In early 2012, it was unclear whether Stadium Journey would have the opportunity to post a review of Historic Centennial Field in Burlington, Vermont. The University of Vermont men’s baseball program, which played its home games at Centennial, was eliminated in 2009, leaving the Single-A Vermont Lake Monsters of the New York/Penn League as its only inhabitant. That relationship, too, was quite precarious until a deal struck in early 2012 between the owner, UVM, and the franchise allowed not only for stability in the years to come (a 20-year lease was executed), but also the opportunity for some much-needed capital investment in the ballpark. From the fan’s perspective, the most noticeable addition is a new 27-foot by 16-foot video board located between the left-center field wall and the picturesque postcard backdrop of the Burlington sky. While fans shouldn’t expect to see any replays of great catches or close calls, it does provide a more interactive experience and gives the old facility a more modern feel.
Like many other minor league venues, Centennial Field offers great value for fans, with the total cost of an evening out comparable to a night at the movies. Stack affordability on top of family-friendliness and the opportunity to sit outside on a pleasant Vermont evening, and the only-game-in-town is an experience which should not be missed.
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While the diversity of food choices you can get at Centennial Field is of no concern (whatever typical ballpark fare you seek, from burgers, hot dogs, pretzels, chicken sandwiches, fries, ice cream - it's all here), and the quality is acceptable, the cost seems to be slightly more consistent with larger venue prices than its Single-A brethren. Hot dogs for $3.25 - $4.50, chicken sandwiches for $6.50, French fries for $4, and Pizza for $4.50/slice all reflect levels slightly north of what one would expect at such a venue, particularly when ticket prices are ultra-reasonable at $6 - $8. To be sure, there are promotional events which regularly offset the pricing (e.g., kids eat free with hot dog, chips and beverage on Thursday nights), but the prices are initially a bit jarring, if only because admission is so inexpensive. Again, I heard no complaints about quality.
The beer selection is pleasantly diverse, and the good prices here ($4 - $5) will help save some money for food. There are the Budweiser and Log Trail stalwarts, but also available are more unique local and regional taps such as Fiddlehead, Moose Island and Narragansett. Note that certain general admission seating down the first base line is alcohol-free, so keep this in mind when purchasing tickets if you're interested in cooling off with a brew. Another offering, margaritas for $5, is a welcome addition as well. I did not witness anybody ordering one to ask about quality, so you're on your own here.
Minor league games generally provide great entertainment value, and Lake Monsters games at Centennial Field are no different, with something fun happening nearly every inning. Expect a few Vermont twists, however. While many venues toss/launch promotional items into the stands, the Lake Monsters play a version of reverse-musical-chairs with an inflatable cow (the person holding the cow in the stands when the music stops gets to keep it). The team's mascot, Champ, is particularly entertaining. The mythical Lake Champlain creature for which he is named is not hesitant to draw the ire of the opponents by stomping on top of the visitors' dugout, and performing amusing dance moves with some of the younger attendees. Champ's enthusiasm and antics are reminiscent of the San Diego Chicken or the Philly Fanatic, without the substantial audience. The performance is inspired.
There are a variety of inflatable activities for kids (pitching, hitting and bouncy-house stations are all available behind the seating down the first-base line), and there are regular fireworks displays and evenings when the kids can run the bases on the schedule. There is also a picnic area for large-group functions, with food designated for such groups. The new video board also helps crowd engagement, with traditional noise-meters to get folks screaming for their team. Further, on this particular night, Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson served as the Lake Monsters' first base coach, purportedly doing a coaching tour of the Oakland Athletics' minor league affiliates.
There is no outfield seating, which is a positive, since you want nothing to take away from the backdrop of the field, which is truly beautiful. The actual seating spans the infield dirt, which makes the venue cozy, but appropriate size for this level.
Simply put, Burlington, Vermont is a great college town, with numerous options to grab a tasty bite or microbrew pre or post-game. Centennial Field is located on the campus of the University of Vermont, so you'll need to trek up the hill from downtown Burlington to get from the bar/restaurant to the game. That's a rarity, and most people simply drive. In other words, while the downtown options are generally fantastic, Centennial is not well situated to simply park, eat (if you choose to eat somewhere other than the ballpark), and walk to the game.
The Church Street Marketplace downtown is quite vibrant and has numerous bars and restaurants. The good places (The Farmhouse [local burgers/gastropub], El Cortijo [Mexican] and Leunig's [Bistro]) get packed quickly, so you'll want to order no later than about an hour and a half before the scheduled first pitch and make the aforementioned trek up the hill. There are dozens of quality options, but make a decision quickly. It isn't far to Centennial, but downtown does get busy that time of night. Fans of the Lake Monsters have the advantage of having the vast majority of the home games played while school is not in regular session, so the traffic is not nearly as congested as it is during the academic year, but leave enough time regardless. If it were more convenient to walk to Centennial from downtown, Neighborhood would likely get five stars.
Lake Monsters' fans are knowledgeable and supportive, but it's not an exceptionally difficult ticket to get. Because winters are long in Vermont, locals tend to be more active than passive in their recreational pursuits, particularly when it's nice outside. Accordingly, a trip to Centennial Field tends to be more occasional than regular for all but the most diehard NY/Penn League followers. That impression, combined with the summer population base, and a facility which can hold over 4,400 fans, means that walk-ups can invariably get a good seat. The transient nature of Single-A players also plays a role, as there is a tremendous amount of roster turnover from one season to the next, making it challenging to become loyal to any particular player. Of course, no player wants to spend much time in Single-A.
Family-friendliness also dictates that the level of attention to the game will vary throughout the stands. It is baseball, after all, and the pace can make younger fans antsy in their seats. Minor league games are a good place to test whether your child's interest in baseball makes him or her worthy of an investment in a major league ticket.
There is both free and inexpensive ($3) parking at Centennial Field. The pay lot is adjacent to the field, but the spots are pretty limited, so get there early if you want the convenience. Across the street and up a couple of blocks are some lots on the Trinity Campus at UVM. It's about a 3-5 minute walk to the ballpark from the free parking lot.
Like most athletic facilities on a University campus, the roads in and out are single lane, and the ballpark is a bit tucked away and not highly visible from the road (which is viewed as a positive by most folks). So, it can be tricky to locate the first time you go. Restrooms are clean and convenient.
As noted above, taking a family to a Lake Monsters' game is about the same cost as going to the movies, but the entertainment value is overwhelmingly greater. Particularly for children, the distractions, activities and snacks make this feel like going out for a fun night where there happens to be a baseball game being played. The setting is fantastic, and the Vermont evening air makes the experience one to cherish. The product on the field is showing signs of improvement, as well, as the Lake Monsters were division champions in 2011.
Vermonters have a reputation of being "nice folks," and that perception is generally upheld at Lake Monsters' games. The staff is courteous and accessible. The promotions and Champ reflect how the Lake Monsters try to put on a good show for the fans. With the abundance of smiling faces in the crowd, it appears they're doing their job well.
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