Signs around Wakefield advertised “Game Tonight.” Beach chairs dotted the hill. Kids chased foul balls.
Summer was back at Old Mountain Field on Wednesday night as the Ocean State Waves returned. After a year away due to the pandemic, the light blue uniforms were a welcome sight.
“We’re excited,” said town councilman Rory McEntee. “Things are starting to come back, more confidence from people in town, more tourism. Just to see people out here and the Waves back on the field, it’s huge.”
McEntee and Joe Viele of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce threw out ceremonial first pitches. The Union Fire District brought a ladder truck and extended it over the field with an American flag. The South Kingstown Police Department presented the colors for the national anthem.
With the pomp and circumstance out of the way, URI’s Dom Picone threw out the real first pitch and delivered a strike. The Waves were off and running and went on to a 5-2 victory over the Danbury Westerners.
“It’s great to be back,” said first baseman Xavier Vargas of URI, who’s in his second summer with the Waves. “Everybody loves it here. You see smiles left and right in the dugout. It’s a great time.”
Vargas is staying with the Previte family of South Kingstown, their house almost a second home at this point. Derek Previte, who has served as the team’s public address announcer in the past, watched from beyond the right field fence.
“It’s a great opportunity for these kids to come back, do what they love doing,” he said. “We’re happy to be able to welcome them into our our house, knowing we’re all vaccinated and everybody is healthy and safe.”
Players are required to be vaccinated to play in the NECBL this summer.
Jen Wokoske and son Connor, 12, cheered on Nick Hassan, who’s staying with them this summer along with pitcher Chris Chaney of Maryland.
“It’s great having them back in the house,” Jen Wokoske said. “We all love baseball. They’re great role models for Connor. And it’s just nice to feel like we’re a little back to normal. Being here for the games again, it kind of feels like life before.”
This is the third summer that the family has hosted Waves players in the past and loves seeing where their careers take them.
“One of them just texted me and said, ‘Hey, I hear it’s opening night,’” Wokoske said. “They keep in touch and it’s awesome to see what they’re doing.”
Connor plays baseball with South Kingstown Little League and in the AAU ranks, and enjoys spending time with his host brothers.
“It’s pretty cool to get to see what college kids are like,” Wokoske said. “I thought of them just as baseball players before. I try to notice what they do in the games and learn from them.”
The product they’ll put on display this summer may be extra special. College baseball players across the country felt the sting of the 2020 cancellation, and it’s still providing perspective.
“Everybody is playing the game at a whole other gear,” said Hassan, a catcher at Kennesaw State. “Our season got taken out of our hands and we couldn’t do anything about it. I think everybody is just coming out and playing 110 percent because you never know when something like that could happen again.”
Hassan was in the midst of a terrific freshman season when the 2020 campaign ended. He wasn’t able to find a spot to summer ball last summer, so he worked out at home in Fayetteville, Georgia, eager to get back on the field.
Kennesaw State annually sends several players to the Waves and Hassan couldn’t wait for his opportunity.
“Garrett Hodges and Monty Horn, they talked very highly of this place - the atmosphere and the fan base. This is the place I wanted to be,” he said. “It’s lived up to it 100 percent. It’s an amazing place. You can’t get an atmosphere better than this. Home crowd, the kids running around - it’s awesome.”
Hassan smashed a home run in the first inning, generating the biggest cheers of the night from the home crowd.
“I’ve been working with coach [Pete] Clays,” Hassan said. “To come out and see it work instantly, it’s a great feeling. Especially in front of the home crowd, it was wonderful.”
Vargas played last summer in the Newport Collegiate League, a makeshift, pop-up league organized for local players. No fans were permitted. Wednesday night’s game was more like it.
“Last year was good talent, but local guys,” Vargas said. “Now we get a broad look at the whole country. It’s fun to get out there with guys who can chuck it and guys who can hit it.”
For the Waves and their fans, it was good to be back.
“Best two months of the summer,” Previte said.