NEWPORT, R.I. -- Historical and picturesque Newport, located on an island off the Rhode Island coastline, is renowned as the city that was America's First Resort, and remains a prominent New England summer resort community.
It is famous for its Newport Mansions, lavish, multi-million dollar structures which represent exceptional elegance and inspiration in architecture, art, interior design and landscapes through 250 years of American history.
Quirky little Cardines Field, a quaint, oddly-shaped, wooden baseball structure located on America’s Cup Avenue in Newport, fits seamlessly into the rich architectural history that symbolizes the city. A local landmark, it is believed to be the oldest ball park in active use in the United States, dating to 1908.
Much like its more-famous contemporaries at the major-league level, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park, Cardines Field is a definition of quirky, patchwork design in ball-park construction.
The facility is shoehorned into a small corner lot in the older sector of Newport, and effectively serves as a buffer between the encroaching residential and commercial sectors in the area.
The grandstand along the third-base line is so restricted in available space by the street access along America’s Cup Avenue that it encroaches within 15 feet of the third-base bag, and literally hugs the left-field foul line. The backstop is a mere 30 feet from home plate. The oddly-shaped, 20-foot-high outfield fence and cozy dimensions in right field are a factor of the close proximity of residential housing. A large, rundown private warehouse butts up against the right-field foul line.
Not only are a wild assortment of nooks and crannies an integral part of the facility, both on and off the field, but the odd shape of the structure does not allow for a dugout along the third-base line, or a bullpen in right field. Curiously, both teams use the same dugout along the first-base line and utilize the same bullpen down the left-field line.
In terms of modern ball park conveniences, Cardines Field has none. But its odd structure has been embraced by its latest tenant, the wildly-popular and successful Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate League.
In their 10 years playing in antiquated Cardines Field, which was named in honor of Bernardo Cardines, the first Newport citizen to lose his life in World War I, the Gulls have won four NECBL championships while setting league attendance records almost at will.
Their 11-2 win Thursday over the Mystic Schooners, played before nearly 2,200 fans in the makeup of a rained-out game originally scheduled for Mystic, was their seventh in a row. It pushed their record on the season to 25-13 and clinched first place in the NECBL’s Eastern Division for the eighth time in 11 years.
The Gulls put the game away early, scoring all 11 runs in the first three innings. Designated hitter Conrad Gregor, an impressive rising sophomore at Vanderbilt, provided the biggest blow in the game, a second-inning grand-slam that highlighted a six-run outburst. Gregor, a powerfully-built lefthanded hitter who arrived late to Newport because of Vanderbilt’s participation in the College World Series, has triggered the team’s late surge with a number of key home runs.
Even as he has missed 17 games, Gregor shares the Newport club lead with six homers, is second in batting at .325 and third in RBIs with 22. He has divided his time with the Gulls between the outfield and a DH role.
Despite his obvious status as one of the top prospects in the NECBL, Gregor was not selected to the NECBL all-star game, played Wednesday in Lynn, Mass.
“There’s no question he deserved to be playing in that game,” said Newport manager Mike Coutts, who skipped the East to a 3-1 win over the West, “but his late arrival was a factor in his being overlooked. He’s a legitimate hitter.”
Righthander Brandon Sinnery (Michigan) worked the first seven innings for the Gulls and allowed two first-inning runs, both unearned. He gave up seven hits and one walk while striking out four. In the process, he lowered his ERA to 1.00, second in the league behind teammate Jacob Lee (Arkansas State), whose ERA stands at 0.54. Both pitchers are rising college seniors that were passed over in this year’s draft.
With Thursday’s Newport-Mystic game decided early, the focus over the remainder of the contest was on Cardines Field and a lively, enthusiastic pro-Gulls crowd.
The loudest and most noticeable component of the crowd was stationed on a platform down the left field line, and it serenaded fans and players alike with songs and chants throughout the one-sided contest. Known simply as “The Irish Guys,” the group of 25-30 young men has been a fixture at Gulls games for years and are warmly embraced by both fans and players alike. They routinely will wave a large Irish flag as part of their routine to proclaim their heritage.
Newport has a long history with Irish immigrants, dating back to the mid-19th century, when a large number of Irish settled in Newport. To this day, St. Patrick's Day is an important day of pride and celebration in Newport.
Young Irish men have continued to come to Newport looking for work in recent years, and eventually settled in the area. They have become integral members of “The Irish Guys”, and are joined each summer by Irish college students with summer jobs in the Newport area.
Typically, soccer is the passion of Irish sports fans, but with no soccer teams of note in the Newport area to cheer on, “The Irish Guys” have embraced the Gulls. They show up at every home game, and cheer, chant and sing, while shouting words of encouragement throughout the entire game to Gulls players, all the while befriending many of them.
