Monday, April 24, 2006

In Hadlock's Shadow

Back in the summer of 2004, a year before I had completed my manuscript for When Towns Had Teams, I was writing for the provocative Portland Pigeon, a free monthly publication, seeking to uphold the city’s longstanding tradition of alternative, free newspapers.

After being subjected to 10 years of fluff pieces, puff stories and a general lack of any real journalism on the team’s minor league baseball team, the Portland Sea Dogs, often gracing the pages of the decaying Portland Press Herald, I began to wonder why no one ever wrote a nary word about professional baseball in Maine’s largest city. The final straw, was a Mainebiz piece lauding the recent agreement between the Sea Dogs and the Boston Red Sox and all the economic development gold that would now pave the streets of the city by the bay.

Having come across some research by a team of professors from the University of Maryland, I decided the time was ripe for me and The Portland Pigeon to find out just what it was that professional baseball lent to the city. (Here's another article link related to the research done by Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys.)

My 3,300 word investigative tour-de-force was met with the usual deafening silence that any free publication, distributing 5,000 copies haphazardly throughout a city of 50,000, would be met with. However, I’m particularly proud of my investigative work and for trying to at least put professional baseball into some sort of investigative journalistic context. If nothing else, it was this article that became the genesis for When Towns Had Teams. (Actually, it did cause a bit of a stir, enough so that I received a handful of semi-angry emails, decrying my "attack" on the benign Portland Sea Dogs.)

Sadly, The Portland Pigeon is no more. By late 2004, most of the former Salt Institute students who had launched this cutting edge monthly broadside, had left for greener pastures. A few of us kept it going for several months more, but like many other free pubs that paved the way before us, our lack of sales acumen and an activist community that never lent a dime of support to our efforts to do "direct action journalism, ultimately was our undoing. We all wanted to write and no one wanted to sell, or be businesspeople.

I’ve archived copies of my first foray into journalism, but sadly, there is no online record of the stories that breathed some fresh air into Portland’s stodgy journalistic fraternity.

Seeing that it's baseball season again, and the Sea Dogs are still drawing record crowds to quaint Hadlock Field, I’ve decided to post the In Hadlock's Shadow, here at Write in Maine, in several parts. My hope is that some people might read it, as well as finally creating some online record of an article that made an attempt to present another side to professional sports and their effect on local communities. If nothing else, it provides a needed historical context to the recent phenomenom of professional baseball, particularly in smaller cities, like Portland and other minor league towns throughout the Eastern League, and elsewhere.

In Hadlock’s Shadow
by, Jim Baumer
(The Portland Pigeon, June 2004)

On April 18, 1994, baseball changed forever in Portland. Beginning their maiden season with 11 games on the road, Portland’s newest sports heroes returned to a refurbished Hadlock Field for their home opener. On a typically cold Maine spring day, more than 6,000 fans were regaled by America’s famous couple, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford. With Kathie Lee singing the national anthem and Frank throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, Portland had entered the world of professional baseball.

The Sea Dogs are the darlings of Portland’s summer baseball stage, garnering record crowds, regular features in the local press and the lion’s share of attention from local and state baseball fans. Yet, with all the hoopla surrounding professional baseball in Portland, there are signs that local baseball, from Little League up through the semi-professional ranks, has lost some of its former luster and vitality. From decreases in participation at the youth level, to the lack of business support for semi-professional baseball, this is part of a larger trend away from supporting that which is local, to lending support to corporate interests. 30 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for 500 fans to attend a Twilight League game in Portland. There were an abundance of similar leagues around the state, with hundreds people of people coming out to the games. Some teams even charged admission. The local amateur town team was the focal point of the summer for many. [In the effort of full disclosure, it should be noted that this writer has been involved in various leagues including the Twilight League, as a player, and now as a coach.]

With the Sea Dogs taking over Hadlock Field in the summer, Twilight League teams scramble to find suitable area fields to play their 30-game summer schedule. As the league enters its 101st year of existence, many games are played at Deering Oaks Park, on an over-used, inadequately lighted field, in front of fans often numbering less than 50. Composed almost entirely of college-age players from Maine, this long-time amateur league is the flipside of Portland baseball. Most Twilight League players have few illusions of playing professionally. For them, the league offers them an opportunity to hone their skills and have a place to play competitively each summer.

Throughout its existence, the league has evolved in its makeup of players. At one time, teams were composed of older players, many with families and full-time jobs, who wanted a competitive place to continue to play baseball. In order to accommodate work schedules, the league began its games at 7 o’clock, making lighted fields a necessity. Currently, the league consists of six teams—four in Portland, sponsored by various businesses—as well as a team in Biddeford-Saco, and one in Sanford.

Prior to the Sea Dogs, the Twilight League was the elite league in and around Portland. Over its storied lifetime, a number of former professional players have graced the various team rosters; players such as Billy Swift and Mike Bordick played in the league. Former major leaguer Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four, once stopped to pitch a game while vacationing in the state. The league has been featured in Sports Illustrated and well-known baseball columnist Peter Gammons wrote an article rhapsodizing the league and the beauty of local baseball.

