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]

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