Susan Fitzgerald has been going to Portland Sea Dogs games since 1994, the team’s first season at Hadlock Field. Over that time she’s tried to get to know the players personally.
This year, for example, she and her husband, John, sat with second baseman Mookie Betts at the team’s Welcome Back dinner.
“He’s such a wonderful young man,” said Fitzgerald, a 59-year-old Scarborough resident. “When you go to the games and have a personal connection with the players, you cheer a little harder. You have that connection and you want them to succeed.”
This year, Fitzgerald feels even more connected. That’s because she joined Twitter and is following several of the Sea Dogs players.
“I like to see what they’re thinking,” Fitzgerald said. “Is it a little voyeuristic? Maybe. But it’s fun.”
Fitzgerald apparently isn’t alone in thinking that. Over the last five years as Twitter has grown, so has the number of professional athletes using it.
More than 4,000 current or retired players from the four major North American professional leagues were on the social media site in 2013, according to Twitter.
Last year was a boom year, in fact, for athletes joining Twitter. The volume of Major League Baseball players increased by 41 percent over 2012, NFL players by 30 percent, NBA players by 28 percent and NHL players by a whopping 74 percent.
Suffice it to say minor leaguers have taken to Twitter much like their major league counterparts. Twenty members of the Sea Dogs are on Twitter, five of whom are also on Instagram, a social media site where users can post photographs. Twenty-one Portland Pirates are on Twitter, along with four others who finished the season with the NHL parent Phoenix Coyotes. The Maine Red Claws, the Boston Celtics’ NBA Development League franchise, had nine players on Twitter this past season.
AN INSIDE LOOK
“I guess it gives them almost a window into what it’s like to be an athlete,” said Sean Coyle (@seencoyle), an infield prospect with the Boston Red Sox who plays for the Sea Dogs. “I know it’s kind of an interesting lifestyle that we live, so I understand why people might want to kind of see what we’re up to, to see what we really do.
“It’s almost like it humanizes the athletes. We’re kind of put on a pedestal as professionals, and this way you can see a guy’s thoughts or something. It really just kind of makes us look like who we really are, just regular people.”
Coyle has 1,530 followers on Twitter. Like most of the Sea Dogs, he has picked up many followers since the season started.
Among those is Bill Pike, a Falmouth resident who has been following the Red Sox since he was 10. He’s now 47.
More than anything, he likes to follow the prospects. He understands that baseball is a business and he wants to know: If ace pitcher Jon Lester leaves, who’s going to succeed him.
And, he feels, “Your best prospects are in Double-A.”
Pike discovered Twitter, he said, a couple of years ago when the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers were completing the trade that sent Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto westward. “It was fascinating to follow it on Twitter as it turned out,” he said. “It was fantastic, a great way to follow the news.”
Many of the minor leaguers on Twitter use it the same way. They get the quick hits on news, follow trends, friends, former teammates, musicians, actors and big-time athletes.
INTERACTING WITH THE STARS
Coyle, for example, is one of nearly 12 million followers of NBA star LeBron James, who is by far the most popular athlete among the four major professional leagues.
“He’s my favorite athlete,’’ said Coyle. “I follow some guys on the Red Sox, musicians, whoever.”
And Coyle is willing to interact with his fans.
“If someone tweets something to me, I think I’m pretty good at getting back to them,” he said. “If someone reaches out to me and says something positive, I like to say, ‘Thanks, that was kind of cool.’ That’s a good interaction.”
Brendan Shinnimin, a forward on the Pirates (@ShinboSlice), said it is important to reach out. He has accounts on both Twitter and Instagram, as well as a Facebook page (“But that’s collecting Internet dust,” he said) and checks them daily.
“It’s a good way for news to spread and to spread the word,” he said. “I think it’s good. Obviously there’s bad things to it but it’s also really beneficial, reaching out to your fans. If somebody tweets at you or posts a picture that you like and you retweet it or favorite it, it’s almost like signing an autograph. That’s important in this game.”
Twitter is not limited to the four major sports. NASCAR drivers, soccer stars and Olympic athletes are all active on Twitter. During the Sochi Winter Olympics, the @USOlympic twitter account gained 107,028 followers and the Team USA Instagram account also gained more than 100,000 followers. Hockey player T.J. Oshie, slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy (who rescued stray dogs) and halfpipe snowboard legend Shaun White each gained more than 93,000 followers during the Games.
