When John Halsey tells his wife that he’ll be at church on Sunday, she knows exactly what he means: It’s not a building, but an impossibly green plot of land in the heart of Reading, where he is the owner and general manager of the Reading Bulldogs.
On one warm Sunday in June, Halsey is tidying up a particular piece of his “church”; a small stretch of dirt running from first base to second base. He’s also playing the part of groundskeeper—dragging the infield, painting lines, and trimming the grass—making sure his church (his “pride and joy”) is in pristine condition before the first pitch is thrown. It’s a fitting scene for the man who’s trying to build a new baseball tradition in Reading from the ground up.
Back in 2010, Halsey and the Bulldogs joined the legendary nine-team Intercity League. For 60-plus years, it’s been the summer playground for some of the best amateur baseball players around the North Shore. The league features college players sharpening their games away from school. Others are former college or professional players looking to maintain ties to the game they love. As coach and manager Matt Morrison explains, “It’s just something to look forward to in the summer time. In general, it’s being competitive, [competing] with a group of guys you enjoy showing up to the field with. Everyone’s got a good attitude [and] they’re all local.” And there’s a bonus for fans—every game is free. You just show up and grab a seat in the stands.
The Bulldogs’ journey to the Intercity League actually began in 2004, when Halsey worried about the future of some Reading High School players who had been together since their Little League years. “They’re going to scatter to the wind,” Halsey remembers thinking. He then asked himself, “What are we going to do? Where are they going to go?” So, Halsey hatched a plan to assemble a team that would allow local players to keep playing the game together.
The process was a long one for Halsey. He dug a little deeper into Reading and discovered the town’s incredible baseball history, giving him the inspiration to “re-join” the Intercity league in a sense. But he had to wait until 2008 to earn a spot in the league. That’s when economic conditions forced another franchise to drop out, opening the door for the Bulldogs to begin play in 2010.
The plan worked. Three of those former Little League teammates are now members of the Bulldogs. And the team has had early success: Last year in the playoffs, they pushed eventual Intercity League Champion Lexington to the brink of elimination in a five-game series.
But Halsey had a deeper goal: restoring Reading’s incredible baseball history. The town originally fielded the Reading Town Team in the Intercity League back in the 1960s. “But nobody had really made a commitment to put it together and make it work for a long time,” Halsey says. “That’s kind of my gift to Reading.”
The town’s baseball tradition dates back even farther to the 1920s and to baseball legend Babe Ruth. Back in those days, Ruth lived in Sudbury and spent his off-season time playing against local baseball teams. “He’d go home to Sudbury, collect himself, get on the train, and the first stop was Reading,” Halsey explains. “You could walk from the train station to the park. Ruth and Lou Gehrig barnstormed there and got their start against the Reading town team.” More than anything, Halsey has a deep appreciation for baseball’s history on the North Shore. Shortly after joining the Intercity League, Halsey helped create the league’s first ever “hall of fame,” which was actually a book published every year listing all the inductees, along with historical photos, stats, and other tidbits.
It’s about an hour before game time on that Sunday afternoon in June when Bulldogs players begin flocking into Halsey’s “church.” Most of the young men strolling onto Morton Field are in their 20s, athletes in the prime of their playing careers. From a distance, the player wearing number 2 looks just like the others—strong and fit. But look a little bit closer and you’ll notice he’s a few years older than everyone else; he’s Doug Flutie.
The legendary NFL alum and former Boston College football player has been a Reading Bulldog from the beginning. Flutie first met Halsey when his nephew played alongside Halsey’s son at Endicott College. After retiring from the NFL, Flutie coached baseball for years, but he wanted the chance to play at a competitive level. Flutie told Halsey that he would cut himself from the team if he couldn’t hang with the younger players. But, Halsey says, there was no chance of that happening: “He’s 49, looks 35, plays like he’s 25. Fabulous conditioning.’’
