Copyright Steve Barlow Republican-American 7/27/21
Baseball has been there since 1880s; it’s Tri-State League’s farthest outpost
Boasting a strong right arm on the mound and a sure glove in the infield, Watertown’s Mike Cipriano could have played almost anywhere in the Tri-State Baseball League this summer. But when his former prep school teammate, Nathan LaChaine of Salisbury, invited him to join the Amenia Monarchs’ roster, Cipriano jumped in his car for the hour’s drive north to the Tri-State’s farthest outpost. When the 20-year-old arrived in this hamlet due west of Sharon, Cipriano, who pitches collegiately for Bryant, found a young, talented ballclub, perhaps the best baseball setting in the league, undoubtedly the best fan support and a rich tradition unequaled on the other side of the state line. “Up here, you’re in the middle of nowhere playing ball,” Cipriano said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
According to lore, Abner Doubleday laid out the first baseball diamond in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. Not long after, they started playing in Amenia. The game’s roots here go back at least to the 1880s, when a town team competed in the old Hudson Valley League. In 1934, the Monarchs (no one knows the origin of the nickname) were a charter member of the Interstate League.
When the Interstate League crumbled in 1968 over the excessive use of ringers, out of the ashes arose the Tri-State League, which then included towns like Dover, Pine Plains and Millerton in New York; Lakeville, Sharon and Winsted in Connecticut, and Sheffield in Massachusetts. For more than 20 years, the Monarchs dominated, winning 10 Tri-State pennants. Hundreds of spectators ringed the local field at the Sunday games, which had to finish in time for the farm boys on the team to hustle home and milk their cows.
In 1992, the Monarchs’ then manager, Tom Downey III, got a call from a realtor friend, who had a client interested in pitching for Amenia. It was former Yankees hurler Jim Bouton, the baseball iconoclast who authored “Ball Four.” Bouton showed up in a straw hat and cutoffs, Downey recalled, and threw batting practice. He liked it so much that he asked if he could pitch in a game. Downey, a devout Yankees fan, quickly consented. “He’d let me know which weekend he’d be up and then he’d pitch a few innings,” Downey said. Bouton was 52 at the time and throwing to a local legend, catcher Mike Kohut, who played until he was 57. “Bouton said they were the only battery in the country over 100 years old,” Downey noted.
As the 1990s marched on, the core of the Amenia dynasty aged and retired. In 1995, the team was disbanded. In 2005, though, it was reborn with Downey again at the helm.
Five years ago, he turned over the reins to his son, Tom “Scooter” Downey IV, a former Monarchs bat boy, who this season managed the young club to a third-place finish. Several things have changed over the years. Amenia is the only New York state team left in the Tri-State League, whose center has shifted to the Naugatuck Valley. Games now include long rides to Wolcott, Waterbury and Southington. “We’re kind of in no-man’s land. We can drive into Connecticut or we could drive farther into New York state,” said Scooter Downey. “I think the caliber of baseball in this league is the best.”
The town has lost many, but not all, of its dairy farms. The growth industry is rich New Yorkers and celebrities buying weekend homes. NFL quarterback Tom Brady and former Yankee Mark Teixeira both reportedly own multimillion-dollar homes at the Silo Ridge Golf Club development south of the village.
“There’s a rumor Derek Jeter has one, too,” Downey said. “We don’t know that for sure, but the other guys have been seen in town.” The fans, though not as numerous as a century ago, are still as loyal. At a recent week night game, more than 60 people watched. On weekends, the number swells closer to a hundred – easily the best attendance in the league. The Monarchs play at Doc Bartlett Field, which was built with volunteer labor in 1984. Opponents swear the meticulously groomed infield gives the truest hops in the league.
Even though Amenia is the Tri-State’s second-smallest town, Bartlett is one of only three league diamonds with an electronic scoreboard. The others are Fuessenich Park and Municipal Stadium. Out behind the left-field fence at every game sits the Farkas-Boyles Fan Club, named for two deceased diehards, Gabby Farkas and Big Bob Boyles. The membership now consists of Walt and Laurie Bates and Warren and Jackie Gordon, four middle-aged fans who treat both teams to a yummy meal after every game. The most recent spreads featured steak sandwiches and tacos.
Four years ago, Jackie Gordon asked Downey if her son, Russell Boyles, who has cerebral palsy, could join the Monarchs. His gift that Christmas was an Amenia uniform, and the grandson of Big Bob has been on the roster ever since. This year, Boyles, 23, went to the plate three times, walked once, was hit by two pitches and drove in a run. The fan club stages a golf tournament each year to raise money for team expenses, and the town folk, unbidden, pitch in, too. “Come March, $50 checks start arriving in my mailbox,” said Downey.
At last week’s game against the Terryville Black Sox, a pair of octogenarians, Katharine Dunlop and Dan Brown, were perched behind the backstop. Dunlop’s grandsons, Colby and Mackenzie, anchor the Monarchs’ pitching staff. Brown, a retired municipal architect in New York City, has no kin on the team, but has been attending faithfully since he moved to Amenia in 1979. “These are my kids. I live vicariously through them,” he explained. Years ago, he used to sit and trade stories at games with the field’s namesake, William “Doc” Bartlett. Contrary to his nickname, Bartlett owned a hardware store. His true love was baseball.
The uncle of former major league pitcher John Lamb (and, by marriage, of Steve Blass), Bartlett was involved in baseball in Amenia for more than 60 years as a player, coach, manager, scorekeeper, groundskeeper and announcer. He even wrote the game stories for the local press. Thanks to their best record (14-3) since their rebirth, the Monarchs received a first-round bye in the Tri-State playoffs. They’ll be hosting when the second round begins Friday. Expect the house that Doc built to be full. “When we played here in the playoffs two years ago, it was packed,” said Terryville’s Tony Patane.
Up here, in the middle of nowhere, there’s no better place to be and no better feeling in the world.