She’s danced with Slugger atop the roof of the Sea Dogs’ dugout and has a dinner date with Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez when she’s in San Diego later this spring.

Jackie Mitchell is a baseball fan. Make that a minor league baseball fan. Two hours before Maine’s favorite professional baseball team opened its 2010 season at Hadlock Field, Mitchell was in her seat, basking in the warming late afternoon sun and the moment.

Opening Day is April’s holiday for baseball fans. Patriots Day takes a back seat.

Miss Opening Day? Mitchell, who was there for the team’s very first opener, would sooner miss the birthday of one of her seven great-grandchildren. In fact, three generations of her family sat with her when Kyle Weiland went into his windup for the game’s first pitch.

“Best seat in the house,” she said, surveying the deep green field from her seat behind the dugout. Ryan Kalish, the promising outfielder, popped his head up to say hi. Lars Anderson, returning to Portland for a second season, waved.

Opening Day. Fans hugged fellow fans they hadn’t seen since the last days of August. Scouts hugged ushers. Ballplayers stretched muscles that were unaccustomed to the chilled air of Maine in April.

“This is wonderful weather,” said Mitchell. “Remember when there were snowmen at each base?” That was after the 14-inch snowfall of 2007 when Opening Day was pushed back. The Sea Dogs staff made snowmen — and thanks to the “Today” show, America learned how baseball opened its season in Maine.

There was the helicopter hired to blow-dry the outfield in the run-up to Opening Day nearly 10 years ago. Years earlier, outfielder Pookie Wilson bought caps with the flaps that covered ears for himself and his teammates, said Mitchell. Remember that? It was 1996, give or take a year.

Opening Day is when a survivor of the peace and flowers days of the 1970s can sing the national anthem and get a nice hand from the crowd of more than 5,000 and the year is 2010. Jonathan Edwards did hit all the right notes, thank you.

Opening Day is when Stump Merrill, the former N.Y. Yankees manager and one of Maine’s finest links to Major League Baseball, can one-hop a fastball to the plate for the ceremonial first pitch and hear cheers coming back.

Opening Day is when you reach for the scorecard in the program to learn the names of players promoted from places like Salem, Va., and Lowell, Mass. It’s when you watch 20-year-old Jose Iglesias, the Cuban-born shortstop with the nice hands, and hope the Red Sox don’t trade him.

Sea Dogs fans haven’t forgotten Hanley Ramirez, the shortstop traded away to get pitcher Josh Beckett from the Florida Marlins. Of course, Beckett pitched here when the team was an affiliate of the Marlins.

Friendships between players and fans take root here. Eight years after Adrian Gonzalez played first base for the Sea Dogs, he’ll host Mitchell and a small group of fellow math educators at a San Diego restaurant. “I wrote him, telling him when we’d be in San Diego and he wrote back,” said Mitchell. Simple as that.

“You don’t watch a major league game that you don’t see a former Sea Dogs player,” said Sam Boothby of Gorham, waiting for the 2010 team to be introduced. She’s a bit of a legend at Hadlock. She watched the first pitch and the last pitch of every home game one year.

Her father taught her the game. She played the game even before girls broke the Little League barrier. She can’t imagine missing Opening Day.

Other professional sports may trumpet its attendance figures, but the rhythms, sights and sounds of baseball are still personal. Thursday, parents walked through the turnstiles with babies swaddled in blankets. Teenage couples looked for their seats.

Businessmen in suits shed their workday stress as they lined up in front of the concessions. Retirees grinned.

“My father was the principal at Norridgewock High School and he was the baseball coach,” said Jim Knowlen, an usher. “They didn’t have equipment rooms then. All the bats and balls were in the trunk of our car. He introduced me to baseball.”

After more than half a century, Knowlen hasn’t let go. He checked tickets, led fans to their seats and felt his own anticipation quicken.

Opening Day does that.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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