SOUTH PORTLAND — The entrance to one of the banquet rooms at the Sable Oaks Marriott became congested immediately. Men and women angled for a view, while others pulled out their cellphones to take photos.
Jason Varitek had arrived.
Such is the popularity of the Boston Red Sox, and one of their former stars. Varitek was the main guest at the Portland Sea Dogs’ annual Hot Stove Dinner on Friday night.
Varitek’s presence also symbolized the relationship between the Red Sox and Sea Dogs – a relationship that was extended again. The franchises announced Friday that their affiliation agreement has been stretched two more years, through 2020.
“It’s such a privilege to be connected with this franchise,” said Sea Dogs Chairman Bill Burke before Friday’s dinner.
Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett, also in attendance Friday, returned the compliment:
“It’s tremendous to come to a place where the focus is so much on helping the players develop. The Sea Dogs do a wonderful job treating our players and staff like family.”
And one member of the family, Varitek, highlighted Friday night’s festivities before a sellout crowd of over 500, with proceeds benefitting the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.
Varitek, 44, the former Red Sox catcher who now serves as a special assistant to the team, makes an occasional trip to Hadlock Field during the season, working with players. He also spoke well of the Sea Dogs, and said the location works well for the Red Sox.
“Both (Triple-A) Pawtucket (Rhode Island) and Portland are right down the road when it comes to it,” Varitek said. “If (the Red Sox) need a player from Portland, they can get there that night. If they need a player from Pawtucket, they can get there within the hour.”
The Sea Dogs organization, which began playing in 1994 as a Florida Marlins Double-A affiliate, partnered with the Red Sox in 2003. Since then, several minor leaguers have played in Portland on their way to Fenway Park.
Players such as Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. have played at Hadlock Field.
This past season, outfielder Andrew Benintendi and infielder Yoan Moncada passed through Portland before reaching the Red Sox.
Varitek never played in Portland. The Red Sox obtained Varitek in a trade in 1997, and sent him to Pawtucket. The next year, Varitek was in Boston to stay.
Since retiring after the 2011 season, Varitek has worked in the Red Sox organization, appearing to take on more and more responsibilities. He shows up at Red Sox minor league affiliates and works with players.
“I’m with the catchers, the pitchers, the infielders, the outfielders,” Varitek said. “I’m with the hitters, the hitting coaches. I’m all over.”
Sounds like Varitek may be working his way to a more full-time role, in uniform. Varitek smiled at the suggestion.
“We’ll keep it at ‘this is what we’re doing right now,'” he said.
Among the other guests Friday night were Sea Dogs Manager Carlos Febles and Sea Dogs utility player Ryan Court.
Febles, 40, will return to Hadlock for his second season, along with pitching coach Kevin Walker. Hitting coach Jon Nunnally has moved on to become a roving instructor with the Angels. He is being replaced by Lee May Jr.
Court, 28, signed as a minor league free agent last year. He proved valuable in the Sea Dogs clubhouse and on the field, playing every infield position and left field, and batting .277. He eventually was promoted to Pawtucket. He could begin this season in either Triple-A or Double-A.
The season is less than three months away. The Sea Dogs open at home on April 6.