BANGOR — The behind-the-scenes work to create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of the world’s top 15- and 16-year-old baseball players looked so matter-of-fact on Thursday.
The grounds crew at Mansfield Stadium was busy painting Senior League World Series logos on the plush infield grass and building a new pitcher’s mound.
At the front of the stadium, work was being done to finish organizing the concession booth, while not far away a parent of one of the Bangor players was finishing his painting of more than 20 picnic tables.
Other volunteers were setting up a souvenir stand under the tent where players from around the United States as well as Aruba, Canada, Italy and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands will eat lunch and dinner each day.
So much activity, but also so much routine in preparation for the SLWS, which will be held in Bangor for the ninth consecutive year beginning at noon Sunday.
“We have good people who work here, probably about 50 people working on the World Series year in and year out and 10 or 12 who have really oversight responsibilities in certain areas,” said Mike Brooker, who has served as the tournament’s director since the SLWS moved to Bangor in 2002.
“We’re to the point where everybody knows what they’re supposed to do and they do a great job.”
Each year presents its unique challenges, for sure, such as getting teams from around the country and the globe to Bangor in time for opening ceremonies and raising the money needed to stage this event amid trying economic times.
But led by Brooker, a former coach and longtime administrator within the Bangor Little League system, the Senior League World Series has become not only a rite of late summer in the Queen City, but a staple of the Little League world championship schedule.
“From the first year we had the World Series here, Little League has expressed to me that we’ve exceeded their expectations, and now we’re just maintaining it,” Brooker said. “I firmly believe, and I’m told this when I go to [Little League] Congress or when other people come here, that we’re the best World Series Little League Baseball puts on outside of Williamsport.”
Birth of an idea
Born in Limestone, Brooker grew up in Virginia only to return to the Pine Tree State after a stint in the Marines.
He went to work for the U.S. Postal Service, but also found time to volunteer with the Bangor West Little League program when his son Travis became of baseball-playing age.
Brooker first coached a Farm League team in 1990, then moved up the ranks to where he coached a state championship 11- and 12-year-old team in 1994.
Brooker continued to coach Little League through 1997, then moved on to the Junior League and Senior League levels as well as taking on administrative duties within the Bangor West Little League program that included being its vice president for baseball.
That led to his eventual role with the SLWS.
“Part of Bangor West Side’s constitution is that the vice president of the respective sport, either baseball or softball, is also the tournament director,” he said. “So either that person or his or her designee is the tournament director for any tournaments the league hosts.”
As Brooker assumed those duties, Senior League baseball had a different structure in the Northeast.
There was a U.S. East regional during the late 1990s as there is now at West Deptford, N.J., but back then it was just an eight-team tournament, with all of the New England states but Massachusetts relegated to a qualifying tournament to earn one spot in the regional.
“In 1997 we thought the Senior League group that we had was going to win the states because that was the group that had won as 12-year-olds, but they got beat,” Brooker said. “That was also the first year I became aware at the Senior League level the state champions of New England did not automatically go to a regional tournament.”
Bangor won the right to host the New England divisional tournament in 1999 and 2000, but the fact only one state champion from that event qualified for the U.S. East regional got Brooker and others in the local Senior League community believing they could provide a more all-inclusive regional tournament.
So they applied to host a 12-team U.S. East tourney in 2001 that would include all of the New England state champions.
“Once we became aware of the situation and after we hosted the New England divisional in 1999 and 2000, the light bulb just went on for me and I thought, ‘That’s not really fair to the New England kids that they get one berth while the rest of the teams in the Northeast get to go directly to a regional. The rest of the New England kids ought to have that same opportunity.”
Ultimately West Deptford retained the 2001 East regional by committing to a 12-team regional, but all wasn’t lost for Bangor.
“We really were disappointed that we didn’t get the East regional,” said Brooker, “but as it turned out that was because Little League already knew that the World Series was going to come up for bid in 2001, and the first time they saw our facility they knew they had a gem.”
The series comes to Bangor
In 2001, Little League officials in Kissimmee, Fla., decided to end their run of more than two decades as host of the Senior League World Series.
And while Bangor’s Little League leaders didn’t know it officially at the time, they already were being envisioned as the potential next host site by officials at Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa.
“Although they didn’t come out and tell us that when they said they were keeping the regional in New Jersey, [national Little League executive] David James told me on the phone, ‘I know you’re going to be disappointed, but keep your chin up because I think Little League has other plans for you.’”
Brooker subsequently received a phone call in 2001 to gauge their interest in the Senior League World Series.
“I called a couple of people and asked if we were ready for this,” said Brooker, “and everybody said yes, so we put together a package showing what we would do, how we would do it and that we were financially able to do it.”
A letter of support from Bangor author Stephen King — who had funded construction of Mansfield Stadium a decade earlier — eased any fears Little League might have had about Bangor’s ability to support the Senior League World Series for the immediate future.
Still, the city was just one of four candidates to become the new host site along with Toccoa, Ga.; Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., and Charleston, S.C.
“When I heard the four finalists I actually really got excited because I thought we had a good chance,” Brooker said, “the reason being that Toccoa already was hosting a regional, so if they gave it to them they were back to square one because they would have to find another site to host the South regional. And I didn’t think it was going to South Carolina because the year before Easley, South Carolina, got the Big League (ages 17-18) World Series, and I didn’t think they’d put two in South Carolina.
“I didn’t think they’d give it to Tampa-St. Pete because one of the things they said to me was that they were looking for a community where it wouldn’t be overshadowed by everything else, and Tampa-St. Pete is a big metropolitan area.”
