For the opening pitch there were fewer than 100 people in the stands, looking rather lonely in a stadium that seats 6,000. Welcome to perhaps the lowest tier of professional baseball.
The Old Orchard Beach Surge play in the Empire League, a group of independent teams not affiliated with organized baseball. The Ballpark was built to house a Triple A franchise more than forty years ago, but that level of baseball never caught on in this vacation town. Not to mention that the field was built in a swamp – the stadium was famous for mosquitoes in its early years, though I haven’t noticed any recently.
The Surge faced the Puerto Rico Islanders when I attended while on vacation earlier this month. There are only five Puerto Ricans on the team; they have almost as many from California. The Empire League has four teams, and I gather two of them don’t have a home field, including the Puerto Rico team. All the games are played in either Plattsburg, New York or Old Orchard Beach, Maine. (After I wrote that I noticed that Sullivan County, New York, did have home games scheduled, their first in late August.)
The Surge were in first place, but you wouldn’t know it from the game I attended, a convincing 14-2 trouncing at the hands of a Puerto Rico team desperate to make the playoffs.
This is the last hope for a lot of these players, or maybe their first one. In their early to mid-twenties, they are late bloomers, undrafted by major league teams who still have the dream of making it big in baseball. They are professionals, in that they are paid, but they aren’t getting rich. Five hundred dollars a month is about the average, I am told by the mother of one of the players who has flown from California to watch her son play. At 25, he put his life on hold to try and make it as a pro ball player. He has a job to go back to if things don’t work out; many of these young men don’t.
We’ve picked a good evening to attend. I’m told there was some question as to whether the scheduled game would happen the next day. The teams are all billeted at a local community college (and I presume at that salary there must be room and board included in the contract). Someone had been pulling the fire alarm in the dorm and the ball players were being blamed. They expected to be evicted in the next day or so. It doesn’t strike me that is the sort of thing these young men, trying to get noticed at a higher level, would do. That’s not the type of notice they want.
By the second inning the crowd had increased to about 125 people. By the end of the game there were fewer than 30 in the stands. I guess people wanted to beat the traffic.
I always enjoy the enthusiasm and commitment of these young men. They love the game and they have a dream. They know it isn’t likely that they will make the majors, but you never know, you just might get noticed by someone at a higher level of baseball.
That happened for Surge shortstop Sebastian Diaz a couple of weeks after I saw him play in Maine. He got signed by a team at the next level, the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am league. I went Friday night, hoping to see him play – it felt like a way to extend my vacation. Apparently he hadn’t arrived yet, but I still enjoyed the game.