How New York Times writer Bill Pennington put UMPI on the map
It is not often that Presque Isle, Maine, gets national attention. In 2009, New York Times beat writer Bill Pennington wrote a story on the UMPI Baseball program. “A College Baseball Team, Always on the Road” highlighted the many hardships that players from UMPI endure to play the game they love. “I was on a kick then. It was an on-and-off series to write about people who were involved in athletics, essentially for the love of the game,” Pennington said.
UMPI’s coach at the time was Leo Saucier. Saucier recalls receiving the call from Pennington out of the blue one January day in 2009. “For a minute, I just thought it was a joke, like one of my buddies,” Saucier said. But he quickly realized the legitimacy. “I was just happy to have the opportunity to talk about why we do things the way we do in northern Maine for a baseball program,” Saucier said.
Bill Pennington met the team in Virginia in mid-February for their first of two spring trips. “I met them at the hotel, got on the bus and just spent the whole day as a player would,” Pennington said. During his time with the team, he immersed himself in his story.
At first, it may have seemed odd for a school this small to have a reporter following them around. “I think initially everybody thought like, what? You know, why in God’s name are you here?” Pennington said. He had a quick answer for that question. “You’re always trying to surprise the reader. And I said, this is going to be a surprise that you guys exist, and this is what you do,” Pennington said.
Pennington essentially became a part of the team for their spring trip. During that time, he hung out at the hotel and rode with them to games. “You have to make it real, and you have to make them relatable,” Pennington said.
The article was released on Feb. 28, 2009. It discussed many of the hardships the players at UMPI endure to play. Practicing in the gym all year, the long bus rides and the lack of home games to name a few. “It’s not just the travel. It’s the distance of the travel. Going away on trips to the southern part of the country and coming back and having to go back into the gym,” Saucier said. But it was always worth it for the players who stuck it out. “I can’t see where it takes anything other than a pure love of the game to do it the way UMPI has to do it,” Saucier said.
In the days and weeks following the article’s release, UMPI began receiving a lot of recognition. “ESPN called, probably a couple of days after the story came out,” Saucier said. Pretty soon, UMPI baseball was appearing on the largest sports network in the world.
But behind the scenes is where Pennington’s journalism was really felt.