SANFORD, Maine — The people of Sanford have long demonstrated an affinity for baseball.
Fans here enthusiastically embraced the game at Goodall Park (built in 1915) even before future Hall of Fame slugger Babe Ruth graced the grounds during a barnstorming visit in October 1919.
Since 2002, Sanford has demonstrated its passion for America’s pastime through its symbiotic relationship with the Sanford Mainers.
Each summer, college players from across the U.S. converge on this blue-collar community to pursue their baseball dreams. This year’s Mainers roster is composed of players from 15 states, including four from Maine, and one Canadian province.
The combination of baseball talent, a historic venue, the commitment of team personnel and players and the passion of the fans make for a memorable experience for all involved.
“When you just sit here like tonight and you see these guys out here playing, it’s fascinating to me that it takes place like it does in this ballpark every summer. It’s just the coolest thing,” Mainers general manager John Webb said from his seat behind home plate during a recent home game.
Chasing the dream
Sanford competes in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, one of several sanctioned wooden-bat leagues across the country that give collegians the chance to demonstrate their potential.
“They’re not doing this for money. They’re playing for the love of the game,” said Wendy Stiles of Sanford, who attended her first Mainers game 10 years ago and has been a season-ticket holder ever since.
“I love watching this,” she added. “They’re honing their skills, hopefully for the majors, for many of them. They just want to play ball.”
The NECBL experience in some ways mirrors that of the minor leagues. Players grind through a 42-game regular-season schedule during a span of eight weeks, followed by playoffs.
The Mainers recently played games on 11 consecutive days because of a rainout.
“It’s almost every day,” said Sam Dexter of Oakland, a former Messalonskee High School star who now plays at the University of Southern Maine.
“It’s nonstop, but you’ve got to love it to be here,” he said after a home victory over the North Adams (Massachusetts) Steeplecats.
The NECBL has the support of Major League Baseball, which provides teams with funds to subsidize the cost of wooden bats and baseballs.
“The fact that they take such an interest in this league is another fascinating aspect of what we do,” said Webb, a Sanford native who has headed the Mainers since 2010 after four years as assistant GM.
“In return, Major League Baseball is able to have this for the scouts to look at and decide who’s coming along and who isn’t,” he said.
The remaining costs are absorbed by the ballclub, which is a nonprofit entity that relies mostly on volunteers. Expenses include bus transportation to games in each of the other New England states and the leasing of the ballpark.
“Transportation is a huge expense,” said Mainers assistant general manager and lifelong Sanford resident Jason St. Jean.
Local business operators such as Geoff Titherington of Bonanza Steakhouse, who is a board member, play an important sponsorship role.
Allen Mapes of H.A. Mapes Inc. has donated and helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for infrastructure upgrades at Goodall Park, including new drainage in the infield and outfield, a warning track, new fences and a batting cage, and a retaining wall adjacent to left field.
“He’s a very generous individual who has done a lot for the team,” St. Jean said.
Taking one for the team
Through the efforts of a tireless volunteer staff, unselfish host parents and a supportive fan base, the organization provides a happy and productive family atmosphere.
Webb, a criminal defense lawyer who lives in Arundel, grew up four streets from Goodall Park. He views the Mainers as a way to give back.
“The reason I do this and the reason I drive down here every night for these games is Sanford is such a great town and I feel like I owe this town for what they did for me when I was a kid growing up.”
St. Jean, a former member of the Mainers board of directors, now serves as the assistant GM. By day he owns and operates Sanford Flooring and is a corporate sponsor.
St. Jean teamed up with Webb, of the law firm of Nichols, Webb & Loranger, to purchase home and away batting practice warmup jerseys for the Sanford players.
St. Jean’s mother, Marilyn, also serves on the board of directors.
“You get out of it what you put into it. I love it,” said St. Jean, whose other duties include driving a customized golf cart — sponsored by Sanford Flooring — onto the field during one of the Mainers’ between-innings promotions.
