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Official Review by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Keene Swamp Bats, four-time champs of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, play their home games at Alumni Field on the campus of Keene High School. In addition to hosting the Swamp Bats, the athletic fields located adjacent to Alumni Field host several of Keene High School’s varsity teams. Built in 1948, Alumni Field’s unique grandstand has seen many major league players pass through on their way to the big leagues.
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There is a good-sized shack located out behind home plate that puts out a decent and varied menu during Swamp Bats games. The menu features all the basics, such as hot dogs ($2.50), sausage and pepper sandwiches ($5), hamburgers ($3.50), French fries ($3), and pizza slices ($2). Fans looking for healthier alternatives can choose from veggie burgers ($3.50), salads ($4, or $6 with grilled chicken), or grilled chicken sandwiches ($4.50). Fountain sodas are sold for $2, as well as a large variety of Snapple beverages and sports drinks. Candies, chips, and popcorn are available for a dollar or less.
The Swamp Bats also offer healthy meals for kids in the form of their "batter box." Kids can choose from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or salad. Also included in the lunch box are carrot sticks, water, and fruit. When you are finished, you get to keep the lunch box. The entire package is sold for $6, or $4 if you are simply refilling an empty lunch box.
A table featuring a good variety of Swamp Bats merchandise is located next to the snack bar. A good selection of hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and novelties can all be found here.
Everything in Keene starts with the setting. Norman Rockwell couldn't have dreamed up a setting that says "New England" more accurately than this. Surrounded by pine and maple trees, with a barn just beyond the right field fence, Alumni Field looks and smells just like New England is supposed to look and smell. Fans come out to Alumni Field hours before the game is scheduled to start to reserve their favorite spot. Lawn chairs and blankets line the field all the way down both foul lines, relegating even the bullpen pitchers to second row status.
As soon as you enter Alumni Field, you realize why this is one of the NECBL's marquee teams. Several pop-up tents line the walkway to the field, selling raffle tickets and handing out giveaways. The merchandise table and concession stands are also located in this concourse, and here you may notice the unusual placement of the visitors bullpen. It is located out behind the visitors dugout, enclosed in a fenced-off area, surrounded by fans. It is entirely possible (and not in any way recommended by Stadium Journey) to reach out and grab a relief pitcher while he is warming up. Beware of any errant tosses here!
During the game the Swamp Bats staff does a great job of keeping the energy up throughout the evening. There are giveaways, between inning contests, and raffles throughout the game, and extraneous features such as music and PA announcements, while frequent, do not seem intrusive. There is a buzz in the stands at Keene that you do not usually find at this level of baseball.
Alumni Field is located amongst the athletic fields of Keene High School in rural Keene, New Hampshire, a city of just over 20,000 citizens. The High School is located a couple of miles from downtown in a residential area. Fans looking for things to do in the immediate vicinity of Alumni Field will be disappointed by the lack of activity in the area. Take a short drive to Main Street, and you will find several restaurants, shops, and the campus of Keene State College. Many people head to Keene in the fall, both to check out the magnificent foliage and to witness the Keene Pumpkin Festival, which set a world record in 2013 with over 30,000 carved pumpkins displayed.
Keene has ranked in the top three of the NECBL in attendance in every season except one since figures have been recorded. They are on pace to once again land near the top of the NECBL attendance rankings in 2014. The Swamp Bats average in the neighborhood of 1,500 fans per game, and these fans are some of the most dedicated you will see in college summer ball. Fans will come to Alumni Field hours before game time to stake out their favorite spots, and many regulars have been sitting in these spots for years. It's not unusual to see several generations of a family taking in the action from all corners of Alumni Field.
During the game, these fans do not just sit quietly to watch the game. Many fans bring their own noisemakers (cowbells seem to be the preferred item in Keene), and cheer not only the home team, but outstanding efforts from the visitors as well. Sportsmanship is very much alive and well at this level of baseball.
Keene isn't somewhere you stumble upon accidentally. Keene is located in southwestern New Hampshire, about a 90 minute drive from Manchester. The area is not served by any interstates, with the closest one being I-91, which runs north-south across the state line in Vermont, about a half hour away. Several state routes converge in Keene, but they are all of the two-lane, winding variety. Most visitors to Keene will arrive via the Franklin Pierce Highway, otherwise known as Route 9. If you are heading to a Swamp Bats game, you are most definitely driving there.
Once arriving at Alumni Field, you will find ample parking either in the parking lot directly behind the ballpark, or in a nearby lot by the high school. You will enter into a nicely landscaped area filled with paved walkways and shade trees. There are several fields next door to Alumni Field which are used by the Keene High School athletic teams. You will need to walk all the way around the baseball field to enter into the concourse, located behind home plate.
After passing by the snack bar, restrooms, and souvenir tables, you will see a large, covered grandstand to your right along the first base line. This grandstand makes up the majority of the permanent seating here, although there are two small sets of bleachers behind home plate, and another large set of wooden bleachers along the third base line. Many fans choose to sit along the edge of the field on their lawn chairs or blankets. Some fans are known to arrive hours before game time to stake out prime locations. It's not unusual to see lawn chairs lined up all the way down both foul lines.
There is plenty of spare room to roam at Alumni Field, and the youngsters that attend the game make the most of it, playing their own games of catch in the grass or chasing foul balls around. Combine this action with the game at hand, the sights of the mountains in the background, the smells of the grill, and you have an ideal setting for a ball game.
Tickets to see the Swamp Bats at Alumni Field are only $4 for adults. Children 10 and under are admitted free of charge. Parking is available at no cost in the lot directly behind the ball field. This lot tends to fill up quickly, but there is another lot within a short walking distance adjacent to the high school. This lot connects to Alumni Field via a paved path. Factor in inexpensive food prices, and you have the makings of an affordable night out for the whole family.
Keene offers a volume and variety of promotions and giveaways unlike anything you may experience at this level of baseball. In addition to the usual 50/50 raffle, the Swamp Bats offer giveaways and contests between most innings. The team gives away a roster sheet to all attendees, and several nights feature additional giveaways as well.
When you think of summer collegiate baseball, you think of a relaxed atmosphere where the game at hand is the main draw. In Keene, that's not always the case, but that's not a bad thing. There is a buzz and energy to a game at Alumni Field that you won't find at most ballparks at this level. When Alumni Field is full, a sizeable chunk of the local population is in attendance. It creates a wonderful communal feeling that is the essence of summer, even when the crowd is larger. Add in some of the most picturesque surroundings you could come up with, and it's no wonder that the Keene Swamp Bats are one of the marquee teams of the NECBL. Alumni field is a must see for anyone wanting a true New England experience.
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