August 20, 2013

Steve Solloway: For Sea Dogs' president, life in the minors is a major career

A ceremony at Hadlock Field honors Charlie Eshbach’s 20-year tenure with the team.

By Steve Solloway

PORTLAND — Upon awakening every morning between April and September, the man who is married to baseball looks at the woman who is his wife. They exchange a glance, maybe a few words of welcome to a new day.

click image to enlarge

Charlie Eshbach, president of the Portland Sea Dogs, shakes hands with catcher Matt Spring after a ceremony Monday at Hadlock Field to honor Eshbach’s successful 20-year tenure with the team.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

Only then does Charlie Eshbach continue his seasonal, but daily routine. Check the weather forecast if his Portland Sea Dogs are at home. Check the Eastern League standings first if they're on the road.

He has spent 40 of his 61 years in baseball, from an impoverished intern in Elmira, N.Y., to president of the most popular baseball team in the state of Maine. No one buys a ticket to see Eshbach walk the concourses at Hadlock Field on game days but he is a big reason the lights have come on every summer for the past 20 years.

That's why he got his 15 minutes in the spotlight before Monday night's game with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Pat O'Conner, president of Minor League Baseball, said nice things from the big video board in right-center field.

Bill Burke, whose family brought the new team to Maine, took the microphone. Eshbach's fingerprints were all over the stadium. He was the first person hired by the late Dan Burke, the Sea Dogs owner. "My father was your biggest fan," said Bill Burke.

Eshbach looked at the deep green grass at his feet for a long time while words and applause rolled off his back. His Sea Dogs staff didn't think he'd permit such a public display so they came up with a ruse: Eshbach's 2-year-old grandson, also named Charlie, was going to say the words "play ball!" on the field before the game.

That's why Eshbach's wife, Anne-Marie, and sons Brian and Scott were on the field with him. Wink, wink.

Forty years in baseball. It didn't start easily. During his senior year at the University of Connecticut, where he majored in marketing and worked in the university's press boxes, Eshbach sent out 175 letters looking for entry-level jobs. "I got all kinds of wonderful letterheads telling me there were no openings."

Hours before dawn on a late April morning, his phone rang. The Associated Press office in Hartford got a tip that black students had occupied the university library. Could Eshbach check it out?

He did. Returning to his room, he fell asleep to be awakened by another phone call. A friend was going to the Red Sox game that afternoon. Did Eshbach want to come along? He did. He got back to his room by 7 p.m. to work on a term paper when his phone rang again.

The owner of the Elmira team in the New York-Penn League, one of the first rungs in the minors, was offering him an internship. Eshbach was interested.

"My job was to sell advertising to all the gas stations in the area. My commission would be 10 percent. After the first week my dinners were a carton of milk."

Eshbach stayed, eventually getting $75 a week. He wanted more, but money was only part of it. Eshbach wanted the life. That it turned into a life in baseball's minor leagues made it even better.

"I didn't want to live in a big city so that kind of ruled out working for a major league team. Although I did get my cup of coffee with the Red Sox in 1975."

It was the World Series. Eshbach had an office between Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, and Dick O'Connell, the Red Sox GM. His duties were to screen their phone calls during the series. He got to say hello to a lot of other team owners and general managers.

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