OLD ORCHARD BEACH – In the summer of 2007, The Ballpark could best be described as a relic, a cement slab in the backwoods of the jungle in Old Orchard Beach, a hollow reminder of the days when the town had a Triple A baseball team of its own.
A fire had destroyed the skyboxes and other parts of the stadium, the field was more of a swamp than baseball diamond and the facility as a whole was suffering from years of neglect, so much so that the town was considering selling the site.
What a difference five years can make.
Thanks to a major volunteer effort that cleaned up the park and made it fit for baseball again, today the 5,500-seat park is returning to its former glory, and this summer has taken another major step in the right direction.
More than 130 baseball games will be played at the park by season’s end, ranging from high school to college, Babe Ruth, Southern Maine Men’s Baseball League and American Legion, the last of which held both its state tournament and Northeast Regional tournament at the park this August.
The Old Orchard Beach Raging Tide also remained the park’s main tenants for a second season, but with a few changes. The team switched leagues for the 2012 season, going from the New England Collegiate Baseball League to the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, with good results.
This year’s Tide squad finished seventh in the nine-team FCBL league, going 23-30. However, even that was a massive improvement from the 2011 NECBL team that went 9-33, the worst record in that league’s 19-year history.
With the improvement in results came an improvement at the gates. The team enjoyed an average attendance of 501 for its 25 home games in 2012, a marked improvement from the year before, when they averaged 455 fans in 20 home games.
“It was nice to have the Tide back again. It’s such a good draw for us at the park, it’s good exposure and it’s great publicity,” said Dan Furtado, the chairman of The Ballpark Commission “It was a wonderful success.”
In addition to the increased win total, another possible part of the team’s success in the new league may have been its local flavor. The Futures League requires that half of the players on every team have either been brought up in New England or go to college in New England, with the league’s philosophy being that it is easier to get people to come out to see local talent, in addition to trying to enable players from New England to have better summer baseball opportunities.
As a result the 2012 Tide featured 11 Maine natives, including Steve Trask, of Saco and the University of Maine, Sam Canales, of Saco and Bowdoin, and Tyler Laverriere, of Biddeford, who plays at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. The team also had 15 players who go to college in Maine. In contrast, the 2011 NECBL team had just three Pine Tree State natives, and only five who attended Maine colleges.
Along with the more locally focused roster came new owners John and Pam Gallo of Old Orchard Beach, who bought the team from Doug Ayotte, who had moved his NECBL franchise from Lowell in 2011.
Robert Rings, another member of The Ballpark Commission, said the local ownership, as well as the scores of volunteers who make the park financially viable, were two of the major reasons for the burgeoning success of the operation.
“The Gallo family really turned this thing around. They did some things promotionally and with marketing that were 180 degrees from last year,” he said.
“It’s been a volunteer operation,” Rings said. “We have a lot of people who have a passion and work because they had a vision of what The Ballpark could be like, and now they’ve seen it, which is reinforcing. They do it for the passion and the love of The Ballpark, and it’s amazing what people have done. They want to help maintain this beautiful structure.”
However, while the Tide and The Ballpark are in an improved situation from a year ago, there is still plenty of work to be done on a stadium that has now endured almost 30 years of harsh Maine weather. The field itself has held up well with the busy summer schedule, but the stadium’s physical infrastructure still needs plenty of work.
Rings listed the stadium’s lighting as the most major concern, along with the need to seal some of the cement in the stadium supports, the need to upgrade the concession stand and clubhouse and the necessity to improve the park’s handicap accessibility.
“Baseball itself may be self-supporting, but it doesn’t go far enough to pay for all the infrastructure improvements we need to do,” Rings said. “If everything were A-OK, then we could probably pay for the day-to-day operations and taking care of the field, but when it comes to major things like plumbing or sealing the concrete or the lights and things like that, it doesn’t bring that kind of money in. Then you have to look at other potential sources of revenue.”
Furtado and Rings said the commission was looking at several different possibilities to diversify the offerings at The Ballpark to bring in more income. Other sporting events, large and small concerts, music festivals, dog shows, beer festivals and even the circus have been ideas that have been tossed around.
They also stressed the need to do a better job of selling the park and its offerings to both local residents and the multitudes of tourists who flock to Old Orchard Beach in the summer. Finding its niche, as Rings put it, would be important for the park moving forward.
“It needs something beyond baseball as a revenue source, and we have to find our niche that we fit into so we’re not competing against other OOB or other town’s activities,” Rings said. “We need to sell it more to our own townspeople who can then spread the word, and we need to bring in people and families who come here for the amusements and the beach.
“We want to make The Ballpark a destination in itself. Not only can people come and see good baseball, but they can come to festivals or concerts or whatever they’re interested in.”