Brooker’s assessment proved correct, as Bangor was awarded the Senior League World Series beginning in 2002.
“I actually got the call on a Friday night in mid-October at a Bangor High football game,” said Brooker. “I told [BHS announcer] Joe Nelson, and we made the announcement over the public address system that we had got it. It was exciting.”
Eight years and counting
The Senior League World Series has survived — and sometimes thrived — in Bangor for the past eight years thanks largely to the work of a dedicated group of volunteers and the jewel that is the baseball diamond at Mansfield Stadium.
“It all starts with the stadium,” said Brooker. “Ron St. Pierre has done a great job with the field, and Dave Mansfield does a great job with his concessions and keeping the stadium looking good. I always know the stadium is going to be taken care of, and I know the field will be ready.”
Brooker also credits several contractual partners that provide services such as the Holiday Inn on Odlin Road, where the players stay during the series, and Cyr Bus Lines, which transports players to and from the motel. There’s also the culinary arts program at the Penobscot Job Corps, which caters two meals per day for the players at the game site.
“There are so many people who are part of this,” said Brooker, “but everybody knows their roles, are happy with their roles and they get the job done.”
The major challenge facing tournament organizers each year is fundraising, as the SLWS requires an annual budget of about $175,000, including in-kind contributions.
“We need $50,000 in sponsorships every year,” said Brooker, “and $75,000 would make my heart race less.”
The tournament got off to a fast start financially with a surge of sponsorships for the first year of the event in Bangor leaving the SLWS budget with a healthy surplus.
Since then, the tournament has made money some years and lost money in other years.
This year, with the number of sponsorships affected by the slow economy, Brooker hopes to break even.
“Everything costs more, and with the economy being what it is it’s tough to get sponsors,” said Brooker. “Our big sponsors are there for us, but what’s more difficult are the smaller sponsors. It’s harder and harder for them. We are a small community, and there are a lot of people pulling at them.
“We’d love to find a sugar daddy out there, someone who wants to write a $50,000 check every year, and then it could be the ‘Senior League World Series sponsored by ABC Company.’ I can’t call them an official sponsor of Little League, because to be an official sponsor of Little League you have to go through Williamsport, but I can call it the ‘Senior League World Series sponsored by ABC Company.’”
Some tourney supporters also have gotten more creative with their fundraising. This year, for instance, instead of an outright donation the local Elks Club is sponsoring a $20 50-50 raffle with 500 tickets being sold. If all the tickets are sold, $5,000 will go to the winner and $5,000 will go to the SLWS.
The SLWS also is capitalizing on the success of the Bangor Waterfront summer concert series, as Webber Energy Fuels and Sargent, Tyler & West have donated the use of their nearby parking lots so SLWS players and officials can generate income by parking concert-goers’ cars there.
Brooker is adamant that an investment in the Senior League World Series pays multiple dividends within the Greater Bangor community — both in terms of visibility and as an economic multiplier.
“We are truly a worldwide event. People follow these Little League tournaments on the Internet like you wouldn’t believe,” said Brooker. “During any given year, there’s 22,000 to 24,000 hits on the website every day, and they’re coming from 30 states and 30 countries.
“We’re getting worldwide attention focused on Bangor, and more importantly we’re getting people going back to New Jersey or Cartersville, Georgia, or Houston, Texas, or Hilo, Hawaii, and they’re telling their friends ‘you would not believe the time we had in Bangor.’”
Brooker says the tournament also has a significant direct impact on the local economy. For example, the SLWS buys 56 motel rooms to house players for their eight- or nine-night stay in the Queen City, and he estimates that fans of the teams require another 220 to 250 rooms for a similar time frame.
“Every one of these teams brings fans with them, some more than others, but they’re here for eight or nine nights, buying motel rooms, buying meals, renting cars,” he said. “These aren’t day trippers. You talk to any motel on Odlin Road or Hogan Road, and they’ll tell you the World Series is their biggest week of the year other than the high school basketball tournament.”
Brooker also considers his role as tournament director one of the best personal investments of his time that he could imagine.
“The stock answer I give to people about why I still do Little League in the summer and am involved in the hockey rink during the winter is what else am I going to do, sit home with the wife?” he joked. “But I enjoy sports and youth sports, and I think most people know I have a passion for this.”
His SLWS responsibilities are time-consuming with duties ranging from acting as liaison between the host site and the Williamsport headquarters to ordering tourney souvenirs, doing background checks on volunteers, and coordinating the teams’ travel.
It’s a labor of love, to be sure, but one Brooker continues to do with a heavy heart since the death of assistant tournament director Danny Clifford of a heart ailment in October 2007.
“I lost probably the best friend I had and a guy who shared my passion for this tournament,” he said. “Every time something had to be done, you knew Danny would have already taken care of it or he had the knowledge to get it done. He was one of those jack-of-all-trades kind of guys. He could do anything.
“Now when there’s a problem, I just say that if Danny was here he could handle it, so we just have to make sure it gets done.”
Brooker and Clifford had envisioned working together on the Senior League World Series for 15 years, and in Clifford’s absence Brooker is still operating on the same time line.
“I said when we got it that I wanted to do it for 15 years,” said Brooker, who works for the state Bureau of Unemployment Compensation. “That said, I had Danny with me then. At the time we thought 15 years would be good because that would get me to 60 and Danny to 62, so we thought we’d try that and see where we were at that point.
“I’m still going for 15 though, and then we’ll see.”