Kyle Fernandes of the Portland Sea Dogs emerges from the corn in centerfield, shucking an ear, before the start of a game against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats at Hadlock Field on Sunday. The cornstalks are from Pumpkin Valley Farm in Dayton, where last year’s corn maze included a Sea Dogs logo and an outline of Slugger.
PORTLAND - Fourteen years ago, when cornstalks first appeared in front of the centerfield fence, Kevin Boles was a 21-year-old college kid spending the summer as a volunteer bullpen catcher for a Portland Sea Dogs baseball team managed by Fredi Gonzalez.
Today, Gonzalez is manager of the Atlanta Braves and Boles, now 36, is about to complete his first season at the helm of Maine's only professional baseball franchise.
But first, in one of Hadlock Field's finest traditions, Boles led his flannel-jersey-attired team through the cornstalks as the lyrical notes from the "Field of Dreams" score floated over the lush green lawn under a cloudless blue sky. Moments earlier, radio announcer Mike Antonellis, clad in knickers and matching argyle socks and sweater vest, strolled near home plate while reciting the monologue made famous by James Earl Jones, reminding fans that throughout American history, "the one constant is baseball."
The Sea Dogs do this promotion every year on the penultimate day of the season. After the dozen-plus recitations, it still seems fresh and genuine and utterly devoid of schmaltz.
"That was a rush," said Boles, who revealed his inner Ray Liotta by staring around in wonder after passing through the cornstalks and reaching down to feel the turf as if skeptical of its authenticity. "That was something. When you walk out and you hear the applause, you realize how special this is.
"It was electric. Going through there, you got some tingles, there's no doubt about it. That was great."
One by one, with some holding a bat or a glove, the Sea Dogs emerged behind Boles as spectators applauded. Pitcher Eammon Portice chewed on a piece of straw. Outfielder Mitch Dening sported a tassel behind his right ear.
They wandered toward the stands, eventually settling along the baselines as Boles took the microphone from Antonellis to thank Portland fans for their support, particularly in a season that, after Sunday's 7-0 defeat, will result in the worst win-loss record in the 18-year history of the franchise.
"We've got the best baseball fans in the world," Boles said. "I really believe that."
Dave McConnell, the former Kennebunk High principal who has been in charge of ushers at Hadlock since the Sea Dogs came into being, said he loves to watch players in the visiting dugout. They're all up on the top step, soaking in the scene with wide eyes and the occasional open mouth.
"I never get sick of it," McConnell said.
Carl "Stump" Merrill of Harpswell, a former manager of the New York Yankees and longtime special assistant to their general manager, sat a few rows behind home plate Sunday afternoon not with a clipboard or stopwatch but with his wife, Winnie.
"That's why we're here," Merrill said. "My wife hasn't seen it."
The movie, yes. Plenty of times. But to be there in person, even if you're not the one coming through the corn, is not an occasion quickly forgotten.
"If you're a traditionalist," Merrill said, "this will have meaning for you."
For nearly a decade, the cornstalks have come from Pumpkin Valley Farm in Dayton, where last year's corn maze included a Sea Dogs logo and an outline (when seen from the air) of Slugger, Portland's furry mascot. Keith Harris, the farmer, delivered the 350 bundles with roughly 20 stalks per bundle on Saturday.
The shorter stalks are sweet corn, the taller ones feed corn, also known as field corn, Harris said.
"After they're done with it," he said, "it goes to a pig farm."
The farm keeps Harris busy through the spring and summer, so he attends only a few games a season. On Sunday he brought his son and daughter and each brought a friend.
"It's a great promotion," he said. "It's what baseball is all about. It's what America is all about."
Charlie Eshbach, president of the Sea Dogs and originator of the corny scheme, said it originally took more than six hours to string the stalks and roughly six minutes to take it down. Over time, both jobs have been streamlined, leading to another moment of magic.
"A good 95 percent of the people out there never saw the corn go away," he said. "They're riveted right here (on the players arriving in the infield and entering the stands to shake hands) and they don't understand where it went. I've had fans go, 'How did the corn disappear?' "
Seven managers since Gonzalez have led the Sea Dogs through the corn. Four of them -- Rick Renteria, Ron Johnson, Todd Claus and Arnie Beyeler -- have done it more than once. Boles said he would be thrilled with an encore.
"You feel like a kid when you're walking through that corn, you really do," he said. "It felt like going back and playing Little League. That was really special. I'll remember that for the rest of my life."
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:
Portland Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles kneels down to feel the grass of Hadlock Field as his players emerge from the corn in centerfield.