BANGOR — If a fan arrives at Mansfield Stadium a half-hour prior to the first pitch, getting a seat in the spacious grandstand is usually no problem.
But when Doug Jelmini and a contingent from Manhattan Beach, Calif., arrived at the ballpark just before 11:30 Saturday morning, the stands were completely full.
That was largely in part to the inspirational story the District 3 Senior League champions from Bangor authored at the Senior League World Series this week, advancing to the world championship game before falling to Latin America champ San Nicolas, Aruba, 8-1.
Jelmini, an assistant coach for the U.S. West regional champion which Bangor defeated on Friday to get to the championship game, set up a spot along with hundreds of other fans on a big hill off Union Street beyond the center field fence, which provided a clear view of the action.
“The whole stadium when we got here was completely full, we thought, we’ll watch it from another perspective,” said Jelmini, who was joined by manager Carlos Rojas and a crowd of Manhattan Beach parents and players.
While most folks were watching the game, others, such as a couple players from Saipan and Italy, tossed frisbees and baseballs around on this picture-perfect day.
With a capacity crowd in the ballpark and ESPNU-TV broadcasting the game, Jelmini was expecting a local celebrity to show up.
“The only thing I’m waiting for is Stephen King to walk up and sit right in front of us,” he said.
Mark Lipps, whose son, Jackson, played on Manhattan Beach’s team, was not only impressed with the support the folks in the Queen City showcased for their team, but for others as well.
“I enjoyed the hospitality of the city, it’s a short-term pain for a long-term memory,” said Lipps, who added that watching the game on the hill was similar to enjoying the sun on southern California’s beaches.
There was also a crew of lifeguards catching the first few innings atop the waterslide at the Beth Pacone Pool, which sits beyond the left-field fence.
That group included Bangor High School senior-to-be and softball slugger Hannah Lust, who enjoyed a somewhat clear view of the action from her perch on the slide.
“It’s the most amazing view you could ever get,” Lust said.
Well, not counting a tree which somewhat obstructed the view for Lust and her co-workers, which included older brother Nick.
Eventually, the pool opened to the public, and while Lust and her friends had to get back to work, plenty of youngsters stopped to check out the game briefly while waiting their turn to slide.
A Queen-sized event
Inside the ballpark, the atmosphere somewhat resembled what is typically found in Fenway Park in Boston.
Rhythmic clapping by the Bangor fans every time pitcher Cody Savage was one strike away from fanning an Aruba batter. Concession stand lines stretching nearly outside the gates — the fountain soda was nearly gone 45 minutes before the game even started. A “Let’s Go Bangor” chant when the local team loaded the bases in the fifth inning. Fans enjoying hot dogs, french fires and lobster rolls.
And, of course, a sing-along to “Sweet Caroline.”
“This is the highlight of my life, probably,” said Savage, who settled down well after the Arubans touched him for three first-inning runs. “I played on ESPN today. I’m probably never going to play baseball again on ESPN in my life. I’m just going to cherish the moment.”
Moments such as beating the defending SLWS champions from Texas, and a Manhattan Beach, Calif., team that entered tournament play on a 19-game winning streak.
That’s against the nation’s two most-populated states. Their approximate populations are 36 million (California) and 24 million (Texas), compared to 1.3 million in Maine.
“I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about this,” Savage added.
Savage had a feeling that something strange was in the air at the opening ceremony.
“There was a fire during the fireworks and that was a sign something out of the ordinary was going to happen,” said Savage, referring to when one of trees near the park burned after catching a spark from the fireworks.
Sounds like some possible story lines for best-selling author King, who was one of the driving forces in getting Mansfield Stadium built nearly two decades ago.
“This was the first time that a team from Maine has ever played for a world championship in a sanctioned Little League event,” tourney director Mike Brooker said.
It also marked the first time since the SLWS arrived here in 2002 that the Maine representatives had played the team from Latin America, and during player introductions, each Bangor player gave an Aruba player an American flag.
“It’s incredible to actually play them,” Savage said. “They’re a really good team and we stuck with them.”
It would have been sweet to walk away with a world championship, but the Bangor players were proud of their tourney performance.
“One of the boys mentioned in the huddle we’re the best in the United States. We weren’t too far away from being the best in the world,” said Bangor manager Ron St. Pierre.
Savage certainly has a lot to take away from this from a baseball standpoint.
“I’m a lot more experienced now, we just played Aruba,” he said. “If I can compete with them, I can compete with anybody.”
St. Pierre’s 16 young men captivated the hearts of not just an entire city, but perhaps an entire state during the course of this journey.
“I think this is showing people that even though we live in a cold climate, we have some talented kids, but more so with heart,” St. Pierre said.
Savage added, “We just believed, it was all in the heart. I just kept believing and fighting.”