“When The Irish Guys get it going, it’s a really cool atmosphere here,” says Gulls outfielder Kyle Johnson, a Washington State product who is spending his second season with the team. “This is the most unique place I’ve ever played. It’s been a blast coming back here to play for a second season. If I could, I’d come back for a third summer.”
“Newport is the best place anywhere to play summer ball. The Cape (Cod League) may have the players, but Newport’s got the atmosphere.”
Because of the atmosphere at Gulls games and the team’s strong local following and on-field success, Newport has become recognized as one of the primary destination places for college players looking to play baseball for the summer. In fact, it may have no peer.
But the excitement surrounding the Gulls that is readily evident today didn’t always exist. The franchise was located in Cranston, R.I., through 2000, and crowds were non-existent.
Even in their first year in Newport, the team averaged less than 700 a game at refurbished Cardines Field. But with back-to-back NECBL titles in 2001 and 2002, interest in the team locally skyrocketed. The teams has averaged more than 2,000 fans a game since 2006, and topped the NECBL in attendance each season.
A five-man ownership group, led by general manager Chuck Paiva and assistant GM Chris Patsos, has overseen the meteoric rise of the Gulls franchise.
“The first two years (in Newport), we won the NECBL championship, so it kind of gave us instant credibility,” Paiva told the Newport Daily News. “I thought we would be successful, but I didn’t realize we’d be as successful on a national stage so quickly.
“In 2003, when our group purchased the team, we really wanted to establish our mission here, and our focus became more community-oriented than the previous owners, because that was not their interest. The previous ownership was running this program to try to make a profit, and to have a successful team. When we took it over, our focus changed to have a community-oriented baseball team that gave back to the community that supported us.”
Initially, Patsos and Paiva had to recruit players to come to Newport, and it wasn’t always an easy sell. Since then, things have changed significantly.
“The first three or four years, Chuck and I would call all the time to all these different (college) coaches to make contacts,” Patsos told the local Daily News. “Now we’re inundated with calls from coaches, players, parents of players. I don’t even look any more. I just wait to see who calls us and try to pick the right people.”
In addition to the unique charm offered by historic Cardines Field and the festive atmosphere at Gulls games, Newport’s rich history and ocean-side surroundings have played no small part in Newport becoming a prime destination site for college players.
Newport, founded in 1639, was once a major center of pirate activity during the late 17th and early 18th century. It was the scene of much activity during the American Revolution.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, wealthy southern planters, seeking to escape the heat, began to build summer cottages in Newport. By the turn of the 20th century, many of the nation's wealthiest families were summering in the city. They came for a brief social season to grand, gilded mansions with elaborate receiving, dining, music and ballrooms.
With coastlines to the west, south and east, Newport is a maritime city with unmistakeable beauty. Its harbors teem with commercial fishing boats, power and sail pleasure craft. It continues to be known as the sailing capitol of the United States and hosted every America’s Cup sailing competition from 1930-83.
The city has long been entwined with the United States Navy, and the departure of the Cruiser-Destroyer fleet from Newport and the closure of nearby a naval air station in 1973 was devastating to the local economy. The population of Newport decreased, businesses closed, and property values plummeted. Newport, with a population of 47,000 in 1960, now has just 25,000 full-time residents.
Clearly the city has rallied around its baseball team, and the Gulls and old Cardines Field have combined to bring back some of the glory days of Newport’s rich history, baseball or otherwise.
THE TEAM MASCOT: THE FIGHTING GULL …. AND THE STORY
During World War II, many former big leaguers were stationed in Newport. Many of these players, including future Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Bob Feller, participated in Newport's George Donnelly Sunset League, an amateur league formed in 1919. Wednesday night all-star games at Cardines Field drew thousands and required construction of temporary bleachers in the outfield.
The historic field also hosted many barnstorming all-stars, including Babe Ruth and Negro League teams like the Baltimore Elite Giants, Boston Royal Giants and the New York Black Yankees. Satchel Paige once played at Cardines.
The field remains unique with its stone façade, wooden bleachers and unique outfield angles. Stone and concrete bleachers were built along the third-base line by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936-1937, and the current grandstand was constructed by the WPA following a devastating hurricane that struck Newport in 1938. The distinctive curving grandstand section behind home plate was built a year later, but the original backstop dates back to 1908.
Over the coming decades, Cardines Field has been significantly renovated, including work done in 2000 on the grandstands, concession operation and bathrooms, and later the addition of a state-of-the-art field lighting system and significant field improvements, that were made to accommodate the Gulls.
The continued growth through construction projects to increase seating capacity at the old facility has ultimately created the patchwork, overlapping, disjointed ball park seen today. But the oddly-shaped facility has only added to the charm and intrigue of the Newport Gulls, perhaps the most unique club in all of summer baseball.