SANFORD — Forty-five minutes before the start of the New England Collegiate Baseball League championship series game between the Sanford Mainers and Newport Gulls, the stands at cozy Goodall Park were nearly full – with a long line of people snaking out the gate along Roberts Street.
By the time the game began, a standing room only crowd of 744 – almost 300 above average – settled in.
“Our support is overwhelming,” said Mainers GM John Webb. “There is a real sense of community here.”
That was obvious Tuesday night even as the Gulls won their sixth NECBL championship, scoring eight runs in the sixth inning to beat the Mainers 8-5. The fans cheered to the end, and gave a long ovation after the final out.
This was the third time these clubs met in the championship series. Sanford had won the previous two, in 2004 and 2008.
Those championships, on-field success and community involvement have made the Mainers one of the NECBL’s most attractive franchises.
“One of the biggest switches, for me, from 10 years ago is the day the season ends, all the emails come in from across the country from teams wanting to put their people here,” said Webb, noting players from Michigan, Santa Clara, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt on the roster this year. “We’ve become a nationwide destination for kids who want to come to Maine and spend two months with us.”
Actually, said Aaron Izaryk, who just completed his sixth year as manager, the planning for next year began before the Mainers got to the championship finals. “I’ve had five or six calls from schools already for next year,” he said.
Izaryk, a former University of Maine player and coach who is now the head baseball coach at Bridgton Academy, knows why teams want their players on his roster.
“It’s a credit to all the volunteers, all the support we have all around the city, the sponsors,” he said. “They give the guys a great experience and that’s all we can ask. The guys really appreciate everything the city does for us.”
NECBL Commissioner Sean McGrath said the Mainers have a lot going for them, starting with one of the best parks in New England.
“When Aaron and John start recruiting their players, it’s an easy sell,” he said. “And when all these kids go back at the end of the season, they’ll talk to their coaches, their parents will talk to other parents, about how great a community this is, how supportive the organization is and how spectacular the ballpark is.”
All the scoring Tuesday night happened in the sixth inning, but the Mainers had chances early on. They left two on in the first – and had a runner thrown out at home on an attempted suicide squeeze – and three on in the third.
“To score first is always important, especially in these knockout games,” said second baseman Sam Dexter, the talented University of Southern Maine player who had four hits for Sanford. “We just didn’t get the job done early and later in the game it gets harder to come back.”
Newport was aided by two Sanford errors in its eight-run rally in the top of the sixth. Reed Gamache had a three-run double and Blaise Salter – the grandson of former Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan – a two-run home run. Sanford came back with five in the bottom of the inning, two coming in on a single by Dexter.
While disappointed, Dexter said he enjoyed everything about this season.
“It’s been a great experience here,” he said. “I’ve loved coming to the park every day. It’s sad to see it end like this, but at the same time, we really did have a good summer.”