Commissioner Al Livingston believes that the league is on sound footing for the short-term, but there are always concerns about its long-term future. During the past few seasons, similar leagues have disbanded in Central and Eastern Maine. Rising costs coupled with less support from the business community makes it increasingly difficult for semi-pro leagues like the Twilight League to continue to operate.

“The League needs people who are willing to commit time and energy to making sure the league remains viable,” said Livingston.

“We obviously need sponsors each year, as the cost of operating continues to go up. From a competitive standpoint, the league seems to be getting younger. We seem to be a league that is made up of a lot of Division Three (small college) players, which is different from say, ten years ago when we’d have a lot more University of Maine players, mixed in with older players.”

When asked if local baseball has been hurt by the Sea Dogs coming to Portland, Livingston said, “When the Sea Dogs took over Hadlock Field, we were told that local teams would be given dates to play there, including the Twilight League. It’s now going on 11 years and we haven’t played any games at Hadlock. I’d love to see us be able to use the facility for some type of all-star game where we could charge admission and raise some needed funds for the league and promote some of the talented college kids who play in our league. It would help us to increase awareness of what we are doing in providing a place for local players to play each summer.”

One local business owner who supports the Twilight League with both his time and his resources is Frank Watson, owner of Lenders Network in Portland. Watson, who grew up in Portland, played in the league for more than 20 years after graduating from the University of Southern Maine.

Watson said, “I’ve seen a direct benefit from sponsoring a team in the league. I’d much rather spend the $2,200 it takes to sponsor a Twilight team because at some point, all of these college players will be wanting to buy a home and they’ll be looking for a lender. I’ve already had several customers who were former players who came to me because of my affiliation with the league.”

Watson, who says he’s past the playing stage, still stays involved by also acting as the team’s general manager and serving as the league’s president. When asked whether he’s advertised with the Sea Dogs, Watson said, “I haven’t because for the money I’d spend there, I’d be just another name in a sea of names. With my sponsorship of the Twilight League, I’m giving back to the league where I’ve played for years and I feel a need to give something back—plus, I’m supporting local baseball for local players.”

[Next; we look at the cost vs. the benefit of The Sea Dogs on the local community]


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Living with war

While my focus here at Write in Maine is, well, writing; occasionally, however, I’ll throw in some other material. If you’ve read my blogging at Words Matter, or even before that, at my now defunct site, JBIWFY, you know that music is an inspiration for me.

One of the musicians who has inspired and informed my consciousness since high school (a long, long time ago) is Neil Young. Last year, Young produced the movie, Greendale, as well as accompanying soundtrack. This generally unheralded work spoke to the theme of rural America--that place where old-time values and ethics still exist--a place where deals are still sealed with handshakes and residents can still make a successful life with hard work and an honest effort. Now, word is out that Young is about to come out with more powerful commentary on the state of our country, with the summer release of Living With War.

Unlike many of the current crop of manufactured pop divas and boy band wannabes, or the faux-angry poseurs forsaking any kind of melodic orientation, Young occupies a unique place in the rock pantheon. Older than all the other rock stars currently in vogue, Young is a dinosaur (who refuses to leave quietly), with roots from a time when music had something to say, rather than merely occupying another wrung in the consumer ladder.

According to Young from his website, Living With War is “…a metal version of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.”

Here are some others, weighing in on Young’s upcoming broadside against the Bush administration and our state of total war.

Down With Tyranny

Yahoo News (notice their dig against Young, for his supposed "inconsistency"?)

The Carpetbagger Report


Friday, April 07, 2006

Maine writers lose a friend

The Maine writing community lost one of its shining lights on Wednesday, with the passing of Constance Hunting. The longtime University of Maine writing professor, who taught both creative writing and literature, was a champion of both the writers and the literature that captured Maine, without the jaundiced eye towards its people and places and the materialist revisionism that Down East and other similar publications specialize in.

What made Hunting special was her love of literature and writing that was uniquely Maine. While Maine’s small press community continues to contract, Hunting’s Puckerbrush Press (founded in 1971) turned out books about Maine, poetry and other regional works that mattered, for over 30 years.

When I was a student at UMaine in the 1980s, Hunting was a member of the faculty that exuded the intellectual integrity and passion that professors all used to possess, back before a college degree became just another commodity. Consequently, Hunting had the resepect of all the students, even those of us who weren't writers, at the time. I can remember attending poetry readings on campus she had organized and put on, because I wanted to familiarize myself with Maine writing and its practitioners.

UMaine president, Robert Kennedy, accurately captured Hunting’s place in the college’s community, as quoted in the college’s newspaper, the Maine Campus, “Her creativity was a gift to our community, and her positive influence on countless students is a wonderful legacy. My thoughts go out to her family and friends at this difficult time."

