Ask for directions to the ball park and you half expect the guy at the service station to tell you, "Can't get there from here." But you can. Just head down Saco Avenue to T for Turn Road, hang a left, and there, right behind the Old Orchard Beach Fire and Police Station, is the entrance to the home of the newest, and most distinctive, Class AAA team in all of baseball, the Maine Guides.
'Course the local folks know a shortcut, through the trailer park down by the dump. Either way, you end up at the same place: a fresh three-lane asphalt road heading into the forest. You make a turn like you're going around first, lighting out for second, and suddenly the white pines give way to an extraordinary sight, or site. There, in the middle of the woods, is The Ballpark.
That's what it's officially called, although the proper pronunciation is bahlpahk. It's a ball park all right, but with the adjacent wooden administration building and clubhouses, plus pine dugouts and pine sky boxes, it looks like the offspring of a hunting lodge and a baseball stadium. It's just a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, and it may be the prettiest ball park in creation.
One year ago there were nothing but trees in the area. It was known to the residents of Old Orchard Beach as Mosquito Hollow, or The Woods Behind The High School. Kids would take their BB guns back there, and families would choose from among its fine selection of Christmas trees. So it's hard to believe that former big league stars Bucky Dent and Butch Hobson and the rest of the guys in International League now play there.
It's such a pleasant setting that after Roy Smith, a 22-year-old righthander for the Guides, was called up to pitch for the parent Cleveland Indians two weeks ago, he moaned at his going-away party, "I don't want to leave Old Orchard Beach." "Roy, you must," said first baseman/designated hitter Jim Wilson. "The Indians need you."
How Old Orchard Beach came to host the highest form of minor league baseball is a story that begins with the dream of a Bangor attorney, Jordan Kobritz. "Actually, it was more of a vision than a dream," says Kobritz. "My dream was to play leftfield in Fenway Park."
It was in December 1981 that Kobritz, then 35, decided to give up his thriving law practice. "I was on a plane to Atlanta on business, and it was the first time in weeks that I had a little time to think," he says. "I just made up my mind that I'd had enough of the law and that I should do something I really loved." And he loved baseball. So much so that he bought a condominium in Winter Haven, Fla. to be near his beloved Red Sox during spring training. Kobritz decided he would run a professional baseball team.
His wife, Nicci, a nurse-practitioner who runs a mobile pediatric clinic in Bangor, stood behind her husband while he traveled the country for a year, learning about baseball. "I knew that he was unhappy in the law," she says, "and I was willing to support him in any way possible." Some of their friends thought Jordan was crazy. Can't get there from here, they told him. "I knew, though, that Jordan could do anything he set his mind to," says Dave Ekelund, a longtime friend and now the Guides' director of sales.
Kobritz spanned the continent in search of baseball knowledge. He had cards made up saying JORDAN KOBRITZ, PROFESSIONAL SPORTS CONSULTANT, which granted him entry to many minor league ball parks. He talked with baseball people of all stripes, relying heavily on scouts. "Scouts love to talk, and they have an opinion on everything," says Kobritz. When his odyssey was completed, he sat down in his study and wrote a year's worth of impressions in two weeks.
Kobritz isn't exactly a small-town lawyer. He graduated from Georgetown University and the Cornell University Law School, and he taught business law at the University of Maine. "The one thing I learned in law," says Kobritz, "is not to be awed by anything or anyone." In the summer of '82, he decided to buy the Charleston (W. Va.) Charlies, the weakest franchise in the International League, and move them to Maine.
Enter Old Orchard Beach. Jerry Plante is the town manager and also the tax collector, welfare commissioner, roads commissioner, chairman of the School Building Fund, former chairman of the Centennial Committee and weekend helper at Papa's Pizza on The Pier, which is owned by his wife. Plante actively wooed Kobritz. "We've an entertainment-oriented area, and what better, cleaner family fun can you have than a baseball team?" says Plante.
Plante is a lively, gregarious salesman, the Old Orchard Babbitt, so to speak, and as the Guides' No. 1 fan he wears a No. 1 cap to most ball games. His 14-year-old son, Dean, a Guides bat boy, hits the nail on the head when he says, "My father isn't at a loss for words." Plante became town manager seven years ago. "People used to think I was Attila the Hun," he says of his managerial manner. "At least now when they wave at me, they wave with all five fingers."
In January 1983, the Town Council granted Kobritz the option of purchasing about 50 acres of town-owned land for $50,000. When the Maine Guarantee Authority balked at giving Kobritz the backing for a $2.5 million industrial revenue bond to build the stadium, the town said it would purchase the park in the event of a default. Last June 23, groundbreaking began in Mosquito Hollow.
Old Orchard Beach has 6,400 year-round residents, which makes it an unlikely home for Triple A baseball, but it's only 15 miles from Portland, a city of 65,000, and in the summer it fairly bursts at the seams with tourists. The July population is about 100,000.
The town has two nicknames. One is the French-Canadian Riviera. After Le Jour de St. Jean Le Baptiste, June 24, hordes of Quebecois, or Kebeckers, as they say in Old Orchard, arrive. Many of the stores along the main drag carry ICI ON PARLE FRAN√áAIS signs. And the beach is known for the fetching women it attracts, to the delight of the single players on the Maine Guides.
