AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME: SPORTS LEGENDS OF MAINE

By Rich Livingston
Freelance Writer

The assistant coach of the ice hockey team at John Bapst high school is Canadian native and Bangor resident Matt Stairs. Matt Stairs also happens to play first base and the outfield for the Philadelphia Phillies, has a career major league batting average of .266 with 258 home runs and 877 RBI. He had a memorable pinch hit home run against the Dodgers to help the world champion Phillies win the NLCS last year. He played for both AAA Pawtucket and for the Red Sox, back in 1995. A perhaps under-appreciated element of Stairs’ biography, though, is that he may be just the most recent incarnation of a long line of Maine residents or natives who have had an enduring impact on some of the biggest stages in sports.

Maine is home to a notable array of Olympians, of course, and the most justifiably celebrated is probably Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first-ever women’s marathon in Olympic history, in 1984, five years after she set the course record for the Boston Marathon. Long associated with the Beach-to-Beacon race in Cape Elizabeth, Maine’s favorite native daughter Olympian is supporting the Maine Tri-for-a-Cure cancer-fighting women’s triathlon on August 9 this year, at Southern Maine Community College. Samuelson’s place on the Olympic podium is shared by Mainers Julie Parisien, of Auburn (1992; 1991 gold medal, U.S. championships, women’s super-G downhill skiing). Parisien has said that she owed her Olympic and professional skiing career to having “grown up on the hill at Lost Valley.” The roster also includes snowboarder Seth Wescott and swimmer Ian Crocker, among others. Maine’s mark on the sports world extends to auto racing, in the person of “Maine’s own” Ricky Craven, and Bob Baher, founder of the New Hampshire International Speedway (and Oxford Plains Speedway, for that matter).

One of the most acclaimed sportswriters of the 20th Century was Bar Harbor’s Shirley Povich, who happened to caddy for the vacationing publisher of the Washington Post. That was in 1922, and Povich’s byline appeared in the Post for the next seventy-five years. He covered everyone from Babe Ruth to Tiger Woods.

The Povich tradition is being carried forward by Lewiston’s own Tom Caron, commentator for New England Sports Network, who was acknowledged by his friend and colleague, Jim Rice, as the latter was being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. Maine’s Stephen King authored a legendary article in the New Yorker magazine some twenty years ago about the Little League culture that had been a big part of his childhood in the Lewiston-Auburn area (King later went on to play baseball for the Maine Black Bears).

King’s article explains a lot: for all of the popularity of high school football and basketball – hockey, as well – arguably Maine’s greatest contributions to the larger world of sports have been in, of all things, baseball. The parade began includes such relatively unsung heroes as Clyde Sukeforth, from Washington, Maine, who had a ten-year career as a backup catcher for the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds, but is most notable for having helped sign Jackie Robinson to his first contract with the Dodgers.

Mike Bordick, of Winterport, succeeded Cal Ripken as shortstop of the Orioles. South Portland’s Billy Swift was a 23-game winning pitcher for the Giants in 1993, a year after recording the National League’s lowest ERA of 2.02. In 1979, Lewiston’s legendary Bert Roberge recorded a 1.69 ERA as a relief pitcher for Houston, as part of the same bullpen as Peter Ladd, of Portland.

When Jonathan Papelbon recently set the “saves” record for the Red Sox, he supplanted Portland native Bob Stanley. A sinker ball specialist, Stanley had been the club’s all-time saves leader with 132, but to most Red Sox fans, he is simply known as “The Steamer”. He is also the all-time leader in appearances with 637 and is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame since 2000.

Among the least recognized baseball heroes in Maine’s history is actually a member of the Japanese
Baseball Hall of Fame. Civil War veteran and Gorham native, Professor Horace Wilson, traveled to Japan in the mid 1870s to teach English to the Japanese and wound up teaching baseball, instead.

Speaking of halls of fame, the Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame was established in 1983. “As far as I know, it’s the only local community organization of its kind in the country,” commented Androscoggin Chamber President Chip Morrison. The 1983 class inducted former Red Sox catcher-manager and baseball Hall of Famer Bill Carrigan, Olympian Pierre Legendre, hockey great Larry Charest, and former U.S. Ski Team coach John Bower, as well as ELHS ski coach Linwood “Zeke” Dwelley.  Lewiston native Carrigan played all ten of his major league seasons as a catcher with Maine’s beloved Red Sox. He caught Cy Young and Babe Ruth. He became manager of the Sox midway through the 1914 season, and prior to 2007, he had been the only manager to have led the Red Sox to two World Championship titles, in 1915 and 1916. Carrigan died in Lewiston in 1969 at the age of 85, but the Maine tradition of Mainers who have dominated big-time sports continues uninterrupted.


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