Athletic contests rarely fulfill expectations. Each game begins with a blank canvas with those in attendance hoping to witness a Picasso. What generally transpires is anything from amateur doodles to a quality piece of work, albeit short of a masterpiece, but solid. When greatness is achieved, we bask in its beauty. The key to appreciating good sport and art is to recognize excellence when it is happening right in front of us.
For those fortunate enough to take in Wednesday evening’s Eastern Maine Class ‘A’ baseball final between Bangor and Brewer, high school athletics at its finest was on display. The performance between the lines that evening was only part of the entire landscape. The scene was set well before the first pitch was thrown.
Expectations were at contrasting ends of the spectrum for these two rivals as the snow was vanishing from the area’s fields. Bangor was supposed to be in this game. As the defending state champions, the Rams returned two of their top three pitchers, and a number of position players from a year ago. While teams such as Messalonskee and Oxford Hills were mentioned as challengers to the throne, few were talking about Brewer’s chances in April. A 14-3 Bangor victory during the season’s first week did nothing to change those opinions.
The journey to the championship game is rarely a smooth one. While Bangor was expected to be there, they did have a number of tight contests throughout the season. Brewer kept getting better and better as the season went on. With pitching an early season question mark, the Witches rode the arms of Evan Riva and Matt Pushard. Along with an ever improving defense, fans in the area started to take notice that this team could be for real.
While these teams took different paths to the title game, the one attribute they each had in common was they were in every way a team. I’ve heard many players from Brewer, as well as their parents and followers tell me this was the most tight knit group they have been a part of. The same held true for Bangor as well. While baseball is a team game, there are many individual components to the sport. The pitcher and batter stand alone and exist on their own islands, more or less. Baseball is also a game of failure. A .300 hitter fails more times than not. On productive teams the rest of the players are there to pick their teammate up for the inevitable failure that comes as part of the game.
Speaking of rivalry, what a sharp divergence this rivalry has taken since I strolled the halls of Bangor High School some twenty-five years ago. We hated orange and black. I distinctly recall a home basketball game in the winter of ’87-’88, where our fellow students displayed signs reminding their cross-river adversaries of a winless football campaign from the fall. Another student held a sign which merely read, “43-14”. That was the score of Bangor’s victory of the Witches in their first gridiron meeting since 1980.
Obviously, both teams feature competitive people who want to win but the tone of the rivalry has significantly changed. Part of this increased civility is due to the number of participants with ties to both communities. For example, Bangor assistant baseball coach, David Morris, played at Bangor and served many years as the head coach at Brewer. Brewer’s athletic administrator, David Utterback, played baseball for the Rams in the late 90’s.
Other friendships forged over the years include those of Mansfield Stadium’s Field Director, Ron St. Pierre, with Brewer’s Roger White and Phil Pushard. These gentlemen have guided their respective Senior League programs in recent summers. Pushard is an assistant coach with the Brewer High School team and also volunteers his time with the Mansfield Stadium grounds crew during the annual Senior League World Series.
The game itself would be enough of a masterpiece on this glorious night. Bangor junior pitcher Trevor DeLaite to use the common vernacular ‘was dealing’. His three-hit, seventeen strikeout, shutout performance won’t soon be forgotten. The lone run was scored in the first inning when lead-off hitter Jordan Derrah drew a walk, was sacrificed to second by DeLaite, and reached home on Andrew Hillier’s line single to center. Hats off to Brewer’s Matt Pushard, who limited a hot Bangor line-up to only three hits on the night, keeping the Witches in the contest.
Those who were in attendance know the game, while great, was not the complete picture. You could not have asked for a more glorious backdrop for this contest to unfold. The late setting sun splashed the well manicured surface of Mansfield Stadium. 1,800 to 2,000 spectators filled in the stadium’s metal bleachers, with half the crowd sporting orange and black, and most others in cardinal and white. Before the contest was a tribute to legendary baseball coach, Dr. John Winkin. Is there a more fitting way to pay honor to a man who has meant so much to the game of baseball in this state than before a packed house at a gem of a ballpark.
In a crowd of this size, I heard no jeering or taunting, something you might expect in a game between two rivals with the stakes this high. There was an atmosphere of mutual respect, competitiveness, but respect.
As Bangor closed out their 1-0 victory and both teams went through the customary handshake line, it wasn’t your typical canned, have to get through this type of ritual. I absolutely loathe what this post game routine has become in most places. The majority of the participants, if not all, looked their opponents in the eye and gave a genuine, heartfelt handshake. There was nothing fake about this. Brewer, while visibly disappointed, had every reason to hold their heads high in defeat and they did. They gave everything all season. While Bangor celebrated, their was no gloating over their worthy opponent. Both teams had earned each other’s respect on this evening.
Bangor went on to win the state championship by outlasting South Portland 5-4 on Saturday. As the Mansfield Stadium public address announcer, it was my privilege to have played a small part in the grandeur of last Wednesday evening. It truly was Maine high school athletics at its finest.