Old Orchard Beach is also known as The Coney Island of the North. In addition to the customary roller coaster and Ferris wheel, there's the Flight to Mars, the Liquid Litenin' and the Himalaya. There are pizza parlors galore. There's the L&L Tattoo Studio, which accepts VISA and MasterCard. There's Dave Glovsky, 75 years young, who'll guess your weight, age and profession, 50¢ a guess, three for a dollar, as he did for Louis Armstrong (1956), Ed Muskie (1958), Dion (1962), Liberace (1963) and Gary Merrill (1969). "Only celebrity who ever refused me was Bette Davis," says Glovsky. Dave is good at ages, excellent at weights, but he has a little trouble with professions. A group of Maine Guides, including Shanie Dugas and Dave Gallagher, tried him out recently.
"Let me goose you—I mean guess you," said Glovsky. "Let me see your hands. You're policemen or security guards. No? Technicians? Salesmen? I don't know, I give up."
"We're baseball players," said Dugas. "I'm a second baseman and he's the centerfielder."
"O.K., let me goose his position," said Glovsky, pointing to Gallagher. "Leftfielder, right?"
Even beyond Dave Glovsky, Old Orchard Beach has history. Charles Lindbergh landed The Spirit of St. Louis on the beach in July of 1927, two months after his transatlantic crossing. The Grand Beach area, north of town, lured John F. Kennedy's maternal grandfather and Pierre Trudeau's father. The Pier, which has been ravaged by both fire and sea over the years, used to feature the biggest bands of the Swing Era and now offers all sorts of fattening fare.
But baseball has very little history in Old Orchard Beach, or in Maine, for that matter. The last professional team in the state was the Portland Pilots, a Class B New England League club that died in the '50s. It seems more than a little ironic that the original Cleveland Native American, Louis (Chief) Sockalexis, who in 1897 batted .338 while playing rightfield for the Spiders, then the Cleveland team in the National League, came from Old Town, Maine.
So the first spadeful of dirt at the groundbreaking represented a high point in Maine baseball history. Building a ball park in the middle of the woods is no easy task, and, in fact, one worker was killed when a tree fell on him. In July, Kobritz announced the names of the other investors, and started a name-that-team contest. In came such suggestions as the Mooses, the Meese, the Lobsters, the Sails, the Eagles, the Black Flies, the Deer, the Vacationers and the Maine Squeezes. Of the more than 10,000 entries, 15 suggested the Guides, and the winner of the drawing was, naturally, a professor of history at Bowdoin College, H.R. (Home Run?) Coursen. A friend of Kobritz's came up with the snappy logo of the back of a lefthanded batter (going to the opposite field) superimposed on a compass.
All through the summer and autumn, trees were cleared, stumps were removed, the field was graded and the turf was laid. Work proceeded in what was fortunately a mild winter. Still, it was a race to complete construction by April 17, Opening Day. Kobritz had already decided on a name for the ball park, The Ballpark. "I couldn't bear to go to work every day at Jordan Kobritz Stadium," he says. "Too much pressure."
At 3 a.m. on April 16 the team's bus arrived in Old Orchard Beach from a road trip. At a banquet that night, Kobritz surprised his wife by announcing that she would throw out the first ball.
Opening Day was rained out, which was just as well because the backstop wasn't up yet. On April 18 Nicci Kobritz practiced for an hour in the parking lot, throwing the ball under the tutelage of two Little Leaguers. When she came in, Jordan asked her, "How did it go?"
"I think I got it," said Nicci. "My coaches told me just to put my three fingers across the threads and everything would be O.K."
"Seams, my dear," said Jordan. "Those threads are called seams."
Nicci's father, a Baptist minister, gave the invocation, and George Ouellette, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and—everybody seems to wear two or more hats, probably from L.L. Bean, 40 minutes up the road—the public address announcer, sang the national anthem. Then Nicci went halfway to the mound and threw the ball homeward, high and tight to a lefthanded hitter.
A sellout crowd of 6,104 braved near-freezing temperatures to watch the Guides beat Rochester 13-9 to go 6-1 on the season. Off to a fast start, the Guides would still be in first place in the IL had the Indians not started raiding them for pitchers. As of Sunday they were in second, trailing Columbus by half a game.
The manager of the Guides is Doc Edwards, a 47-year-old ex-catcher (the Indians, Athletics, Yankees and Phillies) with a quiet demeanor and a soothing West Virginia accent. In 11 seasons of managing in the minors, he has been named Manager of the Year three times and was runner-up five others. "If anybody on this club deserves to be promoted to the majors," says Kobritz, "it's Doc. The way he holds this team together when roster moves are tearing it asunder is nothing short of miraculous."
"I love it here," says Edwards. "The people have been just great, and I love this ball park, the whole setting. I'm also learning about the pride of the people in this state. They talk about Texas pride, but nobody is as proud as a Maineiac."
