SANFORD — They started gathering outside Goodall Park about 5 p.m., 30 minutes before the gates opened and a full 90 minutes before the Sanford Mainers would play the Mystic Schooners.

“They get here early,” said Helen Hajny, chairman of the board for the Mainers and one of the many game-day volunteers. “We have one guy who shows up at 5 every game. He wants to be the first one in.”

A crowd of 485 snuggled into Goodall Park on Thursday night to watch the Mainers lose to the Schooners 7-6, continuing an early-season string of close losses. But the relationship between this team and this town goes far beyond wins and losses.

In the 16 seasons the Mainers have played here since joining the New England Collegiate Baseball League, the team, the players and the coaches have been embraced by a small but passionate fan base. The players, who come from NCAA schools across the country, are welcomed into the homes of host families, recognized in the local restaurants or stores, and always greeted with a smile and a “Hi, how are you?”

“You feel welcome,” said Aaron Izaryk, in his second year as general manager.

Izaryk once played for the Mainers and served as the field manager for seven years.

“I’ve been in other places that the summer baseball team isn’t always welcome,” he said. “If you’re a Mainer they always want to know about you. … You’re a local celebrity for a couple of months.”

Each game at historic Goodall Park – anyone in Sanford can, and will, tell you that in 1919 Babe Ruth hit a home run here with his barnstorming team – is an intimate gathering for the fans and players. The grandstands – rebuilt in 1997 after a fire destroyed the wooden grandstand – seat about 700 and are nearly filled on most summer nights.

“It’s the quintessential American experience,” said Diane Snyder, who has been attending games with her husband, Dave, for the last 13 years since they retired to Alfred, “coming to a small ballpark and joining other fans in rooting for the kids.”

But it’s more than just watching the game. The younger fans are treated to the antics of, and play games with, the Mainers’ two moose mascots, Broose and Boomer. The adults keep score on a scorecard or wave green-and-white pompoms. Players sell 50-50 tickets in the stands, taking the time to converse with fans.

“This is a gem,” said Dave Snyder, the former men’s hockey coach at Wesleyan University who professes a love for baseball. “It’s a surprise gem, this field, this stadium, this program.”

The NECBL is a 13-team wooden bat college summer league. Its teams are located throughout New England, in places such as Keene, New Hampshire; Newport, Rhode Island; New Bedford, Massachusetts and Danbury, Connecticut. Rosters are filled by college players, most from the Division I level. Teams play a 42-game schedule over eight weeks.

While it may lack the prestige of the Cape Cod League, perhaps the best-known college summer league, it has top-level players. “It’s good baseball,” said Chris Morris, in his second year as manager of the Mainers. “I don’t think people realize that.”

This year’s Mainers consist of players from schools such as Vanderbilt, Michigan, Texas Christian, Arkansas-Little Rock, Columbia, Eastern Kentucky and the University of Southern Maine.

For many of the players, it’s their first visit to Maine. Those from warmer climates find the weather delightful but the ocean water much colder than that off South Carolina or Texas. A group of 10 or so visited Wells Beach last week. Only the hearty Mainers – like Jake Dexter from Oakland and USM – took a dip.

“Not used to that at all,” said Bryan Sturges, a 19-year-old sophomore from TCU who grew up in Houston. “I went about ankle deep. That was it.”

Sturges is one of the newcomers this year and loves the support. “This place is crowded every night,” he said during batting practice. “Other places, maybe 10 fans.”

That support surprised Jimmy Kerr, a 20-year-old Michigan junior infielder who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona. “For a small town they fill it,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll give them even more reason to come.”

After Thursday’s loss to Mystic, the Mainers fell to 2-10. But the coaches and players feel the team is close to turning it around. And if history is any indication, it will. The Mainers have qualified for the playoffs in 13 of their previous 15 seasons, twice winning the championship (2004, 2008) and twice losing in the finals (2014, 2016).

Morris, who is an assistant coach at MIT, said community support is a big reason behind the success.

“You need that in summer ball,” he said. “If your community doesn’t embrace you, if your host families aren’t outstanding as ours are, if those small things behind the scenes don’t work, it’s hard to get the baseball side of things to work.”

Their alumni includes seven players who have gone on to play in the major leagues, including Atlanta Braves reliever Jason Motte (who helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the 2011 World Series) and Cincinnati Reds outfielder Adam Duvall (who hit 33 home runs and drove in 103 runs last year).

Twelve former Mainers were selected in the 2016 major league draft. Three were drafted from this year’s team and another signed as a free agent.

“We’ve had some special characters, some special players, come through here, some who have gone on to professional careers,” said Morris. “And I think anytime you see a kid who can do that, it’s always exciting for the fans.”

Morris also believes it’s important to have Maine players on the roster. He played at Hampden Academy and Husson University, and knows how fans feel about their native sons.

And the in-state players love being here. “It’s a special feeling,” said Dexter. “It’s pretty cool to be staying in the state and wearing Mainers on your chest.”

“Playing in your home state is nice,” said Dalton Rice, the pitcher from USM and Waterford. “It’s like school ball.”

Ben Greenberg, the pitcher from Scarborough and Fordham University, is back for his third year. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” said Greenberg, who missed his entire college season following back surgery.

The relationship between the host families and players goes far beyond baseball and providing a couple of meals a day.

Hajny and her husband, Ray, hosted a player during the team’s first season. This year they are hosting five. She still corresponds with the first player they hosted, Brandon Alphin from Louisville. “We Snapchat with each other, send Facebook messages, there’s phone calls every now and then,” she said. “It’s a lasting thing. They’re our boys when they’re here. They’re our family.”

Steve Cabana has hosted 39 players over the past 12 seasons, this summer taking in Dexter and, for a second year, pitcher Joe Orlando, who comes from Binghamton University and Endicott, New York. Cabana had seldom gone to a Mainers game before he got involved. Now he hardly misses any.

Like Hajny, he still keeps in touch with his first player, Greg Paiml of Alabama, and has developed lifelong relationships with players and their families.

“I love baseball and it’s a connection to the sport at a different level than just being a fan,” he said. “You’re more intimate with the organization and the team because you know the players. It’s like having your own children.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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