As one might expect, Flutie leads by example on the field, influencing players who are two decades younger than he is. “He’s a good teammate, the first guy off the bench when someone scores,” says second baseman Bill Cataldo. That praise is echoed by Morrison—who is himself more than a decade younger than Flutie. Morrison describes Flutie as “another coach” on the field because of his tendency to he encourage the players to communicate and to understand situations. Morrison admits that he’s often awed by what Flutie can do. “For him to compete against kids who are throwing upper 80s at his age, it’s just mind-boggling,” he says. “And he doesn’t miss a beat.”
Flutie’s teammates notice it, too. He commands respect, but doesn’t ask for it. Halsey recalls the first time Flutie lined up with his teammates to get his uniform. “He put himself at the back of the line, waited for everybody to get their stuff and to pick their number. Interestingly, the kids all left number 2 [Flutie wore number 2 for a time while he played for the Patriots]. Nobody said a word to him. Just, nobody took it.” When Flutie hears that story, he chuckles and simply says, “That was pretty cool.” And that might be Flutie in a nutshell: an incredible athlete who is humble about his skills on the field and his influence on the players. “I am just a big kid,” Flutie says. “I love the challenge of trying to compete with the younger athletes.” He cherishes the simple pleasures of the game. “I just love being outdoors,” he says, adding that he’d rather head outside to play catch than stay inside watching a game on TV.
Flutie might be the most famous Bulldog, but he’s just like every other player on the team—searching for a chance to play the game that makes everyone feel young again. Take North Reading native Kevin O’Leary. He played three years of Division I baseball at Northeastern University. He won’t play his senior year, but he’s looking for a way to stay connected to the game and the teammates he loves. When asked for how long he wants to be a Bulldog, O’Leary says, “As long as they want to keep me around.”
O’Leary is a perfect example of the type of player that Halsey wants for the Bulldogs. Players address him as “Mr. Halsey” and happily jump in on the groundskeeping duties before the game. They’re model citizens off the baseball field, too; outfielder Darren Hartwell is a star baseball and football player at Williams College. This summer, he’s taking time away from sports to tutor high school students in Indiana. Halsey says that’s the idea: to bring on board quality players and people. “We think we have the highest [collective] IQ in the Intercity League. We’ve got some bright kids.”
Fielding a team like this isn’t easy; in fact, Halsey calls it a 12-month commitment, and he relies on a staff of “baseball lifers” to make it happen. Each month in the off-season, Halsey meets with Morrison, along with Ed Silvey and Jeff Pierce. Silvey plays an integral role in scouting, but Halsey says he may have a more valuable contribution—batting practice. “He has a rubber arm,” Halsey says of Silvey. “He must throw 500 pitches. I don’t know how he does it.”
If Silvey is Halsey’s left-hand man, then Pierce—who handles public relations for the team, mans the scoreboard, and updates the team’s website, readingbulldogsbaseball.com—is certainly the right-hand man. Pierce also plays a huge role in the year-long scouting process. “We send him [prospective players’] names, and he hunts them like a dog on the Internet,” Halsey says of Pierce.
The Bulldogs truly are Reading’s team. Halsey helped create the Reading Baseball Club, Inc., which has poured $250,000 into fields around town. The philanthropy extends beyond baseball; the team has forged a relationship with EMARC, which provides support and services (such as job training and adult education) for people with developmental disabilities. “One of [EMARC’s] banners is up at all of our games,” says Halsey. “[One day] last year, they chose three of their clients to throw out a first pitch. We ended up giving them almost $3,000 before the night was over.”
Halsey wants people to know that his church is a welcoming one. The team hosts home games every Sunday in the spring and summer—ideal for a family day at the park. But Halsey is not just looking for fans, he’s trying to build a community. Relatives of players take photos, while local high school students broadcast the games on television. The Bulldogs make plenty of merchandise for fans. But it’s rarely sold; most of it is just given away to younger fans. “I think that what we’ve created in the Reading Bulldogs franchise is a legacy that can be carried forward,” Halsey says. “I think we’ve built it in a way that [it] will sustain itself.”