Credit: George Danby

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Dustin Smiley is a former Bangor West Little League board member and coach.

The disappearance of snow, the return of birds, and greater hours of sunlight let us know spring has finally arrived. We celebrate the end of winter with many rites of passage. Some look forward to the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, others get an early start on preparing their yard and garden for growing season, and many of us look forward to the long-loved American pastime of baseball.

The early March end of an almost 100-day lockout by Major League Baseball ensured we can all enjoy a full 162-game schedule of watching our favorite professional teams and players compete. The start of every new season offers all fans the hope, even if not realistic for some, that their team will make it to that October’s World Series. It’s an exciting time.

Just as exciting, is something closer to home. Like most of those Major League players did at some point early in their lives, young boys and girls in Bangor will be taking to the smaller-sized field of Little League. Players with hopes of playing for their school someday, and some with far-off dreams of getting a shot to play in MLB, will take the field alongside friends and neighbors who are putting on a glove for the first time, and maybe even having their first experience at being part of a team.

Bangor West and Bangor East Little League are the organizations that provide the opportunity for the city’s boys and girls to play ball regardless of their family’s ability to pay. Bangor West, the league my sons played in for a total of 11 years, kicks off the season on April 30 with a morning parade beginning at Fairmount Park that leads to their volunteer-maintained fields between the 14th Street and Fairmount Schools. Children of different experience levels and different backgrounds will practice, compete, and experience the joys of winning, and just as importantly, the pain of losing, as they give their best. Every game, every child gets their turn at bat and their own chance at doing something big, whether that’s knocking one over the fence, or finally getting their first hit.

More than just the baseball, our local leagues provide a community experience unlike anything I’ve experienced both playing and coaching in youth sports after participating in football, baseball, and basketball in California, Virginia, Florida, Maryland, and Maine. The Bangor West fields’ location in a walkable neighborhood and within sight of their schools, makes baseball and softball a focus for school-aged kids from kindergarten through fifth grade.

As I think back to watching my three sons grow up as they progressed from coach-pitched games through Little League’s “Major League” over the years, the memories of seeing younger brothers watching the “big kids” play, watching toddlers running over to the snack shack for a chance to buy their own hot dog, or witnessing the jubilation of a team finding a way to come back late and win their first game of the season, I realize a lot more happens on these fields than just learning the skills of a sport.

If you have a child age 5 to 12 who’s never had an opportunity to play baseball or softball, I encourage you to sign them up for the coming season. If you wonder if there’s a place where the sense of neighborhood still exists, I recommend you stop by the April 30th Opening Day festivities at Bangor West Little League’s fields across the street from Mansfield Stadium. And if you have a heart for keeping positive, team-building activities available for all of today’s youth, there is always room to volunteer or donate.