WATERVILLE – Sport is special in every way, but there’s nothing quite like when a sporting event takes up an entire seat.
From March Madness to the Olympics and World Championships to the state basketball tournaments in Augusta, Bangor and Portland, there are certain events that draw us in in a special way. Whether it’s at the local level or across the country, there’s a distinct buzz in the air when you’ve been immersed in the sporting experience for days or even weeks.
If the banners on Main Street and elsewhere in downtown Waterville haven’t given you a clue, that experience is right here, right now for nearly 200 young baseball players and their families. It’s an immersive experience that will transcend well beyond the game for 12 teams stretching from sea to shining sea.
“There’s going to be a lot of baseball, but that’s what we’re all here for,” said Shaun Walsh, co-manager of the Weymouth, Massachusetts team. “It’s great to be up here for a week and we’re ready to play and also see the best that central Maine has to offer.”
It began Thursday with a skills clinic led by former Major League Baseball players and continued Friday with the inaugural parade and skills contests, including a home run derby. These events were the perfect appetizers for the main course: a tournament that will make our small river town the youth baseball capital of America for the next nine days.
As I’ve discovered in my first few months here, Waterville has a lot to offer for a city of its size. The restaurant scene here has endless hidden gems; the locals are friendly and quick to integrate you into their social circles; The location, a stone’s throw from the Belgrade and Winthrop sea chains and not far from Portland or Acadia, is great.
But for all its merits, Waterville may not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking of a destination city. This is not an insult; It’s just a statement of fact for a community that isn’t one of the state’s major business hubs (like Portland) or a tourist paradise (like Bar Harbor, Kennebunk, or Old Orchard Beach).
At least for this week and a half, the Cal Ripken World Series changed that. Making it to Purnell Wrigley Field here and nearby Maine’s Fenway Park in Oakland has been a goal for these young ballers since the start of their spring season. Being here in the heart of this old mill town means dreams have come true.
“There’s no place we’d rather be right now than here,” said Steve McFarland, also Weymouth co-manager. “The fields are great – our kids really wanted to see them – and the town is extremely accommodating. It’s incredible; It’s a great experience for these kids.”
The experience includes all day action for all 12 teams competing in the pool for five consecutive days from Saturday to Wednesday. Then the top three teams from each division compete in the championship round, while the bottom three teams compete in the consolation round.
The journeys these 12 teams made to get here were far from the same. As the hosting team, Waterville automatically qualified for the event when it was selected to host last year. Some teams, such as Laguna, California, booked their spots by winning state and regional titles. others, like Weymouth, qualified by invitation.
“Waiting for the call to invite us over here was stressful,” said Weymouth slugger Owen Walsh. “We really wanted to be here. When we got the call that we were leaving we were all so excited. Now we are here and it’s great. We are ready to play.”
Little did you know in Friday’s skill contests that some of the competing teams were hundreds and even thousands of miles apart. players exchanged phone numbers; Trainers meeting for the first time talked like old friends; Parents, seated in lounge chairs behind the baselines, cheered on other teams’ kids as if they were their own.
“One of the things we’re already seeing is that there’s such a great camaraderie among the kids,” said Tim Hubbard, co-manager of Waterville. “They’ve been waiting to see all the other teams for a while. It’s great to meet people from all over the country.”
After all, these sports experiences connect people. That’s something that can sometimes get lost in a country of 330 million people spread over almost 3.8 million square miles. With the vastness of America comes different ways of life for the people of Waterville, Laguna, Weymouth and everywhere in between.
But baseball? It’s a constant in the lives of everyone who’s made Little Wrigley at home for the past two days. From the evening practices and ball games and team dinners to the little things like washing grass and dirt stains from uniforms, there’s a shared experience – hundreds of them, each and every one of which can be attested here.
When we can bring people together like that, I think sport is at its best. The locations that are stages for these tournaments hold a special place in the hearts and minds of those who surround them. It’s already happening here, and the games haven’t even started yet.
“It’s the best thing in my life,” said Weymouth’s Gavin Donlan. “It’s wonderful. I can’t wait to play.”
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