OLD ORCHARD BEACH — There are still chores to be done, but look out from the stands at The Ballpark, the once-glorious Triple-A baseball stadium here, and what you see is stunning.

The outfield fence needs to be finished and painted. The dugouts need roofing. Some of the seats need repairs. The bullpens have to be restored, as does the batting cage under the first-base stands. A scoreboard must be found.
 

Nonetheless, a pristine baseball field has grown out of what was once a rundown patch of earth, overgrown with weeds, 10- to 12-foot trees and vines that strangled fences and overran the concrete stadium.

“We’re down to a punch list,’’ said Paul Crossman, an Old Orchard Beach resident who has volunteered 40-60 hours a week to this restoration project, which started two years ago. “Other than that, the field is in magnificent shape. ‘’

It better be. The Ballpark will be the site of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association national tournament May 10-14. Ten teams from small colleges across the nation will descend on Old Orchard Beach in what the volunteers and townspeople hope is just the first of many events at the stadium.

Other organizations, such as the Amateur Athletic Union and the American Legion, contacted Tom LaChance, the Old Orchard Beach High School baseball coach who spearheaded the volunteer effort, about holding tournaments there. Already, the Brockton (Mass.) Rox of the Can-Am League have scheduled two exhibition games against the Quebec Capitales on May 22-23.

“Everything has fallen into place with this project,’’ said LaChance, who worked at The Ballpark as a ticket collector and parking lot attendant when it was home to the Triple-A Maine Guides in the 1980s.

REVIVAL ‘A CINDERELLA STORY’

The rebirth of The Ballpark has become one of the great stories in this town’s history. Progressing over the past two years with a volunteer work force and nearly $300,000 raised in donated funds and materials, a baseball stadium rose from disrepair.

“I’m not saying I was a skeptic,’’ said Jack Turcotte, the town manager at Old Orchard Beach. “I knew the people involved, I knew their passion.

“But I also have to admit that there were times where I wondered if this was something someone could do in that method in today’s world.

“The blossoming of that facility, it’s a story. I get calls from all over the country asking how it’s going.’’

Dave Gonyea, the athletic director at Central Maine Community College in Augusta and co-director of the USCAA tournament, called it “a Cinderella story. You don’t see stuff like this anymore. Back in the day, neighbors helped each other. But you don’t see this anymore.’’

BUSINESSES DONATE MONEY, PEOPLE

Triple-A baseball was played at The Ballpark from 1984 to 1988, the first three years (the Maine Guides) as an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, the last (the Maine Phillies) as Philadelphia’s Triple-A affiliate.

After the team left, the stadium was used for concerts. The University of Maine also played football and baseball games there.

But it hadn’t been used for at least 15 years and fell into disrepair.

Many townspeople credit LaChance with the restoration. But even he knows that the project was successful because of everyone else who shared his vision of returning baseball to The Ballpark. The town sponsored an appreciation day for the volunteers last Sunday at The Ballpark, and people kept telling LaChance how beautiful the stadium was.

“People didn’t realize that three years ago, there were trees growing throughout the whole thing,’’ said LaChance. “Looking at it back then, I wouldn’t have thought it would be as nice as this. But as one of my coaches once told me, ‘When enough people start caring, good things will happen.’

“That’s what happened here. A lot of people, a lot of hours, a lot of donations. I don’t think you see that anywhere else in the country. It’s like we became a family.’’

Local businesses provided help in many ways. Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution lent money and hands, as did the Biddeford-Saco Rotary Club.

The bank provided a $10,000 loan, half of which will be absorbed by the bank as a donation, according to Don Lauzier, the bank’s vice president of community relationships.

Coincidentally, Lauzier is also a Rotarian, and the Rotary Club donated $5,000 to the project.

They both also loaned people. A group of eight to 12, including Lauzier, was there on Wednesday, doing some last-minute landscaping and cleaning under the stands.