"This is like a dream come true," says Doc's effervescent wife, Connie, who married him while he was managing in Rochester in 1981. "Within a week of moving here, my 11-year-old son Eric had fallen in love with the girl next door. He made best friends with her brother, and my cocker spaniel, Buffy Lou Who, has learned to bahk. Pinch me. The only thing wrong is the mosquitoes. There was one as big as a bird chasing me last night."
The team Cleveland has given Maine has a few prospects and the usual suspects. Many of the players, including Kevin Rhomberg, Lorenzo Gray, Rodney Craig, Gerry Udjur, Otis Nixon, Geno Petralli and Juan Espino, have had cups of coffee. Thorne recently asked the players to come up with trivia questions about themselves, and they supplied some dandies. Which Guide roomed with Los Angeles Laker Kurt Rambis's older brother Randy in the minors? (Robin Fuson.) Which Guide gave up Carl Yastrzemski's last hit? (Bud Anderson.) What Guide shared Player of the Year honors with Seattle's Alvin Davis, then of Arizona State, in the Pac 10 in 1982? (Oregon State's Wilson.)
None of them wants to be in Triple A, and some bridle at being in the Cleveland organization. After reading an article in the local paper about Maine's search for an official state fossil, one player suggested Indians president Gabe Paul.
A few weeks ago, a moose came wandering into Old Orchard Beach early one morning and ended up in the water down by The Pier. A rescue squad had to pull the moose out.
"Ever since I heard about that," says Fuson, a pitcher who started in the Indian organization in 1977, "I've decided to adopt the moose as my own personal mascot. I drink nothing but Moosehead beer and watch Bullwinkle cartoons all the time. I find many similarities between the moose and myself. [Fuson goes into his Rod Serling routine.] We offer this for your consideration. A moose in a world not his own, up to his neck in water, floundering desperately, waiting to be rescued. The signpost up ahead: CLEVELAND." (Fuson was rescued last week, after a fashion. The Pawtucket [R.I.] Red Sox, Boston's Triple A club, claimed him on waivers.)
As friendly as the people have been, many of the newly arrived players have had trouble finding reasonably priced housing during the tourist season. "I'm lucky," says Wilson. "I have a cozy little cabin down near the beach. Of course, if it was inland, it would be, what's the word? Oh, yes. Condemned."
Now that the weather is beautiful, OOB is even more desirable. But the Guides did pay their dues earlier this season. "To paraphrase Mark Twain," says pitcher Jeff Barkley, " 'The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer in Old Orchard Beach.' "
The other night, June 18 to be exact, the visiting Richmond Braves built a bonfire in the bullpen to ward off the chills. Now you know what is meant by "warming up in the bullpen."
The next night, the Braves again built a fire, this time to ward off mosquitoes.
To comply with an environmental law, the Guides had to build a drainage ditch next to the ball park, which has made the mosquitoes happy and the fielders miserable. "You should see my ankles," says Rhomberg. No, you shouldn't.
According to Down East legend, the first mosquito swoops down to lick off the insect repellent, and a second one comes in for the bite. Actually, they're not all that bad if you use one of the local Maine after-shaves, Cutter or Muskol. "Off!, though, ain't nothing but a cocktail for these guys," says Richmond pitcher Larry Bradford, who was busy at the time making smoke signals in the bullpen.
One of the first things you notice about the crowds at Guides games is how excited they get over foul balls. But then, they've never seen anything like them—free baseballs. A foul ball ricochets off the seats, and suddenly children of all ages are oohing and aahing and scampering for the souvenir.
The crowds can only be described as ruly. They follow the instructions on the scoreboard to the letter—Noise, Clap, etc.—and they do not boo, not yet at least. They applaud every out and give extended ovations to pitchers who are removed, even if they haven't pitched very well. They are well dressed: L.L. Bean is open 24 hours.
The fans are also still learning. Says Sharon Cullenberg, a switchboard operator for the Guides, "When I told one man that there would be a 20-minute delay between games of a doubleheader, he asked if everybody had to go back to their cars during that time. I said no, but everybody has to buy at least four hot dogs apiece. And he said, 'O.K.' "
For a bunch of rookies, Kobritz and his people are running a first-class operation. Rival teams praise the playing field, which is under the supervision of Marc Collette. The concession stands are efficient. Indeed, customers are double- and triple-teamed by smiling teenagers in Maine Guides shirts and caps. Through last Sunday the Guides were second to Columbus in average attendance in the International League, with 2,800 a game, and this was before the tourists arrived in full force.
Ekelund, who was an Indian farmhand himself before he got into coaching and inventing (the Ekelund Base is a special indoor base used by high schools and colleges), says, "This is a little like summer theater for baseball."
It's a lot like summer theater for baseball. Where else can a fan get a tattoo, have his weight guessed, watch some very good baseball in a woodland setting, dance the night away and make a late-night foray to Bean's? What's a bite or two? Or three.
On Saturday, June 23, exactly one year after he broke ground, Kobritz watched the line of cars streaming in off T for Turn Road. The game against Pawtucket was a sellout, with fans from as far as Fort Kent, an outpost at the top of Maine. At least 1,000 cars had to be turned away. "The goal we had when we dug that first spadeful of dirt was met tonight," said Kobritz.
You can get there from here.