Johnny Bladel played in four independent leagues before joining the Sea Dogs.

He was a productive outfielder for James Madison University, batting .319 his senior year, and leading the Colonial Athletic Association with a .487 on-base percentage.

But when the 2013 major league draft took place that June, Johnny Bladel did not hear his name.

“There was (hope), but it just never happened,” said Bladel, the newest outfielder for the Portland Sea Dogs.

No problem, he thought.

“I got kind of burned out from baseball in college,” Bladel said. “I took a year off, finished up school and graduated in December 2013.”


But Bladel realized just how much he missed baseball when the real world came knocking.

“I had a job offer in sales, but I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I decided, ‘I’m going to play some baseball.'”

Thus began the journey that took Bladel through four independent leagues in five years, to teams in Colorado, Texas, New Jersey and Maryland. The initial year was challenging, with low pay – $57 a week to start – and bare-bone budgets, but Bladel was smiling.

“Once I got into pro ball, being in the clubhouse around the guys, traveling, it was a lot of fun, so I just I kept playing,” he said.

His independent days ended earlier this month when the Boston Red Sox offered a contract and sent him to the Sea Dogs, their Double-A affiliate.

Through his first 11 games, he’s batting .276 with a .405 on-base percentage.


“He’s not necessarily going to be a world-beater, but he’s going do the right things, give you competitive at-bats,” said Sea Dogs Manager Daren Fenster.

“He gives us some flexibility where he can play all three spots in the outfield.”

Bladel, 27, gives Portland a fourth outfielder for the first time since Cole Sturgeon was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on May 13.

Few players who begin their pro careers in the independent leagues make it to affiliated teams. Kevin Millar and Daniel Nava are two who did it, eventually playing for the Sea Dogs, and later moving on to the majors.

There are currently seven independent leagues: four “established” leagues – where most promotions to affiliated ball come from – and three lower-level leagues for younger players. One of the lower-level leagues is the Empire Professional Baseball League, which includes the Old Orchard Beach Surge.

Bladel began his pro career with the Trinidad (Colorado) Triggers in the lower-level Pecos League.


“It’s a great place to be, but it’s tough to make any money at all. It’s really just the opportunity to keep playing,” Bladel said. “It’s filled with a bunch of dudes holding onto hope.”

Road trips meant four players assigned to a room, with two beds. There was no postgame meal provided, although Bladel said Trinidad players were fortunate because they received concession stand leftovers. Trinidad also provided host families, and Bladel’s parents helped supplement his $57-a-week salary.

“Players on other teams weren’t so lucky. I heard about guys sleeping in their cars for a couple of nights, or 10 dudes sharing an apartment,” he said.

Bladel lasted 48 games in the Pecos League. His gaudy .518 batting average earned him a promotion to Amarillo, Texas, in the American Association, one of three upper-level leagues Bladel would play in.

Bladel played in the Can-Am League for New Jersey teams from 2015-17.

This season, Bladel was in the Atlantic League with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, near his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. One of Bladel’s teammates was former Sea Dogs pitcher Drake Britton.


Bladel was batting .341 for the Blue Crabs. He heard that Red Sox scouts were checking on him, contacting current and former coaches. Bladel, who once seemed content in the independent leagues, wanted more.

“When I started having success and realized my potential, I just kept getting after it,” he said. “And something happened, finally.”

That something was the Red Sox offer. He may be a long way from the major leagues, but he’s connected to a big-league organization.

“It didn’t hit me until later when I was watching a big-league game on television,” Bladel said. “I’m finally in affiliated ball. It’s really a nice feeling.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-7411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.