April 18, 2013

Covering the team: 2002-present

Press Herald staff writer Kevin Thomas has covered the Sea Dogs since 2002. Follow him in on Twitter at @ClearTheBases

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

When I first eased into the Portland Sea Dogs beat in 2002, I met the incoming manager, who lost the job three days later.

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SPECIAL TO THE PORTLAND PRESS HERALD: Portland Sea Dogs Jay Johnson, right, is congratulated by teammates after knocking in the game winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning during the Futures at Fenway baseball game against the Harrisburg Senators, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2007 at Fenway park in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)



It got better after that.

Dave Huppert was introduced as the new Sea Dogs manager that January. But when Expos owner Jeffrey Loria bought the Marlins from John Henry, he offered all Expos coaches jobs in the Marlins organization, including Florida’s Double-A affiliate in Portland.

Eric Fox was named the Sea Dogs manager in 2002.

Henry sold the Marlins because he bought the Boston Red Sox. Henry still found his way to Hadlock Field in May of 2002, along with Sox co-owner Tom Werner. Social call? More of a scouting visit.

Kevin Millar made his way back to Portland in 2002 on a rehab assignment. The Marlins wanted him to play first base, but Millar protested that Portland’s hot, young first baseman had to stay in the lineup because he had just gone 5 for 5.

That 19-year-old first baseman was Adrian Gonzalez.

Lefty Nate Robertson pitched in 2002. He got engaged in Maine, choosing the Portland Head Light as the spot to pop the question.

Sea Dogs General Manager Charlie Eshbach was a careful man in 2002, dodging questions about Portland’s rumored switch to become a Boston affiliate. Finally in September, Eshbach raised his pant legs before a press conference, showing off his red socks. The popular Sea Dogs were about to reach new levels of interest.

Sea Dogs Manager Ron Johnson could be seen introducing himself to newly-signed players right before the 2003 season. Young farm director Ben Cherington scurried to bolster a sparse group of minor leaguers. The “player development machine” that Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein promised was in its early stages.

The Sea Dogs’ first name player from Boston was a third baseman named Kevin Youkilis. He was not a “five-tools” prospect, but he produced. Scouts at Hadlock debated his future. All Johnson knew was, “he’s a special hitter.”

Epstein would occasionally visit Hadlock, in jeans, with a baseball cap pulled down over his youthful face. He looked like a teenager and was not bothered by the fans.

Catcher Kelly Shoppach showed up later in 2003, and fans on the third-base side had to beware of Shoppach’s frequent letting go of his bat after a swing.

Catcher John Nathans may still be considered the toughest Sea Dogs player ever after his performance on July 1, 2003. Portland brought a thin roster to Harrisburg, Pa., for a doubleheader. Nathans played left field in the first game and separated his shoulder as a base runner, diving back to second base. But Shoppach suffered a concussion late in the first game, so Nathans caught the second game. He could only throw the baseball using his wrist, just getting it back to the pitcher. Every Harrisburg runner stole on Nathans, but Portland won 5-3, helped by Nathans’ two hits.

Center fielder Jeremy Owens was not considered a prospect, but he ran down fly balls like a gazelle.

Tim Kester was Portland’s oldest minor league free agent, a rare 32-year-old minor league pitcher. “I talk to my friends. They have desk jobs and they tell me to keep playing baseball,” Kester said.

Another free agent pitcher had fans on the edge of their Hadlock seats. Knuckleball pitcher Charlie Zink came within one out of throwing a no-hitter before allowing a bloop single.

Another prospect showed up in 2004. Left-hander Abe Alvarez wore his cap crooked and made a spot start at Fenway before returning to Hadlock. That one-day appearance earned Alvarez a World Series ring.

(Continued on page 2)

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