Hunting was someone who appreciated literature and its unique appeal and understood that books and writers didn’t necessarily need to be commercially viable, to matter. Hunting serves as a beacon and an inspiration to small press publishers, everywhere. For over three decades, Puckerbrush Press provided a place for writers to find support and a platform for their works. Like most publishers who care about the melody and cadence of the written word, irrespective of its inherent dollar value, Hunting labored in a small, but very important corner of the publishing universe.

Because of her tireless promotion of Maine and the literature that captured the Pine Tree State, many might be surprised to know that Hunting wasn't a native Mainer, but "from away," moving here from Rhode Island in 1968, at the age of 43. When she arrived in Maine, she immediately embraced and identified with Maine’s unique culture (a culture that continues to slip away and become a caricature, thanks to many of the current crop of publishers operating in the state). Hunting never sought to exploit her adopted state, nor its denizens. For Maine writers like Carolyn Chute, Sanford Phippen and James Kelman, Hunting helped provide a place that launched them to a wider audience. She also helped to introduce a new generation to the works of May Sarton. In addition, she continued to be a champion of first-time Maine writers.

Here is a good profile of Hunting and Puckerbrush Press, from the Maine Perspective. Here is another article on Hunting, from 2001, in UMaine Today.


Monday, April 03, 2006

The hope of opening day

Baseball, more than any other major sport, cherishes the opening of its annual campaign. Whether it’s the sense that every team and player begins with a clean slate, or because baseball for much of its history had the hallowed reputation as America’s pastime, whatever the reason, opening day ushers in a sense of hope and a lessening of some of America’s omnipresent cynicism.

Unlike other sports that are ruled by the tick of the clock and governed by time, baseball always offers its fans the hope that no matter what the scoreboard might read, their team will always harbor the hope of redemption until the last out is recorded. Maybe it’s that redemption thread that imbues each new season with unbridled optimism.

Even U.S. presidents have gotten in on the act, with the sitting president being present to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, dating back to April 14, 1910, when baseball enthusiast William Howard Taft, attended Washington’s home opener and lent officialdom’s stamp to the nation’s game. Harry Truman is said to have showcased his ambidextrous talent in 1950, when he threw out first pitches, both right-handed and then, left-handed.

My own experience as a baseball fan came full circle, when back on a frigid day in 2000, my father and I shared a Red Sox opening day from high in the right field grandstand at hallowed Fenway Park. While the game would have been warmer viewed at home on the television, there was something special about being there, with nearly 34,000 other fans, many of them fully under the influence of a daylong parade to the beer tap. Nevertheless, we cheered ourselves hoarse, as newly-acquired Carl Everett, belted two home runs and the good guys prevailed, 13-4. Two years later, Everett would have worn out his welcome in Boston, as he had in New York and Houston before that. On that day, Red Sox nation didn’t care about his views about gays, God, or his penchant for blowing a gasket.

On opening day, 2006, baseball faces new challenges to its status as America’s game. With steroid allegations running rampant concerning Barry Bonds and his quest for the home run crown and current commissioner, Bud Selig, unable, or unwilling to address the issue with the kind of position that will put the issue to bed for good, baseball will struggle with the cloud of scandal floating over its boys of summer. In addition to steroids, the escalation of salaries, ticket prices in the stratosphere and owners caring more about their corporate cronies than the guy next door, baseball’s future remains clouded. In fact, any game that a fan views on television will have each aspect of the game wrapped neatly in the logo of some corporation.

As baseball struggles to maintain its base of fans in the early days of the 21st century, will youngsters of today, weaned on video games and five second sound bites, find the same comfort and solace in the pastoral pace of baseball that many of its older fans have learned to cherish. Even those of us who were drawn by the sounds of baseball, heard listening to scratchy transistor broadcasts, feel the tug of competing loyalties between the purer game of our youthful (and less cynical) memories and the polluted professional game we now follow, with pangs of ambivalence invading our consciences and crowding out the passions that once prevailed when we heard the crack of the bat and the smell of leather.

Still, all of this speculation and questioning can wait until tomorrow, because today is opening day. Each club is 0-0. Every hitter who comes out of the shoot with a vengeance will carry an average in the stratosphere until the at bats begin piling up and the days grow longer. Veteran pitchers, with questions about their aging arms, can cheat father time and quiet the critics for a short time, with that exemplary initial outing, fueled by adrenaline and guts.

In a matter of weeks, months, or during those dog days of the pennant race, when the posers will be exposed, the chaff will be seperated from the true contenders. Despite the contrariness fueled in some corners by Moneyball and its acolytes, the realities of low payrolls, poor draft choices and unwise trades will ultimately separate the contenders from the pretenders and that initial optimism will fade into the recognition that the preseason house of cards and expectations long overdue have come tumbling down.

Today, however, eternal hope is as real in Tampa Bay and Detroit, as it is in Boston and New York. The Cubs’ fan in Wrigleyville, believes that come September, his lovable losers will be basking in the glory that was stolen by those southside interlopers, the White Sox. For one day, at least, the fans of Mudville can dream of better things, and that’s a part of why opening day is special.