WATERVILLE — Sports are special in any capacity, but there’s nothing like when a sporting event takes over an entire place.
From March Madness to the Olympics to the World Cup to the state basketball tournaments in Augusta, Bangor and Portland, there are certain events that have special ways of captivating us. Whether it’s at the local level or throughout an entire country, there’s a distinct buzz in the air when you’re immersed in the sporting experience for days or even weeks on end.
In case the banners on Main Street and elsewhere in downtown Waterville haven’t given you a hint yet, that experience is right here and right now for nearly 200 young baseball players and their families. It’s an entrancing experience, one that’s about to go well beyond the game for 12 teams that stretch from sea to shining sea.
“It’s going to be a lot of baseball, but that’s what we’re all here for,” said Shaun Walsh, co-manager of the Weymouth, Massachusetts, team. “It’s great to be up here for a week, and we’re ready to play and also see the best of what central Maine has to offer.”
It started Thursday with a skills clinic led by former Major League Baseball players and continued Friday with the opening parade and skills competitions, including a home-run derby. Those events were the perfect appetizers to the main entrée: A tournament that will make our little city by the river the youth baseball capital of America for the next nine days.
Waterville, as I’ve found over my first few months here, has a lot to offer for a town of its size. The dining scene here has endless hidden gems; the locals are friendly and quick to accept you into their social circles; the location, a stone’s throw from the Belgrade and Winthrop chains of lakes and not too far from Portland or Acadia, is sublime.
Yet for all of its perks, Waterville might not be the place that first comes to mind when you think of a destination city. That’s not an insult; it’s just a statement of fact for a municipality that isn’t one of the state’s top economic hubs (such as Portland) or a tourist haven (such as Bar Harbor, Kennebunk or Old Orchard Beach).
For this week and a half at least, the Cal Ripken World Series has changed that. Making it here to Purnell Wrigley Field and nearby Maine’s Fenway Park in Oakland has been the goal of these young ballplayers since their seasons began in the spring. Being here, right in the heart of this old mill town, means that dreams have been realized.
“There’s no place we’d rather be right now than here,” said Steve McFarland, also a Weymouth co-manager. “The fields are great — our kids have been dying to see them — and the city is extremely accommodating. It’s unbelievable; it’s a great experience for these kids.”
The experience entails all-day action for all 12 teams, which will compete in pool play for five consecutive days beginning Saturday and concluding Wednesday. Then, the top-three teams in each of the divisions will compete in the championship bracket with the bottom-three teams competing in the consolation bracket.
The journeys those 12 teams took to get here have been far from the same. As the host team, Waterville qualified for the event automatically when it was selected as the host last year; some teams, such as Laguna, California, booked their places by winning state and regional titles; others, such as Weymouth, qualified via invitation.
“The wait for the phone call to invite us here was stressful,” said Weymouth slugger Owen Walsh. “We wanted to be here so badly. When we got that phone call saying we were going, we were all so excited. Now, we’re here, and it’s awesome. We’re ready to play.”
During Friday’s skills competitions, you wouldn’t have known that hundreds and even thousands of miles separated some of the competing teams. Players traded phone numbers; coaches meeting one another for the first time talked as if they were old friends; parents seated in lawn chairs behind the baselines cheered on kids from other teams as if they were their own.
“One of the things that we’re seeing already is that there’s such great camaraderie among the kids,” said Waterville co-manager Tim Hubbard. “They’ve been waiting for a while for a chance to see all the other teams. It’s great to meet people from all over the country.”
These sporting experiences, after all, connect people. That’s something that can be lost at times in a country with 330 million people spanning nearly 3.8 million square miles. With the vastness of America comes different ways of life for people in Waterville, Laguna, Weymouth and everywhere in between.
Baseball, though? That’s a constant in the life of everybody who’s made Little Wrigley home over the past two days. From the evening practices and ball games and team dinners to little things such as washing grass and dirt stains out of uniforms, there’s a shared experience — hundreds of them, really — to which every single person here could attest.
It’s when we can bring people together like this, I think, that sports are at their best. The places that are stages for these tournaments hold special places in the hearts and minds of those who become enveloped in them. That’s happening here already, and the games haven’t even begun.
“This is the best thing of my life,” said Weymouth’s Gavin Donlan. “It’s amazing. I can’t wait to play.”
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