Starting the summer season with a bang


PITTSFIELD — Far beyond the right centerfield wall at Wahconah Park, past the flagpole and scoreboard and trees overlooking the field, five people were huddled around a series of wooden crates in the Pittsfield Cemetery. The cases were stocked with black cylinders, mortars containing aerial shells that, in just a couple of hours, would be launched into the night sky and explode, delighting the thousands of spectators who stuck around for the Pittsfield Suns' post-game fireworks display following the team's home opener on Saturday, June 3.

The show was the first of four scheduled post-game pyrotechnics events at Suns games this season. These exhibitions highlight the club's lengthy entertainment menu in 2017. There will be a promotion at every one of its 29 home games this season, according to the team's website.

"We kind of leave the baseball to Coach [Matt] Gedman. He's the baseball guy. We are more wrapped up in providing the fans with a positive fan experience from an entertainment, food and beverage standpoint," said Brian Flagg, the team's director of corporate partnerships, in the park's concourse during the early innings.

The events range from the practical (a Suns baseball cap giveaway on July 25) to the potentially chaotic (dog day on July 5) to the absurd (Christmas in July on July 11). But even for longtime Pittsfield baseball fan Jon Bourdeau, 70, these promotions are necessary because they bring more fans to the stadium. He has attended games at Wahconah Park since the 1960s, when future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk played for the Double-A Pittsfield Red Sox, and remembers when only hundreds of fans would show up for Eastern League games. The attendance for the Suns' home opener was 3,365.

"This weather is terrible," Bourdeau said of the brisk opener while leaning against the fence down the third-base line. "I'm tickled to death they got a crowd tonight."

Heather McBean of Lanesborough and her 6-year-old daughter, Phoenix, planned to stay for the fireworks. McBean has stood on top of a parking garage to watch them in the past, and Phoenix began jumping up and down when asked if she was excited for the post-game festivities.

"Yes!" she exclaimed.

She was not alone. In the past, fireworks nights have been among the Suns' most popular promotions, but the team has decreased the number of them this year due to neighbors' complaints about their frequency and lateness.

"Who are we really hurting by having fireworks?" Carl Palmberg asked as he watched his five colleagues setting up the show from afar. The lead technician of a group subcontracting for a company called Pyrotecnico, Palmberg has worked with the Suns on and off for the past four seasons, he said.

"They've always treated us well," Palmberg said of the Suns' management team, though he added that most sponsors are supportive. He has done displays for the Pawtucket Red Sox, helped with effects on films such as the 2016 "Ghostbusters" remake and, more recently, worked at the Boston Calling music festival in Allston, he said.

After a stint as a demolitions expert in the U.S. Army, Palmberg, 58, began his career in pyrotechnics in the early 1990s, but he has been setting off fireworks, legally and illegally, for his entire life.

"Boys and toys rhyme for a reason," he said.

Palmberg has passed along this passion to his sons, 18-year-old Nicholas and 20-year-old Carl. Both regularly work for him. On this night, Nicholas assisted with the shell and fuse preparation alongside Palmberg's wife, Dianne. Carl decided to stay home, but he and his brother put on a show at a country club in Worcester the previous weekend, according to Palmberg.

"They love it. They want to get their licenses," Palmberg said. In Massachusetts, you must work for at least three years on a professional fireworks crew, complete a safety course and obtain reference letters from licensed pyrotechnics professionals, among other requirements, to receive a license. Palmberg said he is licensed in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island for both indoor and outdoor exhibitions.

"Every time I go down the road, and I see one of those flashing lights that say, 'Fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts,' I look at it and say, 'Screw you they are.' You got to pay for a permit, and that's it," he said.

The permit application process takes about three weeks, according to Palmberg, with approval needed from the sponsor, property owner, town (or city) and state. For this event, Pittsfield Fire Department inspector Mike Sawicki also supervised the crew's work, ensuring that no spectators were within a 210-foot radius of the explosions. (The largest shells were three inches in diameter, and Massachusetts mandates 70 feet of clearance for every inch.)

As the game entered the later innings, the workers put on hard hats and ear protection. Palmberg gathered the crew. "If anything happens, meet by the big tree," he said, pointing uphill.

At 9:34 p.m., Sawicki was alerted that the outfield and beer garden areas were cleared following a 4-1 Suns victory over the Bristol Blues. At 9:35, a five-second stadium countdown could be heard through the trees, and shortly thereafter, the show commenced.

For 12 minutes, bright streaks of light filled the sky and illuminated the cemetery, temporarily turning night to day. The crowd clapped and hollered in approval.

"It went OK, except for the fact a couple [shells] didn't go tonight," Palmberg said after the finale. In the minutes that followed, some of the remaining shells went off sporadically. The crowd continued to cheer.


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