It was the University of Maine’s Hot Stove banquet and the guest speaker was University of Miami coach Ron Fraser.
Fraser and University of Maine baseball coach John Winkin, a pair of New Jersey natives, had struck up a tremendous friendship and healthy rivalry. Maine often played Miami on its spring trip.
In 1988, the Hurricanes became one of the first national powers to play in the Northeast when they ventured to Old Orchard Beach for a three-game series with Maine. Two years later, they came to Mahaney Diamond for a four-game set.
At the Hot Stove banquet, the witty Fraser was discussing a humorous situation that had occurred during a recent game.
He said his starting pitcher was getting lit up so he had to lift him for a reliever.
Fraser, who retired with a record of 1,271-438-8, two NCAA titles and 12 CWS appearances in 30 seasons, motioned to the bullpen to bring in the reliever.
But as the young right-hander jogged toward the mound, an uneasy feeling came over Fraser.
“I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t even know his name,” quipped Fraser, who relied on a plethora of assistant coaches.
The embarrassed coach asked the catcher what the pitcher’s name was.
Needless to say, he didn’t have time to find out much about his reliever from the catcher so instead of giving the pitcher specific instructions like “keep your slider down,” he probably said, “go get ’em.”
That was during the heyday of Maine baseball.
The five College World Series appearances in six years made the Bears the talk of the state and they also became the darlings of Omaha: the Snowbirds Who Could.
The program’s primary financial boosters, Bill Palmer, Harold Alfond and Larry Mahaney, were legendary for their contributions to the program.
The three of them took tremendous pride in the baseball team’s accomplishments and what it meant to the state of Maine. And they made sure Maine had more resources (i.e. scholarships) than their opponents in the Northeast.
Maine’s spring schedules were dotted with nationally-ranked teams and one of the signs of respect was the hostile heckling Maine received from fans in places such as Austin, Texas, where a fan once dangled a hamburger from a fishing rod over the Maine dugout to poke fun at stocky pitcher Mike Ballou.
Winkin never backed down from a challenge. He embraced them.
There has been such a dramatic change in the baseball landscape since Maine’s last CWS appearance in 1986.
The Sun Belt schools got their wish to have at least two top-16 schools sent to every regional to ensure the Northeast schools didn’t get their own cozy regional and take one of the eight CWS spots away from one of their programs.
It worked. No school from the East has been to Omaha since.
Palmer, Alfond and Mahaney have died and Winkin is no longer the coach.
Rivals such as Vermont and New Hampshire have dropped their baseball programs. So did Boston University. Northeastern left to join the Colonial Athletic Association.
Now Maine’s closest America East rivals are Albany (296 miles) and Hartford (297).
But Mahaney Diamond, with the FieldTurf surface, is better than ever. Maine still plays nationally-ranked teams on its spring trip and the ticket prices are reasonable ($6 per adult).
It’s not the same. It never will be. But it is still a quality product and it’s important to keep the program going to honor its legacy.