PORTLAND — Dean Rogers held the baseball above his right shoulder and gestured to Christian Vazquez, the Portland Sea Dogs catcher. It was time to throw the ceremonial first pitch to begin the 2013 season.
Everyone at Hadlock Field certainly was. Nothing puts a long, snowy winter in the rearview mirror better than opening day in baseball. The Trenton Thunder, minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees, were in town Thursday to play Maine’s popular team.
Blue skies overhead and green grass beneath the ballplayers’ feet. If you took a deep breath, you could smell the faint sweetness of freshly cut lawn. Not that Rogers was fully aware of his surroundings.
“I was terrified,” said Rogers, who spent a career working in radio. “I’ve stood in front of large crowds before, but never for something like this. There’s a uniqueness to this I couldn’t prepare for.”
For 19 opening days and the seasons that followed, Rogers was the voice of the Sea Dogs at Hadlock Field. He announced to the crowd who was in the starting lineup, who was walking to the plate to bat, and who was taking the mound to relieve the starting pitcher.
He announced the game’s attendance and thanked you all for coming. He went off script to welcome to Portland every new player on the Sea Dogs roster. It was a nice touch, and it was his.
Rogers announced the 19 previous personalities who threw the first pitch on opening day.
Frank Gifford, the famed football running back and broadcaster, did the honors in 1994, the Sea Dogs’ inaugural season. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan and author, threw in 1999.
Dick Williams, manager of the unforgettable 1967 Red Sox, was invited in 2004. Williams smiled when I asked if he had prepped the night before. “Does this count?” he asked, mimicking someone raising a beer glass again and again.
Stump Merrill, Maine favorite son and former Yankees manager, got the call in 2011. The grandchildren of Sea Dogs owner Dan Burke went to the mound last April, shortly after Burke died.
“I got tingles introducing all of them,” Rogers said.
He should have introduced Johnny Pesky, the beloved former Red Sox player and coach, in 2003. But snow caused opening day to be postponed and Pesky couldn’t return.
Rogers stepped away from the microphone at the end of last season. About a month ago, the Sea Dogs asked if he’d reverse roles and throw out the first pitch of this season. The call came shortly after he had back surgery.
“How did I feel when I got the call?” he said. “Much better.”
Before Thursday’s player introductions, he went to a corner of the Sea Dogs dugout. That was a first for him. “I looked around and realized how young everyone was,” said Rogers, who has passed 60.
He waited quietly until it was time to walk to the mound. His introduction drew applause that rivaled the response to Sea Dogs shortstop Xander Bogaerts, a legend in the making.
Rogers heard the noise. He was thrilled. He forgot the rapidly cooling temperatures and the stiffening in his back, at least for the moment. For a few minutes he was another example of the so-called web of the game, as familiar to hometown fans as Slugger, the team mascot.
This is what can separate baseball from football and hockey and other sports and other opening days. Decades of tradition and ceremony haven’t calcified. The rhythms of baseball endure, especially in the small towns of the sport, like this one.
Rogers stepped in front of the mound, and from a modified stretch whipped his arm to Vazquez. The baseball went about 6 feet before diving to the ground and rolling across home plate. Call it a low strike.
The warm applause started again. The catcher ran to Rogers, gave him the baseball and patted him on the chest several times.
“He told me he liked my move,” said Rogers, walking off the field. “He was very nice.”
Rogers gripped the ball as he walked to the elevator that took him to the press box. He’ll return to get it autographed.
He stopped by the statistician’s booth to say hello to his son, Mark. He shook hands with Paul Coughlin, the Sea Dogs’ new announcer and the voice that introduced Rogers to the opening day crowd.
The circle had closed. “I’ll never forget this, believe me,” said Rogers.
No one forgets opening day.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: