Saturday, September 13, 2008

The country churches of baseball

So when it comes to those smaller country churches of baseball, where does one go?

For us, Hadlock Field in Portland, home of the Red Sox' Double A farm team, the Portland Sea Dogs, is now an annual stop. Hadlock boasts the "Maine Monster", a duplicate of Fenway's Green Monster (all the better to give Red Sox prospects some extra experience) and "Slugger", the team's mascot who is supposed to be a large harbor seal, I believe. The brick exterior is both classy and classic. The aluminum bleachers remind me of a high school stadium and as fans stomp their feet in anticipation of a big play, it can almost be deafening. The walls are adorned with the jersey numbers and names of major leaguers who passed through Portland, and in a nod to the neighborhood, a lighthouse emerges majestically from beyond the centerfield fence following every Portland home run.

It can be quirky, too - it's shaped like a fishhook, the Sea Dogs bullpen is on the second floor of the right field bleachers, and like minor league parks around the country, the fences can look like the Yellow Pages. But you're right on top of the action, the food is tasty, the view is great from anywhere in the park even as it seats almost 7,000, the between-innings entertainment is, well, entertaining (don't miss the rubber lobster toss!), tickets are cheap, and the quality of the game and the players is well worth the trip. If we were ever to relocate to the Portland area, Sea Dogs season tickets would be among our first purchases.

Not a bad seat in the house at Hadlock Field

The "Maine Monster"

Home run!

And closer to home, we never miss an opportunity to spend an evening at Cardines Field, nest of the Newport Gulls, who play in a wooden bat summer collegiate baseball league. The games start late in mid-June and wrap up in early August, played by college students from around the country. While the legendary Cape Cod Baseball League (spawning grounds of Red Sox players like Jason Varitek, Nomah, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Lowell) has a longer track record (I used to go to Orleans Cardinals games 30 years ago), the talent in the New England Collegiate Baseball League is just as good and a number of alums have already made it to the majors.

Future major leaguers?

I'm proud to say that I've a devoted fan since the Gulls moved to Newport. That first summer, I was probably one of 20 to 30 fans who would show up for virtually every game. Since that time, the Gulls have become a summer fixture in downtown Newport drawing more than 50,000 people with their $4 tickets, expanded seating (up to 3,000 people now), great and inexpensive concessions (thick cheeseburgers hot off the grill for just $2.50), Gully the Mascot, and fun play both during and between innings.

Delivering the first pitch...

And then scooting off the field!

Sometimes there's even inadvertent fun during the innings, like when the skunk squeezed under the fence and wandered into right field in the middle of the game. It took the right fielder a minute to realize what was going on and then he promptly displayed his speed when he bolted toward the infield. 20 minutes later the skunk got bored and wandered away, apparently not a fan of the bright lights.

A fixture of the games is at the top of the 8th inning, any small kids in the stands are invited to gather along the left field line and then charge into the outfield en masse to be the first to tag Gully who is patrolling deep centerfield. A bit of used to be called "Tackle the Gull" for several years until the Gully suit-wearing volunteers rebelled - it's easy to understand why after seeing the brave soul in the giant seagull suit climbing the centerfield fence during one game to escape the tackling hordes! That's not something you'll see at Fenway, my friends!

(Special thanks to my friend Nicole C. for the great onfield photos at Cardines Field.)

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