Matt Treanor was a Portland Sea Dogs catcher and thousands of miles from home in the summer of 2001. Twenty-five years old, he was in his seventh minor league season and his future didn’t look bright.
Not known for his hitting, he was batting an absurdly low .141 but wasn’t ready to give up. “This is my life,” he said, sitting in an empty dugout at Hadlock Field. “This is my trade. If I ever get to the big leagues, I’ll walk onto the field and probably start crying my eyes out.”
Treanor was one reason among dozens why Maine baseball fans have embraced their Sea Dogs. For every Josh Beckett or Hanley Ramirez or Dustin Pedroia who oozed confidence, there were many more who exposed their youth while trying to hide their vulnerability. They became your Boys of Summer with the emphasis on boys.
Treanor grew up in Southern California, playing baseball and working part time at the stadium where the then-California Angels played their games. He worked at Disneyland, down the road. Signed by Kansas City out of high school, he was given an airline ticket to his first training camp but wasn’t allowed to board the plane when he reported to the gate.
He was a day early for the first flight of his life.
When he finally reached Portland years later, he was the kid who handled pitchers and people well. Teammates loved him, even if he couldn’t hit his weight of 225.
In 2001 he didn’t even own a car. He borrowed a sister’s 1967 Karman Ghia when he was home. It didn’t have a working speedometer or gas gauge. When we talked that day, he talked about other desires. “I want a family, I want kids but I don’t even have a girlfriend.”
Three years after that, he reached the big leagues with the Florida Marlins. He played nine years with several major league teams, mostly as a back-up catcher. He found the right girl and married her. Misty May-Treanor is recognized the world over for winning three Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball.
You cheered for Matt Treanor when you met him in 2001 and haven’t really stopped.
If Treanor showed us humility, Mark Kotsay showed us accountability. He let a ball go through his legs in center field on opening day in 1997. He had to turn and chase it to the wall. He was 21 and took ownership for the error in the clubhouse afterward.
“Outfielders never want the crowd to see the number on their backs. What happened to me was humiliating. I wanted to find a hole and bury myself.”
Nearby, starting pitcher Gregg Press was answering questions. “Go ahead, Press. Tell the truth,” Kotsay said loudly. “Tell ’em how much you’d like to kill me.”
Long before Kevin Millar became the Fenway Jester in 2004, he showed Sea Dogs fans how to take the game seriously but have fun at the same time. Before the start of the 1997 season he, team president Charlie Eshbach and pitcher Bryan Ward walked onto the ice between periods at a Portland Pirates game with hockey sticks in their hands. They were celebrity contestants for the popular Score-O game, getting one shot at getting the puck through the very small opening in the board that was placed across the goal net.
Eshbach was unsuccessful. Ward had great form – this wasn’t the first time he’d had a hockey stick in his hands – but his shot was nowhere near the hole.
Millar was last.
“I swung, it went wobble, wobble and it went in. I couldn’t believe it,” said Millar months later. The Pirates crowd roared and Millar did a jig on the ice. That summer he broke the Sea Dogs’ single-season home run record held by Charles Johnson. Just before the season ended with a loss to Harrisburg in the Eastern League playoffs, Millar admitted that hearing his name in the same sentence with Johnson, the Sea Dogs’ first star, meant a lot to him.
The intimacy of Hadlock had its effect on big league stars, too. Gary Sheffield, the mercurial outfielder, came in 1994 to rehab an injured left shoulder. He was given explicit instructions by the Marlins to not leave his feet to make a catch. “I guess there will be a big fine if I do,” he said before the game, a smile on his face.
He showed off his major league arm, throwing from the right-field corner across the diamond to third base. But then, he had misplayed two fly balls into triples. “I was jittery,” he said afterward. “There’s a lot of work to be done with my head.”
New York Yankees star Bernie Williams, in Portland with the Trenton Thunder on rehab, fouled off a pitch with the ball hitting a young fan behind the visiting dugout. Williams called time and walked over to check on the youngster and autograph the ball. The gesture earned a loud ovation from a tough crowd of Red Sox fans.
The small confines of Hadlock made David “Big Papi” Ortiz seem even larger when he came to Portland several years ago, but more human at the same time. Last spring, you forgot your frustrations with Daisuke Matsuzaka and welcomed him to the mound. The warmth, he said through his translator, was noticed.
In August of 2007, a capacity crowd of some 7,000 opened its arms to Jon Lester. He wore the Sea Dogs’ colors for a summer before his rise to the Red Sox starting rotation. His career was interrupted by a cancer diagnosis. After beating back the disease he returned to Hadlock on a rehab assignment.
Lester’s walk from the bullpen to the mound to start the game was emotional.
“No one is bigger than the game of baseball,” said Jon Otness, the Sea Dogs catcher that night. “But Jon is a hero. Walking from the bullpen with him is an honor. I’ll never forget tonight.”
The Portland Sea Dogs have allowed you to see and understand the men behind the players in a way you couldn’t at Fenway Park. The experience will always be more personal.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: