Ask for directions to the ball park and you half expect the guy at the service station to tell you, "Can't get there from here." But you can. Just head down Saco Avenue to T for Turn Road, hang a left, and there, right behind the Old Orchard Beach Fire and Police Station, is the entrance to the home of the newest, and most distinctive, Class AAA team in all of baseball, the Maine Guides.
'Course the local folks know a shortcut, through the trailer park down by the dump. Either way, you end up at the same place: a fresh three-lane asphalt road heading into the forest. You make a turn like you're going around first, lighting out for second, and suddenly the white pines give way to an extraordinary sight, or site. There, in the middle of the woods, is The Ballpark.
That's what it's officially called, although the proper pronunciation is bahlpahk. It's a ball park all right, but with the adjacent wooden administration building and clubhouses, plus pine dugouts and pine sky boxes, it looks like the offspring of a hunting lodge and a baseball stadium. It's just a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, and it may be the prettiest ball park in creation.
One year ago there were nothing but trees in the area. It was known to the residents of Old Orchard Beach as Mosquito Hollow, or The Woods Behind The High School. Kids would take their BB guns back there, and families would choose from among its fine selection of Christmas trees. So it's hard to believe that former big league stars Bucky Dent and Butch Hobson and the rest of the guys in International League now play there.
It's such a pleasant setting that after Roy Smith, a 22-year-old righthander for the Guides, was called up to pitch for the parent Cleveland Indians two weeks ago, he moaned at his going-away party, "I don't want to leave Old Orchard Beach." "Roy, you must," said first baseman/designated hitter Jim Wilson. "The Indians need you."
How Old Orchard Beach came to host the highest form of minor league baseball is a story that begins with the dream of a Bangor attorney, Jordan Kobritz. "Actually, it was more of a vision than a dream," says Kobritz. "My dream was to play leftfield in Fenway Park."
It was in December 1981 that Kobritz, then 35, decided to give up his thriving law practice. "I was on a plane to Atlanta on business, and it was the first time in weeks that I had a little time to think," he says. "I just made up my mind that I'd had enough of the law and that I should do something I really loved." And he loved baseball. So much so that he bought a condominium in Winter Haven, Fla. to be near his beloved Red Sox during spring training. Kobritz decided he would run a professional baseball team.
His wife, Nicci, a nurse-practitioner who runs a mobile pediatric clinic in Bangor, stood behind her husband while he traveled the country for a year, learning about baseball. "I knew that he was unhappy in the law," she says, "and I was willing to support him in any way possible." Some of their friends thought Jordan was crazy. Can't get there from here, they told him. "I knew, though, that Jordan could do anything he set his mind to," says Dave Ekelund, a longtime friend and now the Guides' director of sales.