OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Nestled next to a stand of pines a mile from Maine’s premier sand beach, The Ballpark was once lauded as one of the prettiest minor league baseball parks in the land.
But after the Triple-A Maine Phillies packed up and left town following the 1988 season, the park eventually turned into an eyesore and an embarrassment. For the past decade, it has sat idle and fallen victim to neglect and fire as trees took root across the playing field.
Ed Cunningham was on hand Monday when baseball returned to a newly revitalized park, which this week is hosting the United States Collegiate Athletic Association 2010 National Baseball Tournament. The 81-year-old Cunningham was impressed by the volunteer effort that restored The Ballpark to playing condition, bringing it back to life after many had written it off for good.
“It’s a resurrection,” Cunningham said as he looked out on the manicured field between the first and second games of the day.
The Ballpark was home to the Maine Guides, an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, and Maine Phillies, an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, from 1984 to 1988. After baseball left, it was used an outdoor concert arena, where Aerosmith, AC-DC, New Kids on the Block and other bands played.
But in recent years, the town-owned facility hasn’t been used for much of anything. An arson fire burned up a section of the skyboxes, the dirt parking lot filled up with debris and vandals did their work.
About two years ago, local resident Tom LaChance decided it was time to restore the 5,500-seat stadium. Through his efforts, a Ballpark Commission was formed, hundreds of volunteers stepped up and more than $300,000 in contributions flowed in.
Trees were removed, a new grass field was installed, the fire-damaged grandstand was repaired and the rest of the place was cleaned up.
LaChance put in the effort because of his memories as a teenager, when he sold concessions, ran the parking lot and even warmed up pitchers in the bullpen.
“I just want my kids and all of the community to have the great experiences I had here,” he said.
When it became apparent that The Ballpark was going to be refurbished, athletic directors at Southern Maine Community College and Central Maine Community College put in a bid for it to be the host field for the USCAA’s national tournament.
The tournament features 10 teams from small colleges, from as far away as Ohio. The Ballpark will be the host field again in 2011.
About 150 people were on hand when the first game got under way in cold temperatures — it was spitting snow Monday morning. Although the crowd was small, baseball’s return pleased Jerry Plante, who was town manager when the park was built and the Guides and Phillies played.
Old Orchard Beach seemed an unlikely spot to land a Triple-A baseball franchise in the 1980s. Its population was under 7,000 at the time and fog sometimes made it hard for outfielders to pick up fly balls, Plante said. Players were known to start fires out by the bullpen to ward off cold and bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
But baseball provided a wholesome touch to a seaside town better-known for its honky-tonks, loud motorcycles and sunscreen-slathered tourists.
Plante on Monday wore a jacket with a Maine Guides patch on it as he watched with a group of friends near the first-base line.
“It’s as much a vision as a dream. But for a while it was a nightmare,” he said.
Cunningham drove four hours from his East Millinocket home Monday morning for the return of baseball.
Hearing the sound of bats on balls will add to his memories, he said. Back in the day, he recalls seeing the late Major League great Kirby Puckett play his final minor league game at The Ballpark, in 1984.
Later this month, professional baseball returns to The Ballpark when two exhibition games with teams from the independent Can-Am League play there. Jack Turcotte, the current town manager, said he’s fielding calls from all over from teams interested in playing at The Ballpark.
“There were skeptics,” Turcotte said. “But the skeptics have dwindled remarkably as they’ve seen the results.”