With prospects such as pitcher Henry Owens (@__H__O), catcher Blake Swihart (@Blakeswihart) and second baseman Mookie Betts (@mookiebetts) on the roster, the Sea Dogs are becoming a popular follow.
Betts and Swihart are not that active on Twitter. Swihart prefers simply to use it to “keep up on everything.’’
But Owens? He’s another story. He likes to have a little fun, whether in his own tweets or retweets. On Thursday, for example, he retweeted a graphic of Big Foot with the words, “I Believe.”
Among his other tweets: “Karaoke means ‘empty orchestra’ in Japanese;” “7 hour bus ride. Hmmm;” “I could be a ghostwriter for snapple caps.”
“I don’t know what I really use it for,” said Owens. “I just kind of tweet funny things. I don’t take it too seriously.’’
But he knows when to draw the line. On the night New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was caught with pine tar on his neck at Fenway Park, Owens was quick with a witty tweet. He was even quicker to delete it, after it had been retweeted many times.
He said it was his own decision to pull it because “I didn’t want to be part of the story.’’
But anyone who follows the 21-year-old Huntington Beach, California, native immediately knows his personality. And that’s important, said Twitter spokesman Brian Poliakoff. “It’s a very good place to establish your voice.”
Aaron Kurcz’s personality is also evident on Twitter. A deeply religious man, many of his tweets are Christian-based.
“I follow a lot of Christian-based people,” said Kurcz (@AaronKurcz), a relief pitcher with the Sea Dogs. “I read some of the tweets they have to say and it’s good encouragement for me.”
He retweets a lot of their stuff because, he said, “it isn’t too often that I come up with a tweet, or even something clever for a tweet.”
He said his faith became a big influence on his life in 2011 and Twitter “became a good outlet for me to share my faith.”
Owens, a left-hander, has gained nearly 300 followers since the season began and had 2,733 as of April 30. Betts has gained more than 200 to go to 1,077. Swihart has 2,927 and shortstop Devan Marrero (@Dmarrero17) has 3,299 followers.
RIVERO IN FRONT
But they all pale compared to outfielder Carlos Rivero (@Carlos_Rivero3). He has more than 10,000 followers.
“I’ve played winter ball in Caracus (Venezuela) the last three years,” said Rivero. “Caracas is a team there like the Red Sox or Yankees here. I do my Twitter.”
Rivero has been somewhat active on Twitter this year, but you better know Spanish if you want to know what he’s saying.
“I tried (to write in English),” he said. “I can talk to you and understand you, but I don’t know how to write it.”
Of course, not everyone gravitates to Twitter. Pirates goalie Chris Rawlings does not have a Twitter account. “I know it’s a way to connect with the fans, and I do want to connect with the fans,” he said. “I just find that most of the time, anything on social media borders on the negative side. I’ve thought about it, but decided not to.”
Forward Andy Miele (@Andy_Miele) is the most popular Pirate, with 7,439 followers. He doesn’t tweet as much as he did when he first got on Twitter in 2011. But he understands why fans like to follow professional players.
“It’s a nice way for them to be able to connect with us,” he said. “They compliment us on the way we play, on something we did or on things we say, or they respond to things we tweet. It’s a cool way for them to be able to get close to us.”
He likes to show his playful personality as well, as illustrated by this tweet in November, referring to the Pirates’ decision to play games in Lewiston while practicing in Saco: “Well on my way back to Portland … I mean Lewiston, wait that’s not right either, I mean Saco.”
Matt Harvey, the New York Mets star pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery, was another athlete who wasn’t afraid to show his personality on Twitter. He recently made news when he deleted his Twitter account after the club objected to a photo he posted. It showed him flipping his middle finger as he was about to go into the surgery, six months previously. He thought it was a funny picture, which was taken by his mother. The Mets disagreed. Harvey had more than 100,000 followers when he deleted his account.
Keith Couch (@KeithCouch55) said he uses common sense before he tweets. “If I wouldn’t say it to the general population, I wouldn’t put in on Twitter,” he said. Couch did indicate that he might tweet more if he had more followers. So …
Sea Dogs Manager Bill McMillon doesn’t follow his players on Twitter. “I give them that domain,” he said, noting that he has an account, though he doesn’t tweet at all.
But Swihart said the Red Sox talk to the players before the season begins. “They tell us what’s OK, what’s not OK to publish,” he said.
And while the players sometimes have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to follow them, they also understand their place in New England.
“I’m a private person,” said Sea Dogs pitcher Mike McCarthy (@mmccarthy35). “I also realize that being part of Red Sox Nation is a big deal.”
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: