Visitors flock to Newport, R.I., during summer for many things: sailing regattas; the Gilded Age mansions; the Cliff Walk; the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Few would add taking in a baseball game at a historic park to that itinerary. But for many locals and vacationers alike, watching baseball games in the cozy confines of Cardines Field, nestled on America’s Cup Avenue smack in Newport’s downtown, are highlights of summer nights in the City by the Sea.
Cardines Field predates even Fenway Park. Originally a water basin, it was cleared in the late-1800s so nascent baseball leagues could play in Newport. Later named for Bernardo Cardines, who was Newport’s first casualty in World War I, it became home in 1919 to the Sunset League (before floodlights were installed in 1938, the games ended at dusk), now one of the oldest amateur baseball leagues in the country. Illustrious Negro League teams like the Baltimore Elite Giants, the Boston Royal Giants, and the New York Black Yankees played at Cardines. Legend has it that Babe Ruth once pitched at the field and that Satchel Paige rested in a rocking chair outside the dugout.
By the 1980s, as tourism boomed in Newport, the dilapidated field faced the wrecking ball to make room for increased parking downtown. Civic and preservation-minded folks stepped up to save it, refurbishing the park and designated it a historical landmark. But Cardines, its wood and stone construction reminiscent of Fenway and Wrigley Field, isn’t just a monument to the past.
Since 2001, Cardines Field has been home to the Newport Gulls, one of 13 teams in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, formed 25 years ago. Gulls players live with area host families while they hone their skills in games that run from early June through the playoffs in mid-August, playing against other NECBL teams such as the Valley Blue Sox from Holyoke; the Mystic Schooners from Mystic, Conn.; the New Bedford Bay Sox; and the Winnipesaukee Muskrats from Laconia, N.H.
With admission at $5 for adults; $2 for seniors and teens; and $1 for youngsters under 12, this is one of Newport’s best bargains. Little surprise that the Gulls have led the league in attendance for the last three years — it’s one of the reasons Baseball America magazine named Cardines Field one of the five best places to play summer college baseball. It also doesn’t hurt that the Gulls have won six NECBL championships since 2001, the last one in 2014.
The 3,000-capacity bleacher seats are close enough for fans to chat with players or, seated higher up, gaze down at bustling America’s Cup Avenue. The home games are spirited, community affairs, from the hijinks of Gully the mascot to doughnut-eating contests to local honorees singing the national anthem. There’s some pretty good baseball, too. Players come from top baseball programs around the country, from Stanford University to Tulane. Two players, catcher John Mazza of Lexington and pitcher David Stiehl of Manchester, Conn., attend Northeastern University.
The concession is basic foodstand fare and relatively inexpensive: $3 for a hot dog or a grilled cheese; $1.50 for a bottle of water. There’s no alcohol, adding to the low-key, family-friendly atmosphere. The souvenir stand sells Gulls gear in the bright blue and orange team colors.
There’s a homespun atmosphere that makes games at Cardines a throwback experience to when baseball was America’s leisurely pastime. As the sounds of wooden bats cracking against balls and the announcer’s voice fill the air, you might swear you caught a glimpse of Satchel Paige sitting by the dugout.