WATERVILLE – Sport is special in any capacity, but there is no such thing as when a sporting event occupies an entire place.
From March Madness to the Olympics to the World Cup to the state basketball tournaments in Augusta, Bangor and Portland, there are some events that have special ways of getting our attention. Whether it’s locally or across the entire country, there’s a distinct buzz in the air as you immerse yourself in the sporting experience for days or even weeks on end.
In case the signs on Main Street and elsewhere in downtown Waterville haven’t given you a hint yet, this is the here and now experience for nearly 200 young baseball players and their families. It’s an engaging experience, one that’s about to go far beyond the game for 12 teams stretching from sea to glistening sea.
“Baseball is going to be a lot, but that’s what we’re all here for,” said Shaun Walsh, co-manager of Weymouth, Massachusetts. “It’s great to be here for a week, we are ready to play and also see the best that Central Main has to offer.”
It started Thursday with a skills clinic led by former Major League Baseball players and continued Friday with the inaugural show and skill competitions, including a local derby. Those events were the perfect appetizer for the main premise: a tournament that will make our small riverside town America’s youth baseball capital for the next nine days.
Waterville, as I found during my first few months here, has a lot to offer a city of its size. The dining scene here has endless hidden gems. The locals are friendly and quick to accept you into their social circles; The location, a stone’s throw from the chains of lakes Belgrade and Winthrop and not far from Portland or Acadia, is fantastic.
However, for all its merits, Waterville may not be the place that first comes to mind when you think of a destination city. This is not an insult. It is merely a statement of fact for a municipality that is not one of the most important economic centers in the state (such as Portland) or a tourist haven (such as Bar Harbor, Kennebunk, or Old Orchard Beach).
For at least this week and a half, the Cal Ripken World Series has changed that. Getting to Burnell Wrigley Field and nearby Maines Fenway Park in Auckland has been the goal of these young players since their spring seasons began. Being here, in the heart of this ancient city, means that dreams have come true.
“There’s no place we’d rather be in now than here,” said Steve MacFarland, co-director of Weymouth. “The fields are wonderful – our children were dying to see them – and the city is so relaxing. It’s unbelievable; it’s a great experience for these kids.”
The experience entails working all day for all 12 teams, which will compete in pool for five consecutive days starting on Saturday and ending on Wednesday. Next, the top three teams in each division will compete in the Championship category with the last three teams competing in the consolation segment.
The journeys these twelve teams took to get here were far from the same. As the host team, Waterville automatically qualified for the event when it was named last year’s host; Some teams, such as Laguna, California, have booked places by winning state and regional titles; Others, such as Weymouth, qualified by invitation.
“Waiting for the phone call to invite us here was exhausting,” said Weymouth basketball player Owen Walsh. “We wanted to be here that bad. When we got that phone call saying we were going, we were all so excited. Now, we’re here, it’s great. We’re ready to play.”
During Friday’s skill competitions, you wouldn’t have known that hundreds or even thousands of miles separate some of the competing teams. Players exchange their phone numbers. The coaches who met each other for the first time spoke as if they were old friends; Parents sitting on lawn chairs behind the baselines cheered the other teams’ kids on as if they were their own.
“One of the things we’re really seeing is that there’s a lot of camaraderie between the kids,” said Tim Hubbard, co-director of Waterville. “They’ve been waiting for a while for a chance to see all the other teams. It’s great to meet people from all over the country.”
These athletic experiences, after all, connect people. This is something that can sometimes get lost in a country of 330 million people and spanning nearly 3.8 million square miles. As America expands, so come different ways of life for people in Waterville, Laguna, Weymouth, and everywhere in between.
Baseball, though? This is a constant in the life of every person who has made Little Wrigley home over the past couple of days. From evening workouts, ball games, and team dinners to the little things like washing grass stains and dirt off uniforms, there’s a common experience—hundreds of them, really—that everyone here can attest to.
When we can bring people together like this, I think, sport is at its best. The places that are the stages of these tournaments hold a special place in the hearts and minds of those who envelope them. This is already happening here, and the games haven’t even started yet.
“This is the best thing of my life,” said Gavin Donlan of Weymouth. “It’s amazing. I can’t wait to play it.”