia Tech shortstop Chad Pinder, the 71st overall selection. He was a first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference pick and led the Hokies to the NCAA tournament.
“The nucleus of our club comes from our extended spring training squad, but absolutely I think there will be some higher round picks coming,” Magnante said. “Who we start with is not always who we finish with – I’m sure there will be some movement.”
Changes to the guidelines for signing bonuses teams can offer players have made this Vermont team a little different from the first two Magnante led.
“With the money being slotted in the rounds there is very little negotiation, even in the higher rounds,” he said. “That was exemplified this year by having 22 new signed players in mini-camp within two to three days after the draft. We had an opportunity to see a lot more players earlier and that made our selection process easier.”
The Vermont franchise began as an affiliate of the Montreal Expos and was part of the Washington Nationals’ system before shifting to Oakland in 2011. Magnante ended a 15-year playoff drought by leading the Lake Monsters to a divisional title that season and went 33-43 last summer.
“I was lucky enough to participate in (Oakland’s) entire spring training this year and went back for a month of extended spring training so I have a history with some of our players and recent experience with the others,” Magnante said.
The upgraded dugouts are only one part of a $2 million overhaul of Centennial that team owner Ray Pecor funded since the end of last season that will make the iconic field more fan-friendly.
Topping the list of renovations are 1,500 permanent seats that replace the hard concrete general admission sections along the first and third base lines that flank the central grandstand. The backstop has been brought 12 feet closer to home plate and 100 field level box seats now occupy that space.
Moving the fences 10 to 20 feet closer to the field and shifting the bullpens beyond the outfield fence has reduced foul territory and increased the barbeque area down the left field line. There is a new outfield fence and a “Family Fun Zone” has been set up past the Lake Monster locker room along the right field line.
These renovations join the new video message board, light towers and a resurfaced field that since 2011 have brought Centennial – which hosted its first game in 1906 and is the oldest minor league field in the country – up to major league baseball standards.
“I think the renovations will bring more fans and make the experience a lot more enjoyable for the people of Burlington,” Magnante said. “These are all plusses and positives and creates an environment for the players to make them feel like they really are in professional baseball.”
One Lake Monster with an ironic connection to Burlington is right-handed pitcher Tyler Johnson. He pitched last year for Oakland’s Arizona League team after helping Stony Brook reach the College World Series for the first time.
Johnson was the losing pitcher in the last game the University of Vermont won before eliminating baseball after the 2009 season. The Catamounts beat Johnson in the America East playoffs. “I was a freshman that year and never had a chance to play at Centennial before they dropped the program,” Johnson said. “I guess that’s my shining moment for Vermont so far. This level is obviously a lot harder than college and I’m really looking forward to playing here.
Not as much as Magnante is looking forward to guiding Johnson and his teammates.
“I have no agenda – I don’t anticipate I’m going to be going to the big leagues any time soon,” said Magnante, who has spent eight seasons in the A’s organization. “I look at myself as a first grade teacher and these kids are at the beginning of their careers.
“We’re here to get them on a career path, to understand what it means to be a professional ball player day in and day out, to develop their skills and enhance their tools. And finally, to make it an enjoyable experience in an environment they can thrive in.”