The 2014 Eastern Maine high school basketball tournament at the new Cross Insurance Center had an uptick in attendance. A crowd of over four thousand witnessed the regional title games in class B involving teams from MDI, Presque Isle, Caribou, and Old Town High Schools. Many of the key participants on the hardwood that afternoon likely took part in a number of offseason leagues. Over the past twenty years or so, the hoops scene has taken a year-round focus. From AAU and other club teams in the spring and summer to fall leagues at various locales, Maine is truly a basketball crazy state.
Despite the influx of year-round basketball, still only a handful of players in a good year earn a scholarship to play beyond high school. Beyond that, Maine has yet to produce an NBA-level talent. If a native is ever to have that sort of talent, we are likely to never see it develop here, they are likely to take that talent to an elite prep program.
Football state championship games, particularly in the larger class A division, can draw upwards of 8-10,000 fans at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium. Isn’t it ironic, however, Maine’s face in the National Football League is Enfield’s Matt Mulligan, who didn’t even play high school football because his school, Penobscot Valley, doesn’t offer the sport.
Indoor soccer leagues with a myriad of year-round clubs and travel teams have become all the range in recent years.
Despite the plethora of offerings, it is baseball, yes baseball which provides the greatest opportunity. It seems strange, doesn’t it, as baseball has so much going against it in Maine. For starters, the games are generally played in front of a hundred or so spectators most days, mostly consisting of parents, girlfriends, and a few students. Mansfield Stadium has hosted regional and state final games for the past twenty-plus years. Of all those games played, most have been played before crowds of well less than the stadium’s 1,500 seat capacity.
Maine’s climate certainly doesn’t lend itself to cultivating baseball talent. Mid-April to Mid-October is about the extent to which games can be played. The rise of indoor baseball facilities in recent years have allowed ballplayers to better hone their skills in the off-season, however it’s still not the same as being outside on the diamond.
Despite the challenges, and general apathy towards the game, execpt when the jersey says Red Sox, Maine has a great baseball heritage compared to other sports. From Penobscot Indian Nation’s Louis Sockalexis to Portland’s Ryan Flaherty, and in between, Mainers have made their mark on our national pastime. Consider, South Portland High School has produced three Major League pitchers in Jim Beattie, Bill Swift, and Charlie Furbush. Some others who have spent time in the majors include Cherryfield’s Carlton Willey, Brewer’s Danny Coombs, and Winterport’s Mike Bordick.
Matt Kinney of Bangor and Mt. Ararat High School graduate Mark Rogers also have enjoyed stints in the majors. Of note for many of these players was they excelled in multiple sports throughout their youth. For example, Coombs and Kinney were all-state caliber basketball players, while Rogers was a standout hockey athlete. For the most part, most of their training to get to the highest level of baseball was done in Maine. They played on the local Little League team, competed for the local high school, and participated in American Legion baseball in the summer.
Many others have also climbed the professional baseball ladder in the minors, where one can earn a decent amount of money for a number of years. The University of Southern Maine is currently competing in their second consecutive Division III World Series, with many players hailing from Maine.
If basketball or soccer is a true passion, follow your passion. AAU and other clubs aren’t “stealing” players away from baseball as many guardians of the game would claim. Those in charge of these programs are responding to a market who want more beyond what school programs provide. For those who are aspiring athletes, who aren’t sure which course to pursue, considering honing your baseball skills. Therein lies the most opportunity.