Every summer, I celebrate the ultimate privilege tempered by infinite sadness.

It is perhaps my favorite slow-season activity: Conversing with any tri-county representatives in that year’s Maine Baseball Hall of Fame class.

They’re one generation older, sometimes two.

They’re equipped with a bottomless supply of stories. High school glory days. Town team shenanigans. Bus rides that didn’t end and air conditioners that didn’t exist.

Each tale, riveting. The task of preserving them in ink before they’re forgotten forever, humbling.

Sitting back and thinking about what the between-the-lines stuff portends for the future of baseball, frightening.

George Ferguson and Charles “Marty” Roop are this year’s local legends. Their journeys in the pastime first crossed paths in the mid-1960s in a mill town called Lisbon.

Anybody remember mill towns?

Roop was the winning pitcher for the Roberts 88ers in a semipro state championship game.

Anybody remember mom-and-pop drugstores and semipro teams?

Like everyone ushered into the Portland-based hall before them, Ferguson and Roop hail from a chapter of history when every child played in the backyard or a sandlot.

Anybody remember backyards and sandlots?

Listen to the passion in Ferguson’s voice when he talks about his career at the University of Maine, his cup of coffee in the New York Yankees’ farm system, and coaching high school students.

See the glow in Roop’s eyes when he shares the joy of building a Little League program and eventually shepherding those kids to the American Legion state tournament.

Then survey the agonizing apathy all around us and realize that even though they’re merely in the 64-to-75 demographic, Ferguson and Roop might as well have arrived from the Paleozoic Era by way of the flux capacitor.

Anybody remember Little League baseball? High school? Legion?

No, seriously.

Sixteen schools make up the Mountain Valley Conference. During the most recent spring sports season, six of them had enough bodies to justify and field a junior varsity baseball team. Six.

One of the less equipped schools, six years separated from its last state championship, finished the varsity season with nine players. Nine. As in the bare minimum. As in one good spiking or foul ball off the instep away from a flurry of forfeits.

Edward Little High School suited up 15 varsity baseball players for its Eastern Class A quarterfinal game against Cony last month. That same week, when the call went out for players to sign up with the William J. Rogers Post (New Auburn Legion) team, three answered. Three. As in not enough. As in Post 153 is without a team for the second time in seven summers.

Yes, we live in a different, excessively wired, challenging time. Many able-bodied high school boys now are expected to work all summer and help support a single-parent household. Others choose to do so for the privilege of having a cell phone or to pay the exorbitant insurance bill for their first car.

There’s a still a time and a need for recreational activities, however, and baseball is sometimes its own worst enemy in marketing itself as the superior summer option.

Some elements are beyond the former national pastime’s control.

The game moves at a tortoise’s pace by 2010 standards. Down time reigns. Immediate gratification doesn’t.

Baseball also requires skills that require constant loving care. Good habits with the bat and glove develop only through repetitive, around-the-calendar or at least April-through-August action.

And who’s waving that banner these days? With the notable exception of Mike Coutts and Frozen Ropes Training Center in Portland, nobody caters to baseball players’ need for year-round attention to detail the way AAU basketball, seven-man football and soccer and lacrosse camps do.

That emphasis on the high achievers is a double-edged sword, too. It has taken root at the Little League level as low as the junior (age 9-10) division, where the all-star campaign is now equal to or longer than the regular season.

Potential late-bloomers consequently give up on the game in droves, and it’s difficult to blame them.

At the other end of the age spectrum, while the Twilight League and Pine Tree League still trudge along at a pedestrian clip, there are fewer adult baseball options than ever. Beer league softball requires a lesser level of commitment — and sorry, skill — making it the more common pasture for flickering baseball careers.

Look down the list of hall of fame inductees, digest their accomplishments, and more often than not you’ll discover that they starred for a team or a league that is defunct.

It scares me to think that when I get to be Ferguson or Roop’s age, there won’t be much of a pool left for the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame.

I wonder if that hall even will have a game left to celebrate. Call that hyperbole or panic if you wish, but the current trend puts Maine baseball in the what-used-to-be category with harness racing and boxing in 20 years. Maybe less.

Infinite sadness, indeed.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.