AN INTERVIEW WITH VERMONT G.M. C.J. KNUDSEN
[December 23rd] -- The past two years haven't been kind to the Vermont Lake Monsters. Since their parent club's move from Montreal to Washington D.C., Vermont has a record of 51-100 and has finished in last place in the Stedler Division of the New York - Penn League each season.
But don't blame general manager C.J. Knudsen and his staff.
During a time when the S.S. Expo was sinking faster than an Eminem song on the Country and Western Charts, the Expos/Lake Monsters remained loyal to their parent club. Knudsen told me that one of the most popular promotions has been their “Tribute to Montreal” night that has become a yearly affair. "We bring someone in that has played for the Montreal Expos, and this year it was none other that 'El Presidente,' Dennis Martinez" Knudsen said. "He was a great guest to have at Centennial Field and the fans always love to see former Expos greats come and cheer on our Lake Monsters!"
Vermont's history with the Expos/Nationals dates back to 1994. The success - and failure - of the Lake Monsters since the early years reflects the importance of player development at the major league level. From 1994-1997 - when the Expos were producing a cadre of solid major league players - Vermont's record was a lofty 139-86, including a league championship in 1996. In the years that followed contraction talks and ownership by Major League Baseball, however, the Lake Monsters faced difficult times, crafting a 104-193 record.
Loyalty is a wonderful thing, and for the Lake Monsters, good things are about to happen. After years of drafts based on "signability," the Washington Nationals are once again stocking their minor league affiliates with talented players.
After being known as the "Expos" for more than a decade, Vermont changed it's name and colors in 2006. With great fanfare, the team introduced the "Lake Monsters" name, logo and colors to their fans last winter. I asked C.J. how the name change came about. "The process of changing the name of the team from the Expos to the Lake Monsters began prior to the 2005 season. We received over 30,000 suggestions from fans during our 'Name Your Team' contest and we certainly received a variety of suggestions. The ‘Lake Monsters’ name really stood out because of the connection to our legendary mascot, Champ, as well as his home in Lake Champlain." When asked if there were other team names that were considered, Knudsen said that the “Green Mountain Boys” was also considered but believed that "Lake Monsters" was a better fit for both the team and its fans.
The Lake Monsters play at Centennial Field, in Winsooki, just outside of Burlington. I asked C.J. if Centennial was "up to date" compared to the other New York - Penn league facilities. "Not many people are aware of this, but Centennial Field is one of the oldest baseball parks in the whole country," C. J. told me. "This year we actually celebrated Centennial Field’s 100th anniversary. As you may guess, it lacks some of the bells and whistles of the newer parks. However, what it lacks in amenities it makes up for in tradition and charm and it’s really a great place to see a ballgame." Some of the newer parks in the league are really "mini" major league parks. C.J. likes Keyspan Park in Brooklyn and the new Medlar Field on the campus of Penn State Univerisity, new home for the State College Spikes.
Justin Maxwell, who played for Vermont last year, has long been a player that has intrigued me. A product of the University of Maryland, Maxwell missed much of his college career to injuries, and was drafted on talent and not accomplishments. I asked C.J. how Maxwell did last season. "Justin was able to play in 74 of the teams 76 games this past season, so it seems as though he is over any injuries he may have had in the past. Justin’s speed and ability to steal bases was one of his attributes that impressed me the most. He lead our team this past season with 20 stolen bases and his presence on the base paths helped disrupt pitchers trying to get out of a jam."
Though the won-loss record didn't reflect it, the team had many quality players on the roster in 2006. I asked C. J. if there were any players who intrigued him. "The player our fans really got behind here in Vermont that Nationals' fans could see relatively soon is Jack Spradlin. He falls under the category of being a one of those crafty lefties like Tom Glavine or Jamie Moyer that work both sides of the plate. We had a few players who could be catching the eye of Nationals fans within a few years. Mike Daniel and Justin Maxwell really performed well and have a strong shot of making it to the big club in a few years."
I was curious as to who in the Nationals front office Mr. Knudsen talks to on a regular basis. He told me that most of his communication is with with their Director of Player Development, Andy Dunn. Matters most discussed, C. J. says, are "upcoming player transactions" as well as "potential moves affecting our team." Curious if he was able to just pick up the phone and talk to Jim Bowden anytime he wanted, Knudsen replied, "There is rarely a time when it is necessary for me to speak with Jim Bowden because I am usually in contact with Andy Dunn. The Nationals are great to deal with though and I’m sure Jim would be more than happy to speak with a representative of any one of the Nationals affiliates."
Finally, I was curious about who calls the shots regarding who plays and how often. Could Dunn call and say, "play so-and-so until I tell you to stop?" I mean, how much autonomy does a short-season manager really have? A lot, it seems. "The nature of our affiliation with the Nationals as well as the all other clubs is we provide their young players a place to play. The decisions in terms of playing time are made by the manager hired by the parent club. Our manager works closely with the Nationals to come up with plans to help develop their minor leaguers to the best of their ability, and sometimes it may take putting a player in one spot in the lineup and leaving him their for a full season no matter how he plays to help with his development."
Not the Lake Monsters.
Their website, reinvented last year, is full of all kinds of eye candy and easy to use links. Sure, they are trying to sell their products (and I highly reccomend taking a look at their on-line store -- they've got some great stuff), but it's done tastesfully and doesn't give you the sense that sales is the only reason the website is there. Take a few minutes and learn about the team, their players, history, Centennial Field and -- most importantly -- their future.
One day very soon, the Lake Monsters are going to return to the top of the New York - Penn League, and hopefully, they'll get there with Nationals' talent.
If you love the Nationals, love the Lake Monsters too. Say thank you for being part of the Nationals' community by visiting their site and introducing yourselves to all the team has to offer.
About the G. M.: 2006 will mark C.J.'s eleventh season in professional baseball. He started his career in 1995 as an intern with the Vermont Expos, before graduating from Keene State College in 1996 with a B.S. in Physical Education, specializing in Sport Management, and achieving a minor in Business Management.
Knudsen rejoined the Expos in 1997 as the Assistant General Manager and was promoted in 2000 to his current position of General Manager. During Knudsen's tenure, the Lake Monsters have continued to draw over one-sixth of Vermont's population to Centennial Field each summer. In 2003, he was recognized for his work by receiving the NY-Penn League Executive of the Year award. He also serves as the Executive Director of the NY-Penn League Charitable Foundation, which gives back to the hometowns of the league's teams. Knudsen was born in Poughkeepsie, NY and raised in Jonesville, VT. He graduated from Rice Memorial High School in 1992. He spends his "limited" free time with his family and friends, fishing, skiing, running marathons, and occasionally playing a bad round of golf.
It would make sense for Vermont to align with a team in the Northeast, but you never know. I didn't think we'd have re-upped with Vermont this past fall.
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