Just a few years ago, the baseball stadium in Old Orchard Beach was a far cry from the place once dubbed “probably the prettiest ballpark in creation” by no less an authority than Sports Illustrated magazine.

Weeds covered the infield. Trees were growing in the outfield. A fire had destroyed the skyboxes.

After being abandoned by its AAA baseball team in 1988, The Ballpark fell into disuse and was slowly crumbling.

But three years ago, residents, who twice turned down proposals to sell the property, decided to start doing the dirty work of bringing The Ballpark back to life.

They rebuilt the skyboxes and dugouts and fixed broken seats. New sod was installed and roof shingles were replaced, with contractors donating the labor. And energetic volunteers convinced high schools, local colleges and finally a college summer league team to play games on the diamond.

Now, the town is saying it’s time for a more formal maintenance arrangement than merely relying on volunteers, some of whom were still installing the left-field foul pole last year when a college team rolled in on a bus for the park’s first game of the season.

“We’ve grown to the point where we can’t operate totally on volunteers,” said Town Manager Jack Turcotte, who added that The Ballpark can’t function without the donated labor, either.

The town this spring approved $25,000 to provide modest stipends to managers who will run the concession stand and oversee maintenance of the field and facilities. Overall management responsibility will shift to Old Orchard Beach’s recreation department.

Turcotte called it “a baby step” toward more formal management as The Ballpark’s schedule fills up.

In addition to games played by the New England College Baseball League’s “Raging Tide,” the field will also host a college tournament next month and an American Legion tournament in August, plus high school games and other events.

“It’s a natural progression” to have a more structured management setup, said Paul Crossman, who chairs the Ballpark Commission, which was appointed a year ago. “This is a very important year for The Ballpark to show that it can be self-sustaining.”

Turcotte said the expenditure is minor and could be paid back from revenues — most of it coming from ticket sales and concessions — if The Ballpark does well this year.

He, too, agreed that this year is critical for the stadium. Last month, when he got the Town Council to approve his management plan for the facility, he said that Old Orchard Beach could assess the situation after this summer and still sell or lease the stadium — although he quickly pointed out that he was only laying out all the options, not making a recommendation.

Turcotte said the managers will provide direction to volunteers and add responsibility and accountability for what happens at The Ballpark. For instance, instead of volunteers depositing a night’s concession stand receipts into the bank, it will be a manager’s job to take care of financial matters.

“That’s probably not what the auditors would like to see — volunteers handling all the money,” Turcotte said.

Turcotte said, however, that volunteers will still be needed and their contributions are greatly appreciated. It’s just an issue of harnessing and directing that energy, he said, and “that’s a great problem to have.”

Robin Dayton, a town councilor and ardent fan of The Ballpark, said officials have been careful to make sure volunteers don’t feel they’re being supplanted by closer town oversight.

For instance, she noted that the town might be able to provide some savings, such as buying supplies using the town’s purchasing system, and volunteers won’t have to handle some chores, such as making sure all the numbers add up at the end of the night.

A successful year, Dayton added, will quiet any chatter about selling The Ballpark.

“Over my dead body are we selling that ballpark,” Dayton said. “There’s too much sweat equity in it.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

 


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