PORTLAND — The older baseball fan approached the young baseball player who was signing autographs in the concourse below the grandstand at Hadlock Field. Rob Silcott slid his Opening Day ticket in front of Caleb Clay.
“What position do you play?”
Clay looked up. “I’m a pitcher.”
“I hope so.”
“No,” said Silcott, of Biddeford, correcting the 23-year-old from Alabama. “You should say, ‘Of course I’m good.’“
Opening Day, when optimism and fresh starts walk through the turnstiles or out the clubhouse door onto a baseball field made green again after a long winter.
Hours before former City Manager Joe Gray threw the ceremonial first pitch, the sign outside Hadlock Field said simply: “Game Today.” Inside, a steady wind straightened the American flag on the pole beyond center field.
The Portland Sea Dogs were back in town for the start of their 18th season at Hadlock. The arriving fans knew that Thursday’s afternoon temperatures of 50 degrees or so would dip when the sun went down, sending hands deep into pockets.
So what? A new baseball season was beginning. The troubles of the world could be forgotten for several hours.
“Baseball is the constant,” said Sea Dogs President Charlie Eshbach, quoting James Earl Jones from his role in “Field of Dreams.”
Eshbach is part of the small group that’s responsible for bringing this minor league franchise to Portland. While the roster changes almost yearly and managers and coaches come and go, Eshbach has been his own constant.
He was at Hadlock about nine hours before Thursday’s game. Never mind that he gave up his title of general manager before trying on the one of club president at age 58. He’s a baseball man, and Thursday was his 18th Opening Day in Portland.
Excited? Probably just as much as the 8-year-old craning his or her neck at the ballplayers on the field while clutching a baseball glove.
Eshbach became the kid again when Dick Williams threw out the first pitch on Opening Day about six years ago. Williams was the manager of the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox team, and Eshbach wasn’t alone in feeling nostalgic when Williams walked to the mound that night.
The very first Opening Day, in 1994, was the most anxious. What would go wrong? Eshbach walked manager Carlos Tosca around the field, going over the ground rules, when the sky started spitting snow. Tosca, a native of Cuba, was startled.
Eshbach just shook his head. Yes, it can snow in April in Maine.
After this spring’s last snowstorm, friends called Eshbach, saying he would want the helicopter he got last year to help dry the outfield. “I’ve got to remind them we used the helicopter in 2001,” he said.
Like the paying customers, Eshbach has had favorite players, guys he anticipated seeing for the first time in a Sea Dogs uniform. Players destined for the major leagues.
The man on the top of that list is Charles Johnson, the catcher for the first Sea Dogs team, who moved up quickly to the Florida Marlins, then Portland’s major league affiliate.
On Thursday there were new hopefuls, like catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who was promoted to Portland for part of last season. Infielders Oscar Tejada and Will Middlebrooks. Outfielders Mitch Dening and Che-Hsuan Lin. Pitcher Stolmy Pimentel.
Opening Day. In the souvenir shop, Sharon Rogers showed off the newest item, The World’s Smallest Jigsaw Puzzle. It’s 234 pieces crammed into a box about the size of a pack of playing cards. Using tweezers, you can put together Fenway Park. The tweezers are in the box. Six dollars.
Sea Dogs hats, said Rogers, are the big seller on Opening Day. Always have been, always will be.
Mary Erskine, an usher in her 18th year, said she’d received about 100 hugs from fans when the gates opened. Familiar faces happy to see each other.
There was sadness, too. Marty Jensen, one of the team’s first program sellers, passed away last fall. He and Harold Lucas were two of a kind, greeting fans from their booths as fans entered the concourse. Lucas was Top Dog and Jensen was Deputy Dog. Two retirees newly connected to America’s pastime.
Lucas died several years ago. In the intimate family setting that is Hadlock Field, both men are missed.
Opening Day. Dayna Russo and Scott Merrow got married at home plate before Thursday’s game. A first for the Sea Dogs. Each recited original vows from the heart rather than a book. Fans cheered. It was the second marriage for both.
Russo’s parents didn’t bat an eye when she told them of her wedding plans.
“Does this mean I have to sew lace on my (ball) cap?” asked Lynne Moran. George Moran, father of the bride, listened to his wife’s anecdote and simply smiled.
Opening Day. New beginnings. New hope.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: