Baseball is mostly lulls. It's a good game for stories. H. Allen Mapes is telling one now, early in a New England Collegiate Baseball League contest between the Vermont Mountaineers and the hometown Sanford Mainers. There was this Mainers pitcher, a kid from Ohio, who spent a summer at Mapes' house. The kid was such a profound sleeper that Mapes always worried he would miss the bus for road games. So Mapes took to waking him with an air horn.
Mapes starts to say something else, but a crack of the bat interrupts. A Mountaineer has hit a sharp ground ball to the right side of the infield. Mainers first baseman Michael Gedman dives and makes the stop. "There ya go!" Mapes yells. "Get him!" Gedman throws to pitcher Ryan LaPointe, who races to cover the bag. LaPointe gets there an instant before the Vermont runner does. The umpire pantomimes his call - Out! - and the crowd swells with cheers and applause.
"His dad was a hell of a major league ballplayer," Mapes says, nodding at the Mainers' first baseman. "Richie Gedman. He caught for the Red Sox."
This is the rhythm of summer at Goodall Park. Conversation drifts between the inning in progress and a vast collective memory of games and players past. "Sanford," says Faith Ballenger, who coordinates the Mainers' considerable volunteer labor force, "just likes baseball."
That becomes apparent as you work your way through the crowd. Mapes, who owns an oil company in Springvale, was part of the original investment group that brought the Mainers to town in 2002. And over there is Ray Charpentier, a plumber who grew up on Sanford's east side and played for the old Goodall-Sanford team years ago. Standing not too far from Charpentier is local businessman Jack Allen, who fell in love with Goodall Park while watching his son play here. And scattered throughout the park are "hosts," such as Doris Plante and Pat Adams, who open their homes to Mainers players - college kids from out of state - every summer.
And then there's Nancy Hussey, the "team mom." You can't miss her - she wears a hardhat with a baseball sticking out the top, and she never sits still. You'll usually spot her by the Mainers' dugout, admonishing the players to pick up after themselves and keeping order among the young fans who gather around Broose D' Moose, the Mainers' mascot.
Like many other Goodall acolytes, Hussey is at every game, for a simple reason: "Baseball's my life."
And it felt as if a big part of her life had been ripped away in May 1997, when arsonists reduced Goodall Park's historic wooden grandstand to cinders. "When I saw it, I cried," Hussey says. "It was such a big, big, big loss. That really broke our hearts."
"People were coming by and getting little mementos, little pieces of charred wood," says Marcel Blouin, Sanford's director of parks, recreation, and public property. "It was kind of touching. A lot of people think, hey, it's just a baseball field. But it was a place where a lot of memories were made."
Says Allen of the arsonists, some kids who had had too much to drink, "They burned a lot of history."
Eighty-two years' worth.
In the early twentieth century, nearly every New England town had a "semi-pro" baseball team supported by the local factory or mill. In Sanford, it was the Goodall Worsted Company, which opened Goodall Park on May 29, 1915. The Sanford team was good - so good that when the Boston Red Sox came to town for an exhibition game on October 1, 1919, Sanford led most of the way. But the Sox pulled it out, thanks to a three-run homer by some guy named Ruth. "Sanford's pitcher tried to pass the batter," the Sanford Tribune reported, "but Babe reached out for a ball eight or ten inches wide of the plate, picked out the seam he wanted to hit it on, and slammed the sphere out of the park, whereafter taking his time in jogging around the bases." When Goodall Worsted closed in 1954, the company donated the field to the town. "My son [John] played ball here for Babe Ruth League, American Legion, Junior Legion, and high school," Allen says. "He had an awful lot of fun in this ballpark."
So for Allen, the question of whether to rebuild Goodall Park after the fire wasn't a question at all. "It was just gonna happen, that's all there was to it," he says.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, a ballpark isn't a good use of resources. It requires a lot of land and upkeep for its limited use. Improperly managed it can become an overgrown albatross. (Hello, Old Orchard Beach.) But the intangible value of some things exceeds their bottom-line cost. For Allen, it came down to this: "I just felt that if I could produce the memories that John had out of this ballpark, for one more kid, the effort is worthwhile."
Blouin says that the rebuilding project "was a total effort through the community." And even beyond - Hussey Seating Company of North Berwick provided seats at a discount, and many of its workers donated time to install them. The town then "sold" individual seats to various residents and companies. So instead of a number, each seat at Goodall Park has a plaque bearing the name of the person who paid for it.
Built of brick and other nonflammable materials, the new park occupies the same footprint as the old one. This was not mere nostalgia; zoning laws and insurance regulations required it. "A lot of [credit] goes to Dick Wilkins, who was parks department head at the time," Allen says. "Dick got the footings and the concrete put in and at that point everybody said, `Okay, well now we gotta make it work.' "
Bear in mind that the Sanford Mainers, Goodall Park's most prominent current tenants, didn't even exist yet. The town built its showplace of a ballpark strictly with its own kids in mind. But when the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a summer league for college players, decided to expand to Maine, it didn't have to look hard to find an ideal home.
Bethel native Neil Olson, who has a business called Olson's Furs, Tents, and Baseball ("We're diversified") was already involved with a league team in Lowell, Massachusetts. He happily switched to a team in his home state. For him, Goodall Park was a revelation. "How I could live in Maine and not know that Goodall Park existed, being a baseball guy, I don't know," says Olson, who now serves as the Mainers' general manager. "But I was stunned when I saw it. The best description I've heard is that it's like somebody took a slice out of a major league park and planted it right here."
With the Mainers in town Sanford can once again root, root, root for the home team, just as they did for the Goodall Worsted club almost a century ago. That the town took this path with no guarantee of a happy ending says something about its priorities. "I was brought up with the idea that where you hang your hat and lay your head is your hometown," Allen says. "That hometown is your responsibility. You have to take care of it. If you don't, somebody else will. And you might not like that somebody else."
It's not a good night for the local nine. Vermont pitcher Max Perlman scatters six hits as the Mountaineers trounce the Mainers, 6-0. But there's no time for brooding; Connecticut's Danbury Westerners are coming to Goodall Park tomorrow for a doubleheader. That's the thing about Sanford: There's always another game. "The town takes on new life in the summer," Pat Adams says. "Even though you've lived here all your life, you meet new friends."
You also renew acquaintances with old ones. "I see a lot of people here at the park that I don't see the rest of the year," says Doris Plante. "You catch up on the last ten months, and you pick up where you left off last year."
"You meet people on the street at the end of April and May," says Faith Ballenger, "and you say, `I'll see you at the ballpark.' "
In Sanford, baseball remains a surefire conversation starter. Jack Allen recalls the time he spotted a woman wearing a Mainers cap in a local store. Turned out she was from California. "I said, `How did you find this place?' " Allen says. "Well, her nephew played here. He went to the University of New Mexico. And she said to me, `We've traveled across the country with that boy, playing baseball. And I want to tell you, nobody - and I mean nobody - has what you people have got in Sanford. You need to be proud of it.' "
For the 2008 Sanford Mainers' schedule, click here