PORTLAND — At the beginning, Portland Sea Dogs President Charlie Eshbach had a modest goal.
“I thought we would be doing well if we drew 250,000 fans (in 1994),” he said March 28.
More than 9 million fans later, the Sea Dogs will begin their 25th season Thursday, April 5, in Binghamton, New York. Their first home game is April 13 at Hadlock Field.
The anniversary celebration includes naming the all-time teams of Sea Dogs and opposing players, and past seasons and players will be highlighted throughout the year, General Manager Geoff Iacuessa said March 21.
Playing at the AA level, two steps below the major leagues, the Sea Dogs have had more than 280 players reach the big leagues. Three former managers have moved up, too.
Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Dustin Pedroia, Josh Beckett and Jacoby Ellsbury are among those who developed in Portland, then played on world championship teams in Miami or Boston. Established big-league players, including David “Big Papi” Ortiz, have appeared while recovering from injuries.
Yet entertainment reigns at Hadlock Field.
“If you take a cross-section of 10 people, a good chunk of them won’t know the (game) details because they are having so much fun,” said Eshbach, who has been part of the Eastern League since 1974.
Children racing mascot Slugger around the bases, and dancing with him to “YMCA,” are standbys at the ballpark.
Eshbach said he still gets goosebumps watching the annual “Field of Dreams” player entrance through cornstalks in center field.
“What we’ve got is a mix of traditions and keeping things fresh and lively,” Eshbach said. “Parents who are bringing kids were kids when we first started.”
In 1994, the Sea Dogs set an Eastern League record by drawing 375,000 fans. The league record has long since been broken, and the team record is 434,000. Only once has the annual attendance in Portland dropped below 350,000.
The team’s success coincided with a new stability in the Eastern League. Before the city got a franchise, two or three teams might shift cities each season. Since 1994, three teams have moved, one of them twice. Two new teams were added in 1999.
The Eastern League offices are in Portland; league President Joe McEachern began his career as a Sea Dogs intern in 1994.
“Every market is individual, you have to know (it). I think (the Sea Dogs) have done that,” he said March 29.
Eshbach was hired by original owner Dan Burke about two weeks after the franchise was awarded to Portland in 1992. Burke died in 2011, but the team is still family-owned.
Eight others have been with the team since 1994. Team Vice President Chris is beginning his 22nd season and Iacuessa arrived in 2002.
The basics of a clean ballpark, good food and friendly atmosphere don’t change, and Iacuessa said success also comes from an active staff that has shoveled snow and pulled tarps over the field when storms hit.
“We are competing with any kind of entertainment, other things families and folks can do with their time,” he said.
Glenn Reeves, now a real estate agent in Cape Elizabeth, played in Portland 20 years ago, and at first was wary of the reliance on entertainment.
“As a player, you hate the promotions between innings. You don’t want to step out of the dugout because someone might be going by on a motorcycle,” he said.
A native of Melbourne, Australia, who also played on the Australian Olympic team in 2000, Reeves still brings his family to games.
“I’ll sit in the stands and two things will pop into my mind: ‘Wow these guys are really good,’ and just how well things are run,” he said. “Stepping back from trying to watch every pitch and seeing how they entertain the kids is great.”
Before the first season, the Sea Dogs topped all minor league teams in merchandising with a logo born as Charlie Eshbach worked in a trailer while Hadlock Field was readied for pro baseball.
“What I remember was hats, and the lines of people. You could not keep them in stock. You’d wait for the UPS truck every day to see if they had hats,” McEachern said of the first season.
Drew Niles played in Portland from 1999-2002, and became an intern after the 2002 season.
“The quality of whatever promotion was at a higher standard, and it was always nice to see how they tied in the Maine theme,” Niles, who now lives in Scarborough said.
Yet the franchise was no sure thing in 1992.
Ten years to the day before Portland got the Sea Dogs, pro baseball was supposed to come to town.
Joe Buzas, a legendary owner of more than 80 minor league teams, wanted to move the Bristol Red Sox of the Eastern League to Portland. Seven city councilors were needed to vote in favor of a $500,000 bond to renovate Hadlock Field.
Buzas arrived with Portland Red Sox T-shirts three days before the meeting. The late Bill Troubh was mayor, and he was confident.
“Whenever I did anything, I made sure I had the necessary votes. We had the necessary votes. I called every person I knew and asked them to come to the council meeting,” Troubh said before his death in 2013.
David Brenerman, in his first stint as a councilor, supported it.
“The Old Port was just blossoming and having minor league baseball would have been a boon to the city,” Brenerman said March 21.
Buzas had made Eshbach the Bristol general manager at age 22. By 1982, Eshbach was the Eastern League president, and on his honeymoon.
The council meeting went past 1 a.m as Bangor attorney Jordan Kobritz made his own pitch to bring a AAA team to Portland.
In what Troubh called his greatest disappointment in politics, the bond got six votes. Buzas took the Red Sox to New Britain, Connecticut.
“I went away thinking Bristol was coming to Portland, I got back and they were going to New Britain,” Eshbach said.
Kobritz brought the Maine Guides to Old Orchard Beach in 1984, where the team drew 180,000 fans and national media attention. By 1988, attendance dropped to 80,000. The team moved to Pennsylvania in a cloud of acrimony and municipal debt.
Troubh got a T-shirt, and a lingering sense pro baseball would never come to Portland.
While Troubh may have soured on bringing baseball to Maine, Kennebunk resident Burke had not. The former head of Cap Cities/ABC television was a lifelong baseball fan who believed minor league ball could work in Portland.
When new AA teams were needed because of the 1991 expansion of major league baseball, Burke applied for a team for Portland. In October 1992, the city was named one of four finalists for the two new teams.
Still president of the Eastern League, Eshbach was on the expansion committee but without a vote, since Burke had already offered him a job in Portland.
The sales pitch began 30 miles away when the committee was greeted by a sign on the Maine Turnpike in Kennebunk.
“I remember we got to the hotel in Portland and it was as bright as day with all the TV crews there,” Eshbach said.
At City Hall, fans and the Portland High School marching band greeted the committee. “Play ball” was the message on the Time & Temperature sign at 477 Congress St. Eshbach recalled a committee member saying the city should just quit while it was ahead.
On Oct. 4, 1992, Portland was awarded a franchise, along with New Haven, Connecticut. The city kicked in $1.5 million to improve Hadlock Field as a public works project. Burke also contributed.
The first Sea Dogs home game was played a decade after minor league baseball debuted in Old Orchard Beach. The 1994 team was bad, but playoff appearances followed in 1995-97. The Florida Marlins were the first parent club, a partnership that lasted through 2002.
Then came the Red Sox, who terminated a working agreement with Trenton, New Jersey, to come to Portland.
“Timing-wise, it could not have been better,” Cameron said. “It gave us an instant spark. A Red Sox affiliate in the heart of Red Sox nation.”
The second renovation of Hadlock Field took place when the team rebuilt the left field wall to resemble Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
Since then, the clubhouses for players and umpires have been improved, and the team added bleachers above the right field wall. In 2006, the Sea Dogs won it all, their only league title.
Eshbach is a baseball fan, but seeing packed stands and smiling fans means more than anything to him.
“The objective when we started was to become an institution,” he said. “We have done it beyond expectations.”
Portland Sea Dogs General Manager Geoff Iacuessa, left, and Vice President Chris Cameron said March 21 that entertainment is more important than baseball when it comes to running a minor-league team. The Sea Dogs open their 25th season April 5.