I’ve been following sports for as long as I can remember but until this year, that connection was limited to watching games on TV, playing video game simulations, and tracking statistics. The closest connection I had was playing sports myself and to professional sports, watching from the stands. Though I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about the history and current state of the sports world, I never before had the inside access to professional sports that interning for the Rockland Boulders would give me.
Before the 2016 season, I’d attended plenty of Boulders’ games since they’re the only pro sports team that plays in my home county of Rockland. It’s a lot more convenient than spending the time and price required to go see a game at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium, as much as I love visiting those stadiums. The Boulders belong to the Canadian-American Association (Can-Am League), an independent minor league consisting of three teams each from Canada and the northeastern United States. Their home field, Palisades Credit Union Park, is as beautiful a stadium as you’ll find in minor league baseball, distinguishable by its unique short porch in right field and Rockland’s own version of the Green Monster in center.
The best part of interning for the Boulders was having the feeling as though I was a part of the team. Following a team for an entire season, and spending a great deal of time during games right next to the dugout, is a different sort of dynamic than watching from afar. I, along with the other interns who were able to stay until or near the end of the season, were able to appreciate being a part of a championship run and what it meant to get to that point.
The intensity level was incredible towards the end of the season, when the Boulders were chasing that Can-Am League title, which would have been their second. Unfortunately, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but Rockland did reach the final and deciding game of the season, which is a big accomplishment. This was despite some injuries to key players and two of the team’s top starting pitchers having their contracts purchased by the Arizona Diamondbacks. On top of that, the Boulders found themselves on the brink of elimination multiple times. In the first playoff round, Rockland fell behind two games to none against the Quebec Capitales in a best-of-five series, but battled back to sweep the next three at home in dramatic fashion. In two of those three games, the Boulders lost leads late, only to win on walk-offs. The first of those was an epic 16-15 slugfest in which the Boulders led going into the ninth, gave it up, and then won it on a walk-off home run. Two days later in a do or die Game 5, third baseman Mike Fransoso drilled a 9th inning one-out hit into the right center field gap to win the series and advance into the championship round, upon which the whole ballpark went nuts. I’ve witnessed countless walk-off hits, game winning drives, and buzzer beating shots over the years, but those amazing postseason comebacks will forever be engrained as some of my favorite sports memories.
Being at Palisades Credit Union Park every day had a lot of added perks to it. One of the cool things about minor league baseball is that the really good organizations go the extra mile to enhance the fan experience and add extra entertainment value to the game. In the middle of the season, world-renowned aerialist Nik Wallenda high-wire walked across the stadium, and I had the honor of helping support the wire. We also had guest appearances by famous sports figures like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Bruce Harper, and Sgt. Slaughter. In small minor league ballparks, the fans often get a chance to meet and greet these stars.
Of course, one of the staples of the Rockland Boulders’ fan experience is the Bread Race, run at the end of the fifth inning every game. It’s similar to the mascot races done by teams like the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers, but the crazy, random things that often happen to the mascots in the middle of a race keep it interesting each game. These include, but are not limited to, getting attacked by Godzilla, stuck with a lightsaber, or clotheslined at the finish line.
From a baseball sense, I got to witness my fair share of special games, like when teams from Japan and Cuba came to Rockland. The Japanese players comprised an all-star team from the independent Shikoku Island League Plus, and as someone who is fascinated with different cultures from around the world, it was a wonderful experience to witness my first international baseball game.
When the Cuban National Team came to Rockland it was special not only on a Cam-Am level, but also for baseball on a national level. As the United States and Cuba only recently improved relations with each other, this series marked the first time the Cuban National Team came to the United States since they played exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. The stadium was packed for all three games, which provided a great opportunity to draw attention to the Boulders both locally and nationally.
Above all, working at the ballpark helped me view sports in a whole different light. It’s easy to root for certain players from a distance, but being around a team makes you realize how much work is put in for athletes to get where they want. What I like about independent baseball is that the vast majority of players have a true passion for the game of baseball. Many are vying for a shot in a big league organization, like Stephen Cardullo, a former Boulder who played for the Colorado Rockies last year. Another notable player who played indy ball in 2015 has become a big league star – Rich Hill. Success stories like those are proof of the talent level present on many independent league ballclubs.
While I didn’t get a ton of chances to speak with the players, there were a few Boulders players and coaches in particular who I’ll always have great respect for, as they would always stop to talk to us interns and showed us a tremendous amount of respect. It might not sound like much, but it’s something I greatly appreciated.
Last season was a truly valuable experience that hopefully can lead to more opportunities like it. Not only did it present a new career option for me, it also gave me so much more insight to the professional sports world, something I’ve been intrigued by since I was born.