The Mainers reciprocate with the Sanford community beyond providing baseball entertainment.
The team has its own concession stand, but also allows the Sanford High School boosters club, at a minimal cost, to operate its own food wagon outside the grandstand.
“That way, we’re giving back to the community,” said St. Jean, who explained each entity features distinct food offerings.
Mainers manager and director of players Aaron Izaryk said that while school is in session, Mainers players also have volunteered their time reading to local children.
Guests for the summer
A key element of the Mainers organization is its host family program.
People in the Sanford area open their homes to the players, free of charge, for the duration of the season.
“Our core constituency (the fans) and our host family program are the two things that make this operation run,” Webb said.
Presque Isle native T.J. Farley, who has lived in Sanford for three years, attended a few Mainers games last year with his wife Marcie, who also hails from Presque Isle.
“I always wondered, where the hell do these kids stay? You hear they’re from Michigan and wherever,” T.J. Farley said.
He inquired about the host family program and, after an interview with coordinator Steve Cabana, was selected. The Farleys are housing one player, Caden Bailey of Atlanta, Georgia, and will add another.
“Basically you need to supply a bed, food and make sure it’s a safe environment,” Farley said.
“If he’s hungry, he’ll get in the fridge and get [the food],” Farley said of Bailey. “He loves the cookies and brownies that my wife makes.”
Drake Parker of Merrick, Tennessee is staying with Cabana.
“He’s an awesome guy. I love him,” Parker said. “He’ll do anything for us.”
There are six players bunking at the house.
“There’s definitely never going to be a dull moment,” Parker said.
Erin St. Jean, Jason’s wife, said it has been a rewarding experience serving as a host family the last four seasons.
“I love that you build a relationship with these players and then you watch them grow,” Erin St. Jean said. “We absolutely love it.”
The St. Jeans are hosts to Nick Lovullo of Holy Cross, the son of Boston Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, and Binghamton University’s Mike Bunal.
Izaryk pointed out that because of the players’ busy game schedule, most of them can’t take on a summer job. A handful are paid for helping out with the Mainers’ youth baseball clinics.
Fun on the field
Izaryk has been both a player and a coach for the Mainers. The sixth-year manager, who guided the team to the playoffs each of his first five seasons, played two summers in Sanford while he was attending the University of Maine.
“Sanford’s a baseball town and this is something they can call their own,” said Izaryk, who is one of the team’s paid employees. “You drive down Main Street and there’s banners with Mainers gloves and Mainers logos. They’re very proud of it.”
Fans have the opportunity to watch numerous top-level college players. Sanford’s big-league alumni include Miami Marlins pitcher Kevin Slowey, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte and former pitcher Andy Sonnanstine.
There is a lively, fast-paced atmosphere inside Goodall Park, where music and on-field contests provide a segue between innings. The crowd is a mixture of retirees, families and energetic teenagers.
“We have a seasonal campsite at Apache Campground. We happened to be up here and I figured I’d take the boys,” said Tim Boyko of Somersworth, New Hampshire, who was accompanied by his sons Matthew, 8, and Josh, 4.
He was impressed by the affordability of the game.
“Eleven bucks for a night out, that ain’t bad at all,” Boyko said. “We may look into the season tickets for next year.”
On a recent evening, nearly 400 fans turned out to watch Sanford edge North Adams 2-1 in 10 innings. The enthusiastic crowd in the park is protected by netting that completely covers the grandstand to knock down foul balls.
“It’s a really intimate ballpark where you feel like you’re right on top of the field,” Izaryk said. “It’s a very social event.”
During a couple of lulls, a young fan stirred up the crowd with his “Let’s go Mainers!” chant.
“I love the families. They’re good, classic baseball fans,” Parker said. “I don’t hear a whole lot of heckling. They just love the game of baseball.”
Sanford players realize they are fortunate to be playing for the Mainers.
“This is a great organization,” Dexter said. “Walking through the town, everyone knows who the Mainers are and they want to come out and support us. I’m happy to be here.”