BATTER UP The Grays in action. [Photo by Steph Oxenford]
You could be forgiven if, while wandering through the Bristol Commons last Saturday, you stopped to wonder if you had time-traveled back to the Civil War era. On this stunning, cloudless day, men in baggy, full-stitched cotton uniforms stand leisurely on the field. Some of them are stretching, some are throwing a ball around barehanded. Meanwhile, others lay out the measurements for a baseball field
But there are no dugouts, no bullpens, and no clubhouses, just trees under which bats, balls, and other equipment are placed. A crowd of spectators sits on nearby bleachers, picnic blankets, and lawn chairs, waiting for today’s old-fashioned ball game between the Providence Grays and the hometown Bristol Blues to begin.
Founded in 1878, the Grays were active in Providence until 1885. During this time, they played their home games at the Messer Street Grounds in Olneyville. The team’s highpoint came in 1884, when they won what is considered to be the first official inter-league championship in professional baseball, defeating the New York Metropolitans in three straight games. But after the Grays’ short-lived tenure in Providence, the team was nearly forgotten. That is, until freelance writer Tim Norton decided to bring the team back in 1998. Norton’s fascination with the history of the franchise and commitment to reviving it now has the Grays entering their sixteenth season, with no signs of letting up.
“I never thought we’d last this long,” says David Watson, an electrician from Cranston who has been with the team since day one. Gil Faria, who works at a Stop & Shop during the week, is also one of the longest tenured players. Brian Travers, the team captain, drives from Salem, Mass. each weekend, where he lives and teaches Math at Salem State. David and Zach Oppenheimer, brothers from East Providence who are six years apart, now have the chance to play on the same team for the first time.
There is no money involved in playing for the Grays. No fame or glamor, either. Families make up the majority of the fan base, with players tending to the little kids in between at-bats, while hooting and hollering in support of teammates taking their hacks at the plate. “Here we go now,” they say “Good eye, wait for your pitch, you’re in control here.”
With a season that begins in April and lasts until October, commitment is a must. Uniforms, bats, and balls are provided, but nearly everything else — most notably transportation — is left up to the players. The Grays play road games as far away as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Today’s opponents, the Bristol Blues, were founded shortly after the revival of the Grays. They aren’t based on an actual team from the 19th Century, but they’re just as committed, decked in uniforms with an old English letter “B” on the left side of the chest. Perhaps in keeping with tradition, or maybe just to satisfy his need for a drag, one Blues player lights up cigarettes between innings. It’s been said that booze makes an appearance during games, but on this day, players stick to water and Gatorade. Some manage to make the trip over to the hot dog stand, where soft drinks wash down mustard and relish before going up to bat. On the field, players slide into bases, leaving bright green grass stains on their wool pants.