By David Arenstam, Contributing Writer
In 1983 the town of Old Orchard Beach took a chance and made a commitment to an idea and the game of baseball. Twenty-nine years later, Jen DeRice, the general manager of the ballpark, hopes that sentiment will continue.
“What we have here is amazing,” she said as she described the park on a cold and rainy late winter afternoon. “People try to measure the amount that has been donated to the park, but you really can’t.”
Most of the people from this part of southern Maine are familiar with the history of the park; in 1983 the town of Old Orchard Beach agreed to sell Jordan Kobritz and his ownership group 50 acres of land to build a baseball park. As part of the deal, they also agreed to cosign a $2.2 million loan that would be used to build the facility and operate a minor league team.
By the time the first pitch was thrown in 1984, many people, including sportswriters from around the country, hailed the ballpark as one of the best minor league stadiums in the country.
It didn’t stay that way for long.
Kobritz, now an assistant professor of sports management at Eastern New Mexico University, sold the team after only three years. The new owners lost their affiliation with major league baseball and the town was ultimately forced to take back the property.
“They tried all sorts of things here,” said DeRice. “But nothing really seemed to work.”
Eventually the property simply sat idle, and the once pristine park started to slowly erode.
In June 2007, there was a fire on the property and a large section of the press box and grandstand was damaged or destroyed.
“Today there are seats there, but they took them from the left field section,” DeRice said as she pointed to the renovated area behind home plate. “All of that happened before I got here,” she said.
DeRice started working for the town as a recreation coordinator in 2009, and at that time the “old ballpark” was already being renovated by a determined group of volunteers.
In 2008, the year before DeRice started working at the beach, there was a referendum question before the town asking residents to authorize the town council to sell the land and the stadium.
The final vote was 1,169 against authorization and 627 in favor of it. The park was staying.
“I couldn’t believe how much work they had done and were willing to do,” DeRice said. “Imagine someone coming here every weekend to fill the cracks,” she said as she walked through the grandstands and pointed to the concrete. “People feel so strongly about this place.”
“Both the stadium and the fields had to be completely rebuilt,” DeRice said. Even in the cold, she couldn’t help but smile as she pointed to the turf and surrounding green fence.
“Right now, it’s one of the best fields,” she continued. “At least that’s what the college players say.”
This year, DeRice already has over 150 games scheduled for the ballpark. The Raging Tide, a new team from the Futures League, will be calling Old Orchard Beach home this summer and they will play a 54-game schedule throughout New England; 27 of those games will be in Old Orchard.
DeRice said many of the volunteers who helped to restore the park now come to the games with their children, grandchildren and a huge amount of pride.
John and Pam Gallo, the new principal owners of the Raging Tide Baseball team, started coming to the beach after John retired and wanted to get involved in the community.
DeRice said the couple wanted to find a way to share baseball with their grandson. “They fell in love with the town and now they own team,” she said.
“The town didn’t have to spend any money to restore this,” DeRice added. “It was all volunteer labor.” But she knows there is more to be done.
“Last year we generated over $100,000 in revenue, and we would like to be self-sufficient,” she said. “If you could add in concerts and other events, the potential is huge.”
The town council seems to feel the same way. According to DeRice, they recently directed the new town manager, Mark Pearson, to hire a consultant to determine what would need to be done to the property in order to “take it to the next level.”
For now, the events for this summer seem to be in place and those seem to only include baseball.
DeRice said she has been in contact with some agents and promoters about bringing acts to the ballpark, but as each day passes, schedules become more difficult.
“Last year we had over 1,800 people here for a Red Sox alumni game and that really tested us,” she said. “We were slammed. That’s about our capacity.”
DeRice believes the park and the surrounding grounds could be an amazing venue. “We’ve come so far, but we can’t ride that story forever,” she said referring to all of the volunteer help.
Even some of the more mundane tasks within the park have proven to be difficult. And every spring, as DeRice gets ready for summer, she turns on the water supply and electricity and crosses her fingers.
“Changing a light bulb is harder than you think,” she said laughing. The light towers that ring the field are 110 feet tall and, according to DeRice, there are only four trucks in the state with booms high enough the reach to top of the poles.
“Central Maine Power only goes to 90 feet so they have to climb the last 20 feet,” she said.
“The bulbs are expensive and getting them here is expensive,” DeRice added.
DeRice said there are many capital improvements they could do, but a long-term commitment from the town has to be there, a commitment that includes funding.
“During the last budget cycle we received $25,000 for salaries,” she said. “But that was not for maintenance and improvements. All of that was done by volunteers.”
As winter turns to spring and thoughts turn to summer, DeRice is positive and hopeful for the park by the sea.
“There’s something about this place,” she said. “I was here all the time last year, even on my days off, and I wasn’t alone.”
For more information on the Raging Tide baseball team: http://oobragingtide.com