Thursday, April 24, 2014
When I first eased into the Portland Sea Dogs beat in 2002, I met the incoming manager, who lost the job three days later.
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.
Before the 2004 season ended, Boston’s prized prospect arrived. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez brought a wide smile, a determination to grant every child’s autograph request, and obvious talent.
The start of the 2005 season saw Red Sox GM Theo Epstein’s player development machine getting in gear. Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon headed the starting rotation. Manny Delcarmen fired fastballs and his wicked curve in the bullpen. Ramirez played shortstop, and new a second baseman arrived, named Dustin Pedroia. The outfield featured David Murphy and Brandon Moss.
After several prospects were promoted, Lester stayed and became the Eastern League pitcher of the year. Ramirez batted a disappointing .271, then was traded in the offseason.
Devern Hansack symbolized the 2006 Eastern League championship team. A minor league free agent, he won the clinching game and later walked out of the manager’s office, arms raised with Epstein smiling beside him. Hansack was being called up to the majors.
Best scene of the title celebration: A group of champagne-soaked ballplayers gathering respectfully around team owner Dan Burke as he congratulated them.
Jacoby Ellsbury played on that 2006 team and at the start of 2007. There was nothing more thrilling than watching Ellsbury hit a line drive to right-center and fly around the bases for a triple.
The 2006 season also introduced a couple popular players, infielder Iggy Suarez, who would be nicknamed “The Mayor,” and outfielder Jay Johnson.
Johnson experienced highs and lows with Portland. He had the winning hit for the Sea Dogs’ 2007 game at Fenway Park. He also pitched in an extra-inning game, recording the victory, as well as the winning RBI on April 16, 2008. Five days later, Johnson ruptured his Achilles tendon on the base paths, marking the start of the end of his career.
Clay Buchholz arrived in 2007, and his most memorable matchup was in Trenton, N.J., against a rehabbing Roger Clemens. Buchholz allowed two runs over seven innings. Clemens pitched five-plus innings, allowing three runs on six hits (including a Suarez triple).
When Buchholz was promoted, Justin Masterson arrived. The pitching prospects kept coming.
Watching the stadium radar gun became a habit when Daniel Bard arrived in the 2008 season. Triple digits? Sometimes.
Of all the major leaguers who rehabbed in Portland, none created a buzz like Big Papi in 2008. David Ortiz made admission to Hadlock a tough ticket to find.
Taz arrived in 2009. Junichi Tazawa was an unknown from Japan (coming two years after Dice-K). Tazawa showed he had quality stuff.
Blake Maxwell was not a prospect, but he pitched in every role Portland needed. And he was entertaining, especially with his all-out sprints from the mound to the bullpen, even when he was starting.
Tommy Hottovy pitched in six different seasons for Portland, and finally reached the majors in 2011.
Other players have followed – unknowns like Daniel Nava who made it to the majors, and prospects like Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts.
Other memories flood in. Vendor Danielle Jendrasko tossing Sea Dog Biscuits, long lines forming early for bobbleheads (especially Ellsbury’s), Dean Rogers’ homey voice on the public address system, the continued antics of Slugger the mascot, and guest comics such as the Zooperstars (you’ve got to love Clammy Sosa).
And, of course, there is the annual Field of Dreams day, an aptly-named celebration for a gem of a ballpark.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: