PORTLAND, Maine--When Dan Burke bought an expansion minor league franchise in the Double-A Eastern League in 1992, it was a retirement gift to himself and his family.
Now into its 20th season, the Sea Dogs remain a testament of the success derived from a solid ownership blending with a baseball-loving community.
The Sea Dogs celebrated their 20th year last night with a small gathering of "alumni," headlined by the return of Charles Johnson. He was the Sea Dogs' first star, hitting 28 home runs in Portland's inaugural season in 1994, and going on to a 11-year major league career that two included two All-Star Game selections and a World Series title.
Johnson, 41, wore the same style of jersey he wore back in 1994, white with black pinstripes and teal lettering. He was joined by 10 others--in either teal or red, depending on whether the Sea Dogs were a Marlins or Red Sox affiliate at the time--and the group collectively threw out the ceremonial first pitch before an announced crowd of 4,402 and an eventual 17-1 loss to New Britain.
Dressed in red were former Sea Dogs manager and current Red Sox scout Todd Claus (2005-06), along with Ryan Cameron (2003-04), Marc Deschenes (2004-05), Jay Johnson (2006-08), and John Nathans (2003-04). Joining Johnson in teal were Fletcher Bates (1998-99), Heath Honeycutt (2000-02), Drew Niles (1999-2002), Glenn Reeves (1997-99) and Pookie Wilson (1995-97).
“I wanted to come,” Claus told the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. “These people, they were so good to me. There’s so many little details that nobody knows about, what the people who run this organization here do for the players and staff off the field.”
The celebration was a homecoming for Johnson, the only member of the alumni to reach the major leagues, who took the field for the Sea Dogs home opener at revamped Hadlock Field in 1994. Kathy Lee Gifford sang the national anthem that night and national sportscaster Chris Schenkel emceed the pre-game festivities. Their appearances were the result of a friendship with Burke, the retired president and CEO of Capital Cities/ABC Television.
A summer resident of Kennebunkport Beach, Maine, Burke had other connections, like his friendship with Kennebunkport Beach neighbor, George H.W. Bush. The former president usually attended at least one Sea Dogs game a year, as well as Burke's annual lobster bake for the team.
Burke, who died in October of 2011, at the age of 82, was known as the ultimate executive, allowing talented people to do their job. Burke hired former Eastern League commissioner Charlie Eshbach as the team's general manager.
“I just want to fade into the crowd and enjoy the game," Burke once said. "Isn't that what it's all about?"
Seal Of Success
When the team announced its name--Sea Dogs--there was skepticism. But when Eshbach and company released the team's logo, popularity zoomed.
The logo--an adorable pup seal looking fierce while hold a baseball bat in its mouth--propelled the Sea Dogs to No. 1 among minor league teams in merchandise sales. And that was before Portland played a game.
The logo remains unchanged, except for a celebrated switch of colors in 2003. And Sea Dogs merchandise remains popular--regularly among the top 25 minor league teams.
But the franchise has come to mean more than a cute seal.
Portland led the Eastern League in attendance its first year, averaging 5,437. Those numbers have gradually increased. On the field, the Marlins sent prospects like Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Livan Hernandez, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez, as well as non-prospects who made it to the majors anyways (Kevin Millar and Mike Redman).
But the Sea Dogs would soon walk away from the Marlins for a dream-come-true relationship with the Boston Red Sox.
John Henry, the one-time Marlins owner who bought the Red Sox, had enjoyed working with Burke. Plus there was the added relationship between Burke and Sox minority owner Tom Werner, a television producer.
"John Henry goes from the Marlins to the Red Sox. My dad had known Tom Werner for 20 years. It was cosmic the way it lined up," said Dan Burke's son, Bill, the team's chairman.
When Henry and Werner attended a Sea Dogs game in May 2002, it was called a social visit between friends. But the rumors began and the worst-kept secret was announced that September: the Sea Dogs would become a Red Sox affiliate, ditching the black and teal for red and blue.
"When we switched affiliations, someone said it was like we had a hole-in-one and someone gave us a mulligan," Bill Burke said.
A beloved franchise was about to launch into new levels of popularity.
"We were successful when we were with the Marlins," Eshbach said. "We were Portland's hometown team. (With the Red Sox) it became a whole different world."
Attendance averaged 6,231 in 2003. The press box was expanded to accommodate media from across New England, checking in on Red Sox prospects. The Red Sox-owned New England Sports Network (NESN) occasionally televised games.
The product on the field was not immediately tantalizing. This was the beginning of the Theo Epstein era, and his envisioned "player development machine" was not yet in full gear. The 2003 and '04 teams featured mostly minor league free agents with a spattering of prospects, like Kevin Youkilis and catcher Kelly Shoppach.
"In Portland, it was the first time I felt like I was a part of something," Shoppach said. "First time I really felt like a professional baseball player in a real atmosphere."
That first season as a Red Sox affiliate was delayed a week because of snow.
"That first week was terrible," Youkilis said, "but we got to see the town of Portland . . . there was a lot of great food, music. Great energy in that town and it carried over to the baseball. Definitely one of my favorite places in the minor leagues."
It has remained a favorite place for players and fans. Red Sox prospects eventually began pouring in, including Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Hanley Ramirez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz and Will Middlebrooks.
These days, the Red Sox No. 1 prospect, Xander Bogaerts, is playing shortstop at Hadlock Field. Top pitching prospect Matt Barnes is in the Sea Dogs rotation. They were on hand when the alumni visited for the 20th-season celebration. Among the returning players was journeyman minor league pitcher Ryan Cameron, who pitched for the Sea Dogs in 2003-04.
When Cameron learned of Dan Burke's death in 2011, he had written a letter to the Portland Press Herald.
"I made many stops in (my) 10 years, but none compared to my experience in Portland," Cameron wrote. "From the day I showed up . . . I knew I was in a special place."
Kevin Thomas covers baseball for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald