On an ordinary April day in Beantown, with spring and winter still battling for control, the green-tipped, budding willows bordering the Fens twist beneath sunny blue skies in a chilling, harbor-scented westerly breeze. A few hundred fans huddle in pockets of sunshine behind the Red Sox dugout, where UMass players make final pre-game preparations before taking the hallowed field. If butterflies flutter in their bellies, it doesn't show.
Fenway has in fact become
a second home for the Minutemen, who've practically owned the tournament
since joining it in 1996. Of nine tournament games, UMass has won eight,
claiming three outright championships and one shared (in 1998 the final
game against Harvard was cancelled because of foul weather). Despite struggling
throughout the regular season, the UMass nine continue their dominance
this year by dispatching Northeastern 13-8 in a lopsided championship
"I tell the guys to loosen up and just have fun," Coach Mike Stone says. "Most of these kids are from Massachusetts, and Fenway is a real special place for every New Englander. You don't have to get anybody pumped up to play here, that's for sure."
Any nervousness about playing in a ballpark that's considered baseball's living museum is quickly dispersed when the Minutemen open the game with three runs in the first inning. Stone has warned his hitters about aiming for the storied Green Monsterthe thirty-seven-foot-high left-field wall that stands 310 feet from home plate. "That's a long shot, even with an aluminum bat," says Stone. But his players have ideas of their own. Senior designated hitter Kevin O'Connell leads the first inning rally by sending his first pitch of the day into the net above the Green Monster for a two-run home run.
After circling the bases with a broad, toothy grin firmly fixed to his square jaw where it will remain throughout the day, O'Connell is greeted at home plate with hugs and back slaps from his hooting teammates. In the dugout the native of Hartland, Vermont relives the hit with a breathless, giddy "Wow!"
But the day's glory belongs to freshman first baseman Jeff Altieri, who gives the Minutemen an insurmountable lead in the fifth inning with a grand slam that clears the left field wall and the netting that protects the windows on Landsdowne Street below. With three hits in four at-bats, two home runs and five runs batted in, Altieri has a day that most major leaguers dream of.
"I knew it was gone as soon as I hit it," says Altieri of his towering, game-breaking slam. He's played once before at Fenway, in a state championship game during his junior year at Northbridge High. Playing on the old diamond is "very special." he says.
"There's nothing like coming here where all the stars are, to sit where they sit, to hit where they hit . . ." The sentence fades into a smile, and the spring breeze swirls the hulls of sunflower seeds baseball's snack food - around his feet.
As the Minutemen build their big lead with eight runs in the fifth inning, the dugout becomes rowdy with celebration. Some players produce cameras to record memories of their day at Fenway, and parents and friends lean over the grandstand wall to wave and shout encouragement. UMass will own the Beanpot yet again.
The Beanpot tournament, modeled after the popular college hockey tournament of the same name that's played every year in the Fleet Center, is the ten-year-old brainchild of Larry Cancro, vice president for sales and marketing for the Boston Red Sox. Originally the baseball contest had the same all-Beantown roster as the hockey tournament, which includes Boston University. But BU dropped its baseball program in 1995 and, thanks in part to Dick Bresciani '60, BoSox vice president for public affairs, UMass was chosen as the replacement.
"I think it's a natural," says Bresciani, who hands over the silver Beanpot trophy to Stone and senior captain Shaun Skeffington at the end of this game. "It's the state university, most of their players are from the Commonwealth, they're a division one team, and they've done very well here."
That's an understatement. The Minutemen have not only dominated the Beanpot tournament during their five-year involvement, they've won games in impressive, exciting ways. In last year's semi-finals UMass ended Harvard's ninth-inning threat with a double-play to preserve a 13-12 win. And in the 1997 semi-finals, pitcher Scott Barnsby made history when he pitched a nine-inning no-hitterthe first by a Minuteman since 1957to beat Northeastern 1-0.
This year, bats rule as UMass builds its large early lead while starting pitcher Todd Samolewicz keeps Northeastern scoreless through six innings. The senior left-hander from Florence usually pitches in relief, but makes the most of his first start of the season by striking out six batters while walking just one.
As the afternoon wears on and his arm wears out, Samolewicz turns the game over to the bullpen and takes a seat in the dugout with his teammates to watch Northeastern mount an inconsequential late-game rally. "This is just a dream come true," he smiles as the trainer tapes a pair of ice packs to his spent left arm. "Not everyone can say they've pitched at Fenway Park and done well."