BANGOR, Maine — Matt Kinney has looked forward to coaching in the Senior League World Series beginning Sunday, mostly to see his Bronco-Hermon All-Stars experience both the quality of play and international flavor of the world championship tournament for 15- and 16-year-olds.
“It blows my mind when I think about it,” he said. “These kids are getting an incredible opportunity at a young age, even though they might not fully appreciate it for a few years.”
There might even be a tinge of jealousy in Kinney’s voice as he considers what his players face beginning with Sunday’s 5 p.m. game against San Antonio, Texas — quite something considering the state’s 1995 Mr. Baseball from Bangor High School went on to a 16-year professional pitching career highlighted by major-league stops with the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants.
“Since I’ve been back here, all the kids talk about is getting this chance,” said the 39-year-old Kinney, who also has been the varsity baseball coach at Hermon High School for the last three years since moving his family back to Maine from Arizona after his retirement from baseball in 2010. “Kids know their window to do this is small — and not only that but they have to be good enough to make the team and win the district tournament.
“But if you’re able to get this chance … I wish we had this chance when I was coming up through.”
But while Kinney’s extensive baseball resume won’t include playing in the Senior League World Series, his own Little League playing experience 27 years ago indirectly led to the event coming to the Queen City in the first place.
Birth of a stadium
Kinney was a quiet 12-year-old kid when he first gained baseball notoriety beyond Greater Bangor as the pitching ace for the Bangor West All-Stars, who captured the 1989 state Little League championship in front of a statewide television audience.
“His mechanics were very good at that age,” said Ron St. Pierre, an assistant coach for that 1989 team under manager Dave Mansfield. “We didn’t do a thing with him, we just let him pitch and he did an excellent job.
“He was also a quiet leader. He led by example, he kept his mouth shut, and all the kids liked him.”
Once that team graduated from the Little League ranks, it moved the next summer from the Bangor West Little League complex to a regulation-sized field on Union Street for Junior League play.
Game-day maintenance on that field often was the responsibility of the parents, which during the summer of 1990 included world-renowned author Stephen King, who had been an assistant coach with the 1989 Bangor West Little League team that included his son Owen.
“We were out there one day after it rained,” said Mansfield in a 2004 Bangor Daily News article. “The field was soaked, and Stephen was brushing the water out of the shortstop hole. He looked at me and said, ‘David, we’ve got to do something about this.’ I said, ‘What do you want to do?'”
King and his wife, Tabitha, subsequently donated $1.2 million for the construction of a new, state-of-the-art stadium in city-owned Hayford Park — coincidentally just beyond the backyard of King’s West Broadway home.
“The goal was simply to provide a place for Bangor kids to play baseball,” said Mansfield. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Shawn T. Mansfield Stadium — named after Dave Mansfield’s son, who had lived with cerebral palsy until his death at age 14 — opened June 20, 1992, and since then has become a coveted destination for fledgling baseball stars from around Maine and beyond.
“It’s pretty neat because the kids I played with on that [Little League] team had a great passion for baseball,” said Kinney, whose name and those of his 1989 Bangor West teammates are inscribed on a large stone near the stadium’s main entrance. “We worked hard every day and had a great experience, and because of that group, people said, ‘We want to keep these kids playing baseball and give them a decent facility.’
“Luckily Stephen King was involved, but we had a tremendous amount of people willing to help. It was an awesome deal for people to do that and allow us to keep playing.”
Kinney got to play high school baseball at the new stadium, adding another memorable moment to his burgeoning career in 1995 when he pitched a one-hitter as Bangor outlasted Portland 1-0 in eight innings to win its second straight Class A state championship.
Less than two weeks later Kinney signed with the Boston Red Sox as a sixth-round draft pick, but more than two decades later his personal perspective on the early days of Mansfield Stadium remains vivid.
“I tell the kids now they don’t understand how lucky they are to have the fields they have now and that they didn’t have to go out to Union Street, where it was just basically a field and there was nothing else to it,” he said.
“We didn’t know any better until they built this field, but today they’re all used to it. Looking back and thinking about what everybody went through to make this happen, it was just an awesome deal.”
Coming full circle
Mansfield Stadium’s reputation as a premier facility continued to grow, and in 2002 the baseball park inspired by the success of Kinney and his 1989 Bangor West teammates became home to the Senior League World Series.
Suddenly its reach was worldwide.
“I can still remember when I was 12 and we won the Little League state championship and went to the regionals, and that’s part of the reason this field was built,” said Kinney. “I got to play 16 years of professional baseball, but that was a huge moment for me and still is today.”
The role of host for the Senior League World Series includes fielding one of the 10 participating teams — a cast of entries that also features champions from Canada, Latin America, Europe-Africa, Asia-Pacific and five U.S. regions.
The opportunity for the Maine District 3 champion to advance directly to the SLWS has fostered many memories for the qualifying teams and their players, coaches and the communities they represent — likely none greater during the last 14 years than the run by Bangor’s 2010 team to the world championship game.
Of more overall impact has been the chance for players from the area to compete against and interact with peers from around the world — including a bevy of future major leaguers like Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox, Jonathan Schoop of the Baltimore Orioles, Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Kolten Wong of the St. Louis Cardinals.
“These kids don’t realize how fantastic an opportunity this is,” said Kinney, whose pro career included spending the 2008 season playing in Japan. “When are these guys ever going to have the chance again to play teams from all over the country and all over the world?
“Some might. I got the chance, but the chances of that happening at 15 or 16 or 17 years old … they don’t know how lucky they are now, but they’ll look back and see this as a fantastic deal.”
Kinney’s chance to return to the stadium he and his 1989 Bangor West teammates spurred into construction to coach Bronco-Hermon against the best Senior League teams in the world is not lost on those who have followed his career closest.
“His name is on the stone out front and this place is built because of that team, and he goes on to pitch here and pitch in the major leagues. Then he comes back to Maine and now he’s back here coaching,” said St. Pierre, more recently the longtime field director at Mansfield Stadium. “It’s a fantastic story.”
Kinney’s Bronco-Hermon players, while excited for their pending opportunity, also understand Kinney’s unique relationship with the home of this global challenge.
“It’s kind of ironic how it’s come back around,” said Bronco-Hermon pitcher-shortstop Zach Nash, who also played for Kinney’s Hermon High team that reached this spring’s Class B North championship game, also played at Mansfield Stadium. “I think he enjoys being able to have this chance and seeing us as his players being able to have this experience.
“I think he enjoys it, and I think he likes to see us enjoy it. He just loves to compete, especially in something in which he had such a big part.”
Bronco-Hermon won’t be one of the favored teams in the SLWS, but Kinney isn’t about to let this competitive opportunity pass unchallenged.
“Baseball’s a game where anyone can win on any day,” he said. “I’ve lost to teams that weren’t as good as the team I was on and I’ve also beat teams that were better than us, so if they just go out and compete and have fun and give it a good run, then it’s a successful deal.
“I want them to leave believing they gave everything they had, and if you do that you can hold your head high.”