PORTLAND – The bare hand reached up to snare one baseball after another tossed over the dugout roof. With his other hand, Jacoby Ellsbury scribbled his signature.

Sea Dogs caps were tossed. Red Sox caps. The cardboard that fluttered in the breeze might have been baseball cards. Each got an autograph.

“He’s a class act,” said Greg Morin, a Sea Dogs fan from Day 1. “I knew the first time I saw him play he was going to make it.”

Hindsight? What’s that?

Ellsbury returned Tuesday night to Hadlock Field, wearing his familiar No. 2 and his equally familiar grin.

He cracked four ribs last month after colliding with bigger Adrian Beltre, his new teammate on the Red Sox. Tuesday night was a chance to show he can take a deep breath while sprinting to first base.

A chance to show he can take major league swings at the plate, too, even if the ball never left the park. The game was part of his physical rehab before he rejoins the Red Sox.

Sometimes you forget rehab that stretches muscles and sharpens timing can do wonders for the soul. Ellsbury couldn’t turn without seeing smiles from fans, Sea Dogs ushers and staff and, of course, new teammates. Comfort zone? Ellsbury knew he was at home away from home.

He was the big leaguer in the clubhouse and on the field taking batting practice. The new energy ran through everyone. Hey, big leaguers on rehab almost always reach into their wallets and provide the best food spreads for new teammates.

Never mind that he didn’t get a hit. He made a catch in the top of the eighth that brought down the house.

“It could have been one of the best catches of all time,” said Ellsbury, a small, knowing grin playing on his face. “I think it was the most applause I’ve had for catching a fly ball.”

He roamed center field. He scored the Sea Dogs’ first run in the 2-1 victory over New Britain. He was a contributor, so of course there was a smile on his face.

Charlie Eshbach, the Sea Dogs’ president, was smiling. Tuesday’s crowd of 7,368 was the first sellout of the season. On a chilly May night no less.

Ellsbury didn’t have the presence of David Ortiz, who rehabbed here two years ago. Big Papi elicited big screams of delight from the fans whenever he glanced into the stands.

Jon Lester grabbed at more hearts when he returned to Hadlock Field after his fight with cancer.

“That was emotional,” said Morin, the fan who lives in Old Orchard Beach and works at Maine Medical Center, practically across the street. “That was the rehab I think about more than the others.”

For Eshbach, the rehab of Gary Sheffield when he was with the Florida Marlins and the Sea Dogs were the Marlins’ affiliate is No. 1 among the memories. “He was our first big star (to rehab.)”

It was also the first time Sea Dogs fans witnessed a major league arm. Sheffield’s throws from right field to third base or home mesmerized. Bernie Williams’ quiet class quieted Red Sox fans who finally looked past the fact he was a Yankee. And when he went to a young fan who was hit by the foul ball off his bat, well, that was a statement.

Kevin Millar, perhaps the most popular Sea Dog, insisted that he do his rehab in Portland. He had made too many friends as a minor leaguer here.

“That season he had in 1997 (when Millar reached base in 71 straight games) was phenomenal,” said Morin. He listed his all-time favorite Sea Dogs: Josh Beckett; Charles Johnson, the catcher from the very first team; Hanley Ramirez; Lester; Millar; Kevin Youkilis; Daniel Bard.

No Ellsbury? Morin looked pained.

“I love Jacoby.”

So did everyone else Tuesday.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]