OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — The players on the field were far too young to remember the glory days of The Ballpark, a baseball field of dreams tucked in behind the local police station that a quarter-century ago brought Triple-A baseball to the outskirts of this tourist haven.
And while that team, the Maine Guides and later the Maine Phillies, spent five years in town before defecting to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in the wake of too much fog, too many mosquitoes and too few fans, the stadium has evolved from an abandoned facility overrun by enough bushes and even trees to make a brush hog the landscaping implement of necessity to a playing surface that’s drawing raves from those who now play there in its second life.
“The field’s great, and it’s the best mound I’ve ever pitched on,” said Curtis Worcester, who Wednesday night pitched Bangor to a 3-1 victory over Gardiner at the American Legion baseball state tournament now being held at The Ballpark.
“I love it down here. We came down here during the high school (pre)season, and I didn’t pitch well then, but it’s a great place to play.”
Sure, there’s no more affiliated minor league baseball — the fans that wouldn’t drive 20 miles from the state’s largest city to The Ballpark now flock to Hadlock Field in downtown Portland to watch their beloved Sea Dogs, the Boston Red Sox’ Double-A club.
But virtually anyone who wants to play baseball at The Ballpark can do so for a modest fee. The Old Orchard Beach Raging Tide of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League are a current tenant, drawing an average of 500 fans per game. The small-college United States Collegiate Athletic Association has held its national tournament there, and once the American Legion state tournament concludes, its Northeast Regional returns to The Ballpark for the second straight summer next week.
“It’s breaking even if you don’t consider what we really need to do to continue improving the infrastructure,” said Bob Rings, a member of The Ballpark Commission that serves as an advisory board to the facility’s owner, the town of Old Orchard Beach. “We have infrastructure problems.”
Indeed, there is much work to be done. The grandstand’s cement foundation needs refurbishment and the lights need to be replaced — portable lighting is brought in for the American Legion Northeast Regional, and the Raging Tide start home games at 6 p.m. rather than 7 in order to take advantage of sunlight.
But so much already has been done under the leadership of Tom LaChance, the baseball coach at the local high school who has spurred the effort to restore The Ballpark over the last five years and who on Wednesday evening was raking the pitcher’s mound to get it ready for Worcester to pitch in the fourth game of the day.
“In 2007 you had a visionary in Tom LaChance, who knew a lot of people and pulled a lot of favors,” said Rings. “Once the movement got going they had $350,000 or more of materials donated, and then it took hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours to recreate what was here and what it probably looked like when the Maine Guides were here.”
Fortunately the original lights and plumbing worked, giving the effort a slight head start.
But at its worst roofs needed to be replaced, vandals had burned several skyboxes at the top of the grandstand, and the field looked more like an unkempt pasture than a baseball diamond.
“There were trees that were 10 to 12 feet tall spread out all over the place, a lot of shrubs, and there were vines, weeds, anything you can think of out there,” said Rings.
The burnt-out skyboxes has been transformed into an open-air terrace behind home plate, an area fit for game-night picnics and family parties.
And the field conditions are a source of pride.
“One of the people who works on the field owns his own irrigation company, and he spends a lot of time here,” said Rings. “And now there’s crushed brick landscaping around the field and the warning track. It’s all just by the script that the major leagues want.”
It’s unlikely The Ballpark will host another minor league baseball team anytime soon, as communities much larger than Old Orchard Beach routinely engage in bidding wars when an affiliate seeks a new home.
But the presence of baseball at all these days represents both a victory and an ongoing battle for LaChance, Rings and the others who have brought The Ballpark back to life. They’re determined to keep it alive.
“It’s been quite an endeavor because the town has a tight budget like everyone has a tight budget, but we’re working on it,” said Rings.
“I interview people all over the place who remember this place from the concerts and baseball that used to be here, and they all have favorable memories. They want this to succeed.”