PORTLAND – The Portland Sea Dogs celebrated their 20th season of professional baseball Thursday night by bringing back 11 old friends from seasons past.
Six wore teal and five wore red, depending on whether their Double-A paychecks came from the Florida Marlins — Portland’s parent club from 1994 to 2002 — or the Boston Red Sox.
They mingled with fans, signed autographs, strode from dugout to home plate through a corridor of Hadlock regulars — season-ticket holders, advertisers or team employees who have been here since the beginning — and threw out 11 simultaneous first pitches to 11 current players.
Sea Dogs radio announcer Mike Antonellis introduced each alumnus individually in alphabetical order, all except for Charles Johnson, star of the first Portland ballclub, and the only one of the group to have had a major league career.
Johnson drew the loudest cheer from a crowd announced at 4,402, but ever-affable Pookie Wilson — who may have shaken hands with all 2,000 or so actual fans there — was first runner-up.
Todd Claus, manager of Portland’s 2006 Eastern League title team, is the only one who still makes a living from pro baseball. He works as an international scout for the Red Sox, and made the trip to Maine between visits to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
“I wanted to come,” said Claus, who lives in St. Augustine, Fla. “These people, they were so good to me. There’s so many little details that nobody knows about, what the people who run this organization here do for the players and staff off the field.”
Need a place to stay? Have family coming in? Could your mom use a ride to the airport?
“They do everything,” Claus said, “and they go beyond.”
As the world of teal — Johnson, Wilson, Glenn Reeves, Fletcher Bates, Heath Honeycutt and Drew Niles — mingled with the world of red — Claus, Ryan Cameron, John Nathans, Marc Deschenes, Jay Johnson — the differences of years and organizations melted away.
Four former players (Wilson in Alabama, Bates in North Carolina, Honeycutt in Georgia and Deschenes in Lowell, Mass.) run baseball-instruction facilities. Reeves (real estate), Niles (commercial insurance) and Nathans (law clerk) have settled in Maine, all married to women they met while playing here.
“It’s a good place to raise a family,” Niles said.
Current Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles was a bullpen catcher while on summer break from college for the ’97 Sea Dogs, which included Reeves, and was manager of a 2001 Utica (N.Y.) Blue Sox rookie-league club that had Wilson as hitting coach.
“You’re not going to remember this,” said Claus to Charles Johnson, “but we played against each other in high school.”
Sure enough, Claus said, he was a senior shortstop for Cardinal Gibbons of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Johnson was a sophomore catcher for Fort Pierce Westwood.
“I literally ran into you because there was a play at the plate,” Claus told Johnson as they spoke in the picnic area before the game. “I might as well have slid into this brick wall,” he said, gesturing toward the sturdy red exterior of the Portland Expo. “I remember going, ‘Ohhh, he’s going to be good.’ “
Later, as Claus chatted with Wilson, they discovered they played against each other in college, Claus for North Florida, Pookie for Auburn-Montgomery.
Baseball may have meant everything when they wore a Sea Dogs uniform, but that passion hasn’t necessarily transferred to their offspring. Wilson has a 9-year-old son named Will who prefers gymnastics. Bates has a 10-year-old named Parker who “doesn’t want anything to do with baseball,” Bates said. “He’s all about lacrosse.”
Even so, they and the other nine men all returned to Hadlock Field on a chilly Thursday night in April because their time in Portland had been important to them, and the people still here made a lasting impression.
“I just loved it here,” said Cameron, now a project manager in renewable energy. “The city, the people, the stadium, the passion for the Red Sox. I was really excited when they called me and asked me to come back.”
“The fans cared about you as a person and not just a player,” Nathans said. “I’ve never heard anybody ever say a disparaging word about how this organization is run, from Mr. (Dan) Burke — who brought you into his home for the lobster bake in the summer — on down. You felt you were part of something special.”
The Sea Dogs lost by 16 runs Thursday but it didn’t seem to matter that much. The past had come alive, and brought memories of warm summer nights, dripping ice cream biscuits and pleasant memories.
“It’s a special place,” Claus said. “It really is.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: