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Batter Up With the Muskrats

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 8, 2013





Game Time

Laconia Muskrats play at the Robbie Mills Sports Complex.

Those who love baseball know how exciting a well-played game can be: the crack as the ball hits the bat, the crowd going wild, the competitive spirit, the smell of food in the concession stand, the warmth of the sun on a hot summer’s evening as you bask in the stands.

Thanks to the efforts of Noah Crane, baseball fans in the Lakes Region do not have to drive to Boston or Manchester to see a fast-paced, well-played game of professional baseball.

Since 2009, the Laconia Muskrats baseball team has been bringing top-notch collegiate players to Laconia. Crane and his family are long-time baseball enthusiasts and Noah played baseball for the University of Massachusetts as a pitcher in the past. He also coached a collegiate league baseball team for a number of years and worked on the business side of running a baseball team as well. As manager of the Muskrats, Noah combines coaching and business skills.

The many loyal fans that attend Muskrats baseball games at the Robbie Mills Sports Complex on Parade Road in Laconia can’t wait for the season to begin each spring. They know the collegiate players hand-picked by Crane will bring good skills to the team, making for exciting games.

The Muskrats started when Crane’s family purchased the Manchester (Connecticut) Silkworms, a team that was a member of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Crane knew the team would need a New Hampshire home base and he felt that Laconia would be a good place for the team to offer a season of games each summer. (The Crane family knew the Lakes Region quite well and had vacationed on the lake in the past.)

“I approached Eileen Cabanel, at the time the city manager of Laconia. That was in 2009,” Crane recalls. “She told me she knew nothing about baseball! But she went on to say there were plenty of people around who knew about the game. She was encouraging and referred me to Laconia Mayor Matt Lahey. He has been supportive of the Muskrats since day one.”

Crane goes on to say he envisioned the Muskrats playing at the Mills field since the beginning. “It is a beautiful location for a summertime baseball game. The field is incredible with a good playing surface. As anyone involved in baseball can tell you, a big expense is putting in good lighting for nighttime games. The Mills field had good lighting, which saved us a lot of time and expense. The field also had ample parking and the location, close to downtown Laconia, is excellent.”

The property did require some renovations to meet League specifications, including a new press box, two sets of bleachers, new fencing, enlarged dugouts, and a public address system. The changes were made with the help and encouragement of the City of Laconia and local businesses. (As part of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, Crane had to receive the League’s approval, as well as to obtain an agreement with the City of Laconia to play games at the Mills field.)

Laconia Muskrats

The Laconia Muskrats’ mascot.

The next step for Crane’s new team was a name. The team asked the Lakes Region for help in naming the team. The winning name ­— the Muskrats — was submitted by a Center Harbor resident.

“We wanted a unique name, not a team name already being used by someone,” Crane explains. “It had to be a name that made sense for the Lakes Region. For example, the name the Fire Ants wouldn’t have been appropriate! We were somewhat limited for a team name in order for it to relate to the Lakes Region. We are pleased with the name, and the logo, and the fans have embraced both.”

The all-important logo was designed with help from the Lakes Region Community College Graphic Arts program. (The logo was the work of Lacey Mason and Cory Migneault under the direction of Mike Place at the college.)

Muskrats logo

Muskrats logo

The first season was in 2010 and it was a good summer. Crane concedes it took time for the public to understand what the Muskrats team was doing. Were they high school baseball players? Were they a professional league team? Nothing like the team had found a home base  in Laconia before and it meant educating the public. “We had a lot of explaining and educating as to what a summer collegiate baseball league is.”

On June 4, 2010, an astounding 1,000 people saw the first game for the Laconia Muskrats. On hand were Mayor Matt Lahey, City Manager Eileen Cabanel, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Jeff Pattison, City Councilors Armand Bolduc, Brenda Baer, Bob Hamel, Henry Lipman, Greg Knytych, and Mark Primeau, Muskrats board members Rob McShinsky and Louis Guevin, and owner Jonathan Crane.

The Muskrats beat the visiting Sanford Mainers team with a score of 6-2.

“That first year went very well,” Crane says. “We had a great team and we made the playoffs. The games were well-attended and we have grown every year since then.”

The Muskrats, under manager Matt Williams in the 2010 season, finished in fourth place with a record of 20-22 and qualified for the NECBL playoffs. Three Muskrat players were named to the NECBL All Star team. Three Muskrats also were named to the NECBL Top Prospects List by Baseball America. The Muskrats also had their first-ever player drafted by Major League Baseball (first baseman Jason Rogers was signed by the Milwaukee Brewers).

These many accomplishments were very impressive for the new Muskrats team. Crane, however, did not sit back and rest on his laurels. He immediately began work on the 2011 season and the second season saw ticket sales increase as awareness spread that Laconia now had a very talented collegiate baseball team.

So, just who plays on the Muskrats team and how do they get picked? Crane explains, “College players are chosen by invitation only, meaning there are no tryouts. I contact college coaches to let them know I am looking for their top baseball players between the ages of 18 and 21. They make recommendations; I am looking for the best collegiate players in the country. We have 30 team members per season.”

The players who are chosen spend the summer living with Lakes Region host families. Team members come from such states as Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oregon, Alabama, and Illinois. They are like members of their host families and many families find it such a positive experience that they host a player every year.

“A lot of the players are coming from parts of the country that are hotter than we experience in New Hampshire,” says Crane. “They love it here because our weather in the summer is more moderate and not as humid as in the south and western United States. They love the lake and find a lot to do here.

“Players come here to showcase their skills for the professional baseball scouts. These guys want to play professional baseball and they know the collegiate league is heavily scouted.”

It would seem that running the Muskrats would take a large group of employees, but Crane laughingly says he is a “one-man band” most of the year. He lives elsewhere in New Hampshire, but comes to Laconia at least once a week in the off season and he spends a lot of time scouting for new players for the coming season, as well as managing the business side of the Muskrats.

The Muskrats is a non-profit organization which does employ some part-time summer help, as well as having a fleet of high school- and college-age interns and volunteers.

There are a total of 13 teams in the collegiate league and half the Muskrat games are at home in Laconia while the rest are spent traveling around New England to play the other league teams. “We play a total of 44 games in the summer season; 22 are at home and 22 are away,” says Crane.

“The public really enjoys the games. The first year the public was not really aware of the level of play and how good the players are. Now we are in our fourth season, the Lakes Region audience knows that the team members are talented, professional baseball players. The games are fast-paced and exciting. We average 400 fans a night at our home games. Some are die-hard fans that come to every game and some are coming for the first time. And the host families attend most games,” Crane adds.

If baseball fans are looking for a wonderful evening of entertainment without breaking the bank, attending a Muskrats game in Laconia is a great choice. Tickets are a very reasonable $5 per person for those 16 and up; those under age 16 are admitted for free. The Muskrats run a concession stand and outside vendors, such as Burrito Me and the Kettle Corn King, also sell food.

What does the future hold for the Lakes Region’s very own collegiate baseball league?

Crane doesn’t miss a beat as he replies, “The Muskrats will continue to grow. We will see attendance numbers climb. We have a good facility and now our main goal is to continue to grow our fan base. Of course, like every team, we want to win the New England Collegiate Baseball League championship!”

With so many accomplishments realized so fast, and with the growing popularity of the Muskrats, the goal of winning the championship may not be far off.

For information on the Laconia Muskrats, visit www.laconiamuskrats.com

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