ORONO, Maine — For a guy from Bangor, Matt Haskell has had the opportunity to attend some pretty big baseball events. Haskell’s been to All-Star games, the Subway Series between the Yankees and the Mets in 2000, and he saw one of the 2004 World Series games in which the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals for the championship.
Nothing, however, prepared him for the few days he spent last week at the World Baseball Classic in Puerto Rico. Haskell, the owner of the Bear Brew Pub, and a group of friends and co-workers followed former University of Maine baseball standout Curt Smith as he and the Netherlands national team upset Puerto Rico and a powerhouse Dominican Republic squad.
The group not only had a chance to watch games, but they also spent some after-hours time with Smith and some Major League Baseball stars — including David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox.
“I’ve been to a lot of intense Red Sox games,” Haskell said. “Caribbean baseball is like World Cup soccer. These people absolutely love it and the atmosphere is incredible. There are flags of their countries flying everywhere. Men, women, kids, they all love it. There’s lots of fanfare around the stadium.”
The Maine group also included Orono natives Alex Kelley, a bartender at the Bear Brew, Haskell’s friend Andy Galeati, who is also from Orono, and Smith’s girlfriend Brittany Burnett, a Bear Brew waitress.
The three men watched the Netherlands beat Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, although Smith did not come off the bench in either game. Burnett stayed in Puerto Rico a little longer and had a chance to see Smith play in the Netherlands’ shocking 2-1 upset of the Dominican Republic.
Smith figured into the win with a groundout in the bottom of the 11th inning that moved a baserunner from second to third. The runner eventually scored to tie the game and the Netherlands went on to win 2-1.
“I freaked out,” said Burnett, a graduate of Piscataquis in Guilford. “I didn’t know if they were going to win or not, because the Dominicans were ahead [by] one and we needed two. No one was hitting the whole entire game. I was sitting there with one of the players’ moms and she said, ‘Look, Curt’s on the screen.’ I’ve got the video camera in one hand, the digital camera in the other hand. It was awesome to see him on the big screen.”
Burnett was back in Maine before Smith’s pinch-hit appearance in Sunday’s 9-3 elimination loss to the U.S.
Haskell said he first knew of Smith when the baseball player came to Bangor as a member of the Curacao team which represented Latin America in the Senior League World Series at Mansfield Stadium. Smith eventually decided to go to the UMaine, where he had a stellar playing career. He is now in the St. Louis Cardinals system and played Single A last season.
Smith and Haskell got to know each other over the years. Smith arranged for some World Baseball Classic tickets for Haskell, who invited Galeati and Kenney. The Mainers sat with a small Netherlands fan contingent which consisted mostly of players’ families.
After one game, the Mainers enjoyed the San Juan nightlife at a casino with a star-studded group of baseball players, including Hanley Ramirez, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Odalis Perez, Jose Reyes, Sidney Ponson, Robinson Cano and Ortiz, whom Haskell said had a large security detail.
“They were in a private corner but eventually Big Papi did come out,” Haskell said. “He gave me a big handshake, I said, I’ve been a fan for years, waiting for the day I could meet you. He did the Papi thing, you know, he said, ‘Thanks baby, love all the support.’”
For a Red Sox fan, it’s likely nothing can replace the excitement of watching players like Ortiz in the World Series. Haskell, however, feels like he saw something comparable last week, considering the feeling in the stadium, the experience of watching a friend suit up for the World Baseball Classic, and having a chance to rub elbows with Red Sox heroes.
“I haven’t been on a vacation in like three years because business has really bogged me down,” Haskell said. “This was something I really, really wanted to do. It’s right up there with the Red Sox as far as the environment and the atmosphere. I had a smile on my face the whole time.”