Baseball is a dying sport in America, or so the pundits say. I can’t say I really blame them as there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support their claim. According to an article published in The Wall Street Journal, participation in Little League Baseball has declined by 25% since 1996. Those who are the guardians of the game have been wringing their hands for the past decade or better over the perceived demise of ‘our game’.
Does it come as any surprise really? A generation has come and gone, many of whom have spent their youth never having witnessed the conclusion of a World Series game. Enter the age of specialization with year-round basketball and soccer, baseball has been pushed to the margins of the sports landscape in many parts.
Bucking this trend to a certain degree is Bangor. It has been well-documented the success of Bangor baseball since the beginning of the high school’s indoor practices in March through the just completed Senior League World Series. The Bangor Rams took home the state title by shutting out Windham in the final game with starting pitcher Justin Courtney taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. There was little time, however, to bask in the glow of victory. Many of the same kids would make up the Bangor Comrades American Legion squad, who opened their season the very next day.
Speaking of American Legion Baseball, zone one, which includes the greater Bangor area, consisted of seven teams this past season, down from 10-11 teams only a few years ago. One team had to forfeit some contests this summer due to lack of numbers. Bangor had no such problem, in fact they were able to field for the first time a Junior League squad, the Bangor Cadets. The Cadets consisted of primarily players who competed on Bangor High’s junior varsity squad this past season and incoming freshmen.
Both Bangor Legion teams went on to win state championships, with the Senior Legion team winning two games at the regional in Connecticut. This marked the first time a Bangor Legion team won the state championship in 35 years. The Junior Legion team opted not to play in regional competition in order to play in the Senior League World Series in Bangor.
Speaking of the Senior League World Series, Bangor for the ninth time in thirteen series captured the district crown, enabling them to serve as the host team for the series. At the series the hosts made the most of their appearance, going 4-0 in pool play before falling to the eventual world champions, the West University Little League of Houston, Texas. It marked the first time the hosts had ever gone undefeated and won their pool. Due to the initial conflict with the Legion regional, six of the Senior League players missed the team’s opening day victory over Canada.
So why is interest in baseball so high in Bangor when enthusiasm for the national pastime wanes elsewhere? It is easy to point to Bangor’s population numbers compared to most communities throughout the state and conclude they should win. Yes, it is an advantage, particularly at the Senior League district level, where Bangor generally has at least three times as many kids to choose from. Beyond the local level when you start comparing apples to apples, Bangor is still a step above for a number of reasons.
Any successful program begins at the youth level with quality and consistent coaching and instruction. Bangor is very fortunate in that regard to have outstanding baseball people working with the young people in the city. While most Little League or youth programs have a revolving door of parents acting as coaches, many of Bangor’s coaches stay involved long after their sons are done playing. Take Bangor’s 13 and 14 year old Junior League team, for instance. Retired Bangor Police officer Jim Owens and Maine Baseball Hall of Famer Dennis Libbey have coached this contingent for the better part of twenty years.
Speaking of consistency, Bangor High School has had two head baseball coaches in the past 45 years in Bob Kelley and Jeff Fahey. At the Senior League level, veteran Bangor educator and coach Ron St. Pierre has done an outstanding job in teaching the fundamentals of the game at all levels. Barrett Dionne, who played on Coach Kelley’s final team in 2000, has done yeoman’s work in moving the Senior League program forward. Jordan Heath, who played on Bangor’s first World Series entry in 2002, made his coaching debut this summer and helps the current players from that perspective.
David Morris and his experienced staff, Kevin Stevenson, Jay Kemble, and Ryan Arsenault do a masterful job of keeping the players focused on the process in what can be a long season. Think about it: Bangor’s players, particularly those who played on the Senior League squad, took part in nearly 80 games since April. To be able to get them focused and pay attention to detail virtually every time out speaks volumes. The first year Junior League team was coached by Tim Bush, who played for Coach Morris at Brewer in the mid-2000’s.
In addition to the outstanding coaching these young men receive, having the opportunity to play home games at Mansfield Stadium is a huge bonus. There are some fine baseball fields in the area but Mansfield Stadium, thanks to the tireless efforts of many, is the crown jewel of ballparks in Eastern Maine.
Since 2002, the Senior League World Series has created something for young ballplayers to aspire to. There is a palpable buzz in the ballpark for one week each August. Legions of youngsters come hoping that they too can soon be part of the magic that is the Senior League World Series.
Once again, hats off to the Bangor boys of spring and summer for an outstanding baseball year to remember. Through their accomplishments, others will be inspired to continue the legacy that is Bangor baseball.