PORTLAND — Upon awakening every morning between April and September, the man who is married to baseball looks at the woman who is his wife. They exchange a glance, maybe a few words of welcome to a new day.
Only then does Charlie Eshbach continue his seasonal, but daily routine. Check the weather forecast if his Portland Sea Dogs are at home. Check the Eastern League standings first if they’re on the road.
He has spent 40 of his 61 years in baseball, from an impoverished intern in Elmira, N.Y., to president of the most popular baseball team in the state of Maine. No one buys a ticket to see Eshbach walk the concourses at Hadlock Field on game days but he is a big reason the lights have come on every summer for the past 20 years.
That’s why he got his 15 minutes in the spotlight before Monday night’s game with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Pat O’Conner, president of Minor League Baseball, said nice things from the big video board in right-center field.
Bill Burke, whose family brought the new team to Maine, took the microphone. Eshbach’s fingerprints were all over the stadium. He was the first person hired by the late Dan Burke, the Sea Dogs owner. “My father was your biggest fan,” said Bill Burke.
Eshbach looked at the deep green grass at his feet for a long time while words and applause rolled off his back. His Sea Dogs staff didn’t think he’d permit such a public display so they came up with a ruse: Eshbach’s 2-year-old grandson, also named Charlie, was going to say the words “play ball!” on the field before the game.
That’s why Eshbach’s wife, Anne-Marie, and sons Brian and Scott were on the field with him. Wink, wink.
Forty years in baseball. It didn’t start easily. During his senior year at the University of Connecticut, where he majored in marketing and worked in the university’s press boxes, Eshbach sent out 175 letters looking for entry-level jobs. “I got all kinds of wonderful letterheads telling me there were no openings.”
Hours before dawn on a late April morning, his phone rang. The Associated Press office in Hartford got a tip that black students had occupied the university library. Could Eshbach check it out?
He did. Returning to his room, he fell asleep to be awakened by another phone call. A friend was going to the Red Sox game that afternoon. Did Eshbach want to come along? He did. He got back to his room by 7 p.m. to work on a term paper when his phone rang again.
The owner of the Elmira team in the New York-Penn League, one of the first rungs in the minors, was offering him an internship. Eshbach was interested.
“My job was to sell advertising to all the gas stations in the area. My commission would be 10 percent. After the first week my dinners were a carton of milk.”
Eshbach stayed, eventually getting $75 a week. He wanted more, but money was only part of it. Eshbach wanted the life. That it turned into a life in baseball’s minor leagues made it even better.
“I didn’t want to live in a big city so that kind of ruled out working for a major league team. Although I did get my cup of coffee with the Red Sox in 1975.”
It was the World Series. Eshbach had an office between Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, and Dick O’Connell, the Red Sox GM. His duties were to screen their phone calls during the series. He got to say hello to a lot of other team owners and general managers.
After the Red Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds, Eshbach’s work days at Fenway Park were over. He once thought he’d like the job of traveling secretary for a big league team. The idea of being on the road with major leaguers, setting up hotel rooms, taking care of meal money and other chores seemed like fun.
“Then I found out it was a lot of adult babysitting and that didn’t seem like much fun.”
Forty years of working the side of the minor leagues that has nothing to do with setting lineups, evaluating players and talking to the coaches. His job was to take care of the players away from the field and take care of the fans coming to the ballpark.
He met his wife on a blind date through a dating service. “Yeah, they had those back then. We’ve been married 31 years. When you talk to her, tell her I remembered how many years.”
Of course he did.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: This column was updated at 11:17 a.m., Aug. 20, 2013, to correctly spell the name of Pat O’Conner, president of Minor League Baseball. It was updated again at 1:18 p.m. to correctly spell the name of Charlie Eshbach.