Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 3, 2014

Chasing The Dream, Just A Short Walk Away

The calendar reads high summer, but the thermometer is stuck in one of the shoulder seasons. Overnight rains have washed the air clean of heat and humidity, and with a soft breeze from the south this Saturday afternoon is comfortably cool as I stroll away from my apartment in the heart of downtown Portsmouth. It’s a short walk up State Street to the junction with Pleasant, then down the latter and past the Langdon House.

The historic Georgian mansion was built 230 years ago by John Langdon as a symbol of his own importance. Successful merchant, Revolutionary War leader, signer of the United State Constitution, United States Senator and three-term Governor of the then very new state of New Hampshire, Langdon’s role was outsized and his home is large even by modern standards. It must have been viewed as truly exceptional when it anchored what was once the western edge of the settlement originally known as Strawberry Banke.

Leaving the modern-day tourist attraction behind, I make my way around the tidal inlet that is the South Mill Pond. On the heights of Hospital Hill to my left sits a structure of jumbled architectural styles, built in segments over decades, which once served the medical needs of the New Hampshire seacoast. The old community hospital has long since been taken over by a national health care chain, and a modern new campus sits a few miles away, out by the Interstate highway. The hilltop facility now serves as the city’s municipal complex, its parking lot filled earlier this morning with the usual throngs attending the weekly farmers’ market.

I turn right and away from City Hall, around the edge of the Mill Pond, past a playground and tennis courts until I come at last to my destination. Here is Leary Field, the city-owned baseball diamond. Set hard against a quiet neighborhood of well-kept clapboard homes along both the first and third base lines, the ballpark’s dark green wooden grandstand rises up behind home plate. A newer set of metal bleachers offers additional seating behind the third base dugout, while the open area stretching behind first base and down to the right field foul pole is strewn with picnic tables. Beyond the 286 foot sign on the high fence in right are the tennis courts I have just walked past, while in the middle distance past the lower fence in left field squats the modern new city library. Far out beyond the 367 foot marker in deepest center, in the direction from which I have come, rise the rooftops of downtown, with the white spire of the North Church in Market Square claiming pride of place as always. It’s a fine Saturday afternoon in August, and the Seacoast Mavericks are getting ready to play two.

Our local squad is a charter member of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, a wood-bat summer league with franchises from Connecticut to Maine. It was born in 2011 after the older New England College Baseball League turned down a pair of expansion requests from would-be owners in Nashua, New Hampshire and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Today the FCBL has ten teams, and like the NECBL and the MLB-supported Cape Cod Baseball League, it provides a place for college players to hone their skills and perhaps draw the notice of big league scouts after the regular collegiate season has ended. Roster rules require that half of each thirty-man squad have a local connection, either by having attended high school or by currently attending college in New England. From the beginning of June through the first full week in August the amateur players are hosted by local families while playing a 56-game schedule of six contests a week.

The Mavericks played twenty minutes up the Spaulding Turnpike in Rochester their first two seasons before moving to Portsmouth in 2013. After three seasons of decidedly losing records this year’s team has flirted with .500, and sits in third place in the FCBL’s Eastern Division. With a late push over the short season’s final week the Mavs might even squeeze into the playoffs. But while a franchise’s record always matters, at this level other things take precedence. There will be no parade down on Martha’s Vineyard or out in Worcester if the Sharks or Bravehearts, the two teams currently atop the division standings, ultimately emerge as league champions. So too here in Portsmouth, should the Mavericks surprise, there would be an article in the local paper; but we in the stands would soon turn our attention elsewhere and the players who today share the Mavericks uniform would shortly scatter.

For the players this amateur league is a chance to continue to chase a dream that first sprang into the minds of young boys, perhaps a dozen years ago. For us fans, all 125 or so who have found our way to Leary Field, it’s a chance to sit back and enjoy the Great Game in its most basic form. At the gate behind home plate we hand over our $5, which would buy little more than a bottle of water at Fenway Park or at The Stadium down in the Bronx. For that we’ll get a pair of seven inning contests against the Raging Tide from Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

The old saw is that one can’t tell the players without a program. But here there are no programs, so we cheer for numbers. “Good play, number 6!” “That’s the stuff, 31!” Those two numbers belong to the standouts for the Mavericks. The former is on the back of speedy left fielder Dakota Higdon, who goes 3 for 4 and torments the Old Orchard Beach battery mates on the base paths. The latter is worn by left-handed pitcher Jordan Quinn, who is masterful for six innings, holding the visitors to just two hits.

Unfortunately one of those clears the fence in left, and while Higdon and other Mavericks reach base, no one who follows can bring them home. Just when it looks like Quinn may be a hard luck loser the 1-0 game enters its final frame and everything changes. Our pitcher is chased as the Raging Tide bat around and then some, plating 8 additional runs. Down to our final three outs of a suddenly lopsided contest, our heroes for an afternoon fight back. Led by a two-run homer by Higdon, the Mavericks score four runs of their own and have the bases loaded with just one out. But a sharp grounder to the right side of the infield is scooped up by the second baseman, who begins a game-ending double play.

In the half hour intermission between contests, players from both teams troop to the concession stand for a free dinner of sandwiches and watermelon. A westering sun has broken through day-long cloud cover as the home team takes the field for the nightcap. The pleasant afternoon yields to a cool evening and the Leary Field lights come on, even as the Mavericks get their revenge. Our pitcher (“Way to go, 24!”) surrenders just three hits and a single run while striking out seven over five innings. Center fielder and New Hampshire native Ryan Gendron clubs a grand slam in the bottom of the 3rd, and the home team coasts to a 6-1 victory.

Absent that late push for the playoffs, after one more week of contests the Mavericks’ players will head home, still nurturing the dream of one day playing the Great Game in far more elegant surroundings than Portsmouth’s old Leary Field. For most, most likely for all of course, it is but a fantasy that will one day be quietly put to rest, replaced by the realities of life, and the need to earn a living. But that hard day is not this fine and gentle Saturday. This is just a lovely summer weekend, a beautiful time to sit back, watch the boys play two, and dream.

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Responses

  1. I didn’t realize you lived in Portsmouth, NH. Beautiful town. My wife used to live in Rochester, NH (not so beautiful) and we used to date down in Portsmouth now and then. Once we had a son, we took him to the Children’s Museum there a couple of times. Later, we lived not too far away in an apartment in Sanford, ME.
    I love baseball at the local level, as you present here. No one ever seems to have a bad time at a game like that.

    • Thanks Bill. I came to NH for college and moved from Hanover to the seacoast when I got married. The marriage is long since over, but 150 years later, I’m still here. You’re right, Portsmouth is indeed quite beautiful and Rochester not so much. Near as I could tell, there wasn’t a person in the stands last weekend who wasn’t having a most enjoyable time!

      Thanks again, Mike

      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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