The Ballpark – Old Orchard Beach Surge
Photos by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 2.57
E. Emerson Cummings Boulevard
Old Orchard Beach, ME 04064
Year Opened: 1984
Where The Ballpark Meets The Beach
The Old Orchard Beach Surge are one of the four founding teams in the North Country Baseball League, an independent circuit with a backstory much more interesting and complex than most first year leagues can lay claim to. Originally proposed as the East Coast Baseball League, the circuit consisted of six teams, two in Canada, three in the United States, with a travel team to round out the league. Right before the season was to start, the Watertown team pulled out due to questionable finances and failed commitments from league management. The remaining U.S. teams followed suit, and reformed as the NCBL. Three weeks into the season the Newburgh Newts, who were playing their home games at Delano-Hitch Stadium, were evicted from their home park due to non-payment of rent. The Newts became a road team, leaving the NCBL with just two teams that had ballparks to call home. The league has persevered and will crown its first champion early in August of 2015. Several players from the NCBL have signed to higher-level independent leagues over the course of the season.
The home of the Surge has a history equally as colorful as the league that calls it home. The Ballpark was built in 1984 to be the home for the AAA Maine Guides, which lasted only five seasons before moving to Moosic, PA. The park was unable to attract another baseball team, and was utilized occasionally as a summer concert venue as it sat mostly dormant. Over the years, the ballpark sat neglected, overgrown with brush, and was falling apart. It became a popular spot for drug use, fires, and vandalism. A lightning strike at the site caused a significant amount of fire damage in 2007. The town of Old Orchard Beach considered plans to sell the land for development, and it was a mainstay on Ballpark Digest’s endangered ballparks list. The tide turned for The Ballpark in 2008, when a volunteer group called the Ball Park Group began to clean up and renovate the ballpark for special events and ballgames. From 2011 to 2014 the Old Orchard Beach Raging Tide of the New England Collegiate Baseball League called The Ballpark home.
Food & Beverage 2
There is one concession stand at The Ballpark, and it offers a limited menu consisting of hot dogs ($3), burgers ($4.25/$4.75), chicken sandwiches ($5), French fries ($3), and nachos ($3). Fans looking to snack can choose from pretzels ($3), cotton candy ($1), popcorn ($1.50), chips ($1), or candy bars ($1). Bottles of Pepsi products can be bought for $2. Ice cream novelties are available for $2 and $3.25. Really hungry Surge fans can purchase the “Big John” burger with double meat for $6.
Fans looking for a more adult alternative can choose from several varieties of beer and wine. The beer garden at The Ballpark has bottles of Coors Light ($4), with bottles of Shipyard Ale going for $5. Glasses of wine are available for $5.
Fans looking to purchase Surge gear will be find a limited selection of t-shirts and hats available at the souvenir stand.
The Ballpark Concessions, Photo by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey
Try as you may, there is just no way to create a festive atmosphere when a couple hundred people are scattered in a 5,000 seat concrete stadium. To their credit, the Surge staff do try, with music, games, and promotions throughout the game. The staff are very friendly and genuinely grateful to see the fans that do show up. Between innings games target the kids in the audience, and 50/50 raffles target the adults here.
The Ballpark is located in a secluded, wooden area adjacent to the Old Orchard Beach High School and behind the Old Orchard Beach Police and Fire Departments. There is little to see or do in the immediate vicinity of The Ballpark, but that changes in a hurry as you head towards the ocean. About a mile away from The Ballpark is the Palace Playland, the Pier, and other Old Orchard Beach attractions. The area, once one of the largest tourist destinations on the east coast, has been destroyed and rebuilt several times due to hurricanes, fires, and blizzards. The current incarnation of the beachfront is significantly smaller than past versions, but still attracts a great deal of tourist traffic during the summer, particularly from Quebec. It is not uncommon to hear conversations taking place in French during the summer months.
The year-round population of Old Orchard Beach is under 9,000, but swells to several times this size during the summer. Interestingly enough, Old Orchard Beach is the closest oceanfront beach to Montreal, explaining the lure of the area to French Canadian tourists. In fact, most shops in the area have signs in their windows proclaiming “ici nous parlons Francais” (we speak French here).
Rumor has it that the average attendance for Surge games hovers in the 200-250 range. On the day this writer visited The Ballpark, the crowd totaled just over 100 fans. My visit was on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, perfect weather for the beach and for keeping people away from The Ballpark, so 250 fans per game sounds very reasonable.
The team has already cultivated some dedicated superfans, who show up regularly to cheer on the Surge. Most of the crowd at a typical Surge home game consists of families and people with some connection to the team. It’s not a place the casual fan shows up at on a whim.
Old Orchard Beach is easily accessible via Interstate 95 (Maine Turnpike). Simply take the Interstate 195 exit, which will quickly turn into route 5. The Ballpark is located just off of Route 5 behind the Police and Fire Stations, and next to the high school.
Fans seeking alternate methods of transportation to the seaside town will be pleased to know that Amtrak’s Downeaster train stops just feet from the beach during the summer months. From there, The Ballpark is a short cab ride away.
Once inside The Ballpark, there is more than enough room to spread out. The concourse is located underneath the grandstand, and is more than large enough to accommodate even the largest Surge crowd. One major drawback of the concourse area is that it isn’t paved or landscaped, so fans with unsteady gait should step carefully. Also, if you can help it, don’t look up. The underside of the seating bowl is not the most attractive view one will come across at a ballpark. Despite the great efforts of the volunteers who have tirelessly worked at renovating The Ballpark, it still has an unfinished feel to it.
The concession stands and locker rooms at The Ballpark are built to resemble the pine cabins typically seen in lodges and campgrounds in this area. The bathrooms are new, clean, and more than large enough for any Surge crowd.
Return on Investment 4
Tickets for Surge games are sold as general admission, with lower bowl seats selling for $8 and upper bowl seats for $5. There is nary an usher in sight at The Ballpark, so fans sit wherever they please. There really isn’t a bad seat in the place. Parking is free in the large lot behind The Ballpark. Concessions are reasonably priced, so a night at The Ballpark will certainly not break the bank.
The experience at The Ballpark is a bare bones one, to be sure. The staff are friendly and helpful, which goes a long way towards covering up the shortcomings of the ballpark. Still, ballpark aficionados will undoubtedly enjoy visiting this once endangered field.
The locker rooms here are located in a separate building located behind and underneath the seating bowl, meaning that the players have to walk the concourse through the crowd after the game to get to their lockers. It was an autograph hound’s nirvana back in the day, and that tradition continues today. The Surge players were more than accommodating to any children wanting their items signed.
After spending a day at The Ballpark many fans will marvel over the fact that this ballpark was ever considered adequate for AAA baseball. It’s even more unbelievable that Sports Illustrated once called The Ballpark the best ballpark in minor league baseball. It was only used for five seasons before the Guides moved on to the greener pastures of Moosic, PA and the equally unattractive Lackawanna County Stadium. Still, it’s a monumental achievement that it is still standing and in usable condition. Kudos to the volunteers who gave their time, energy, and money to preserve a ballpark that would have easily faded away into history.