“I’m here,’’ said Kathy Stryker, the quality control officer at Saco & Biddeford Savings, “to pull out these vines that seem to be holding the place together.’’

Stephanie Desjardins, who works at Jimmy The Greek’s, a local restaurant, was there because she said, “we all have a hand in this somehow.’’

TOWN HOPES FOR ECONOMIC BENEFITS

There were hurdles, of course. Finding enough volunteers. Finding money. Finding materials. Finding time.

And, of course, in a town that is as politically driven as Old Orchard Beach, there were political hurdles. Once the project began to become a reality, town officials were concerned over who had authority over the renovation.

Finally, a seven-member Ballpark Commission was formed, its mission to oversee all aspects of the facility and report back to the Town Council.

“It was getting to the point where (the project) was just too big,’’ said Dave Goyet, the vice president at Saco & Biddeford Savings, a volunteer and a member of the Ballpark Commission. “The commission was needed. One of the things we might do is get an eventscoordinator. All kinds of festivals are looking into this place.

“Our hope is that this will be self-sustainable and provide an economic boost to the town.’’

Turcotte said the rebirth of The Ballpark is providing an inspirational boost to the town, and it should provide an economic boost as well.

“I see it bringing in booster shots of money per event, based on the nature of the event,’’ he said. “More important, it’s going to set a new economic climate for the community.’’

Turcotte recently attended a meeting involving the communities that have stops on the Downeaster train from Portland to Boston.

“The minute I walked in the door, people were asking me about what’s happening at The Ballpark,’’ he said. “They were asking for a schedule of events.

“The train goes right through Old Orchard (with a stop during the summer tourist season about a half-mile from the stadium), and they know that this is a new opportunity for tourists and people throughout the region to have a facility at their fingertips.

“You can’t measure that (impact). If someone goes to a game, they visit the community and tell their friends about it. That’s not simply an event impact – that’s a boost that’s long-range and wide-based.’’

BIDDING ON TOURNAMENT

The national baseball tournament, which will be played here in 2011 as well, will have an immediate impact. Gonyea said he has already booked 102 local hotel rooms as of Thursday morning – just for the players.

That the tournament is being held here is another story. Gonyea said after he read about the project, he would drive by once a week to see its progress.

When the USCAA opened bids for the national tournament, Gonyea and Matt Richards, the athletic director at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, worked together to put in a bid, knowing that there was much work to be done on the stadium.

The bid was accepted last October.

“It was a little bit of a risk,’’ said Richards. “But I saw the energy they were putting into it. Before we got the bid, we met with a group of volunteers and businessmen. You could see the passion, what it would mean to this town.’’

With the USCAA tournament just a little more than a week away, there was still work to be done.

Fences needed to be installed along the left and right field lines. The backstop needed to be erected. The sound system isn’t working yet. They hope to install a hand-operated scoreboard on the left field fence, until an electric one can be found.

But the clubhouse, with home and visiting locker rooms and one concession stand, is nearly complete.

The volunteers were pleased – and quite surprised – to find that the plumbing and electrical systems still worked. “One flick of the switch,’’ said Crossman, “and all the lights went on.’’

They also found some hidden gems. The original ticket booth was in perfect shape, needing only a couple of coats of polyurethane. A therapeutic whirlpool machine was found under some rubble.

“This weekend is our final push to get the main things done,’’ said Crossman. “We’re hoping for a lot of hands and good weather.’’

Jack Sarno, an Old Orchard Beach resident for 20 years and one of the original volunteers, has spent an average of four days a week working at The Ballpark. He has pressure-washed walls, fixed seats and last Wednesday was working on fencing.

“This was a vision that a lot of us had,’’ he said. “When they first started talking about selling it, we wanted to see what could be done with it. We wanted to get The Ballpark ready for our kids to use, to get other events here, maybe put in a rec center, and a walking path.

“This place has great potential.’’

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

 

[email protected]