The good old days of University of Maine baseball are clearly that — the good old days.
About the only things today’s Black Bears have in common with those of the glory years is a love of the sport and a top-shelf home field, Mahaney Diamond.
Yet the memories of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s linger because so many of the Black Bears from that era remain close to the game or the area.
You don’t have to look far to find Joe Ferris or Dennis Libbey, Mike Coutts or Dan Kane, Ed Hackett or Jeff Paul, and that just makes dealing with the present reality of the Black Bears a little tougher to take.
Clearly a lot of it is beyond the program’s control.
When the NCAA took away the Northeast’s automatic berth to the College World Series, it took away one of Maine’s primary recruiting tools, a tool that lured many of the region’s top players north rather than to the baseball rich hotbeds of the south.
Orono just isn’t the destination point for New England’s premier baseball players anymore, even those from southern Maine. Just one starter on this year’s team, Joey Martin, came from greater Portland, and only six of the 31 players listed on the team’s roster were from Maine.
Contrast that to the glory days, when the Pine Tree State produced its own stars capable of playing at any level, including two of the program’s signature players in Billy Swift and Mike Bordick.
And the sport itself as a Division I entity is on increasingly shaky ground in New England. Maine’s nearest conference rival is now six hours away at Hartford, Conn., and just Connecticut, Central Connecticut State and Dartmouth will represent the six-state region in this year’s 64-team NCAA tournament field.
So concerned was the NCAA about maintaining a Northeast presence in college baseball that it put a regional tournament in Norwich, Conn., despite the fact host UConn is an at-large selection and only the No. 2 seed in that four-team field.
Such a gesture likely won’t make a difference in the future of any other New England baseball program threatened by economic woes or lack of interest, and that just makes the challenge of maintaining a competitive program in Orono or anywhere else in the region even greater.
But most of this area’s baseball fans already understand the college baseball world as it now exists, and that Maine is very unlikely to ever step into Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha again without a ticket.
Yet because of attrition in the region’s baseball ranks, the bar for at least qualifying for the NCAA tournament also has been lowered significantly.
Win the six-team America East and you’re in, which isn’t saying a lot given that the conference currently is ranked as the 29th strongest baseball league in Division I — and there are only 32 Division I conferences nationwide.
Yet Maine has been unable to achieve that goal since 2006, and hasn’t come close the last three years.
This year’s team showed modest improvement, but a 34-22 record and the team’s first trip to its conference tournament since 2007 was muted by a disappointing postseason experience, when the Black Bears were ousted from the America East playoffs with two straight losses by a combined 16-1.
Hopefully things will get better again next year, but one thing is certain. The good old days of University of Maine baseball are clearly that — the good old days.