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How the Sea Dogs silenced doubters – like me

A little more than 20 years ago I got it so very wrong when I predicted that the Portland Sea Dogs would flop in their new 6,000-seat, downtown stadium. I whinged about parking, frigid weather and general apathy. I cited the failed Maine Guides. Fortunately for Portland I could not have been more off the mark about the team's prospects.

In the 20 years since the first pitch, 7,647,893 people have watched Portland Sea Dogs games at Hadlock Field, home of the Red Sox' double-A team.
 
Today I am looking at how the Sea Dogs have become such a popular part of Portland's entertainment landscape, year in and year out.
 
Living close to Hadlock Field, I have seen and heard the team's success up close. We can clearly hear the national anthem and have become experts in recognizing crowd noise: gasps after a hit batsman, groans at a bonehead error, cheers at a homer. We often sit on our porch and watch the team’s fireworks shows. 
 
Inside Hadlock we have huddled beneath blankets on cold Opening Days, losing feeling in our limbs, and on hot August afternoons we have made countless trips to concessions to gather Sea Dogs Biscuits and never enough napkins for our sticky children.
 
Like so many others, we have found that a family night at Hadlock is hard to beat.
 
We have quality, local baseball, at a fraction of the cost of a trip to Fenway, without the need to explain to my 8-year-old daughter why it’s not OK to add her voice to an obscene anti-Jeter chant – let alone provide a chant exegesis.
 

A failed predecessor

My early skepticism about minor-league ball in Maine was based on my experiences with the Maine Guides, a triple-A affiliate for the Cleveland Indians. The Guides played in Old Orchard in the mid-80s at an out-of-the-way stadium creatively named "The Ball Park." While working at the Portland Press Herald I covered a few games, spelling Steve Buckley, the beat writer, on his rare days off. 
 
I remember mosquitoes, a parking bottleneck, a "laptop" the size of a suitcase, sparse crowds and a ragged hole in a clubhouse wall made possible by manager Doc Edwards. And I remember the team's ugly implosion, which involved judicial courts and plenty of finger pointing.
 

Getting it right

So, how have the Sea Dogs succeeded, and are there lessons for Portland?
 
To find out, I went to a key player in the Sea Dogs' development, team president Charlie Eshbach, who also happens to be the team's first employee. Eshbach, a former Eastern League president was there at the start with owner Dan Burke, who died in 2011.
 
Simply put, Eshbach knew the minor league baseball business, having observed successes and failures over his decades in the game. He knew the minors inside and out, and experience is invaluable when launching a new product.
 

Place matters

Eshbach explains the reason for the Sea Dogs' success without hesitation. To quote an age-old real estate maxim, it was "location, location, location." 
 
"The key is that we have the right spot," he told me. "We are on the edge of downtown, and we are easy to get to. People were already familiar with the location, and people were used to coming into the city to do things."
 
The team recognized the clear advantages of being located downtown, rather than ripping up a field in a surrounding suburb. The Sea Dogs and the City of Portland worked together to transform a small, existing ballpark into the Sea Dogs’ home.
 
The result is a well-used space (the team leases the ballpark from the city) that has become part of a Portland neighborhood, with many fans walking to games. We watch a steady stream of families walking past our house on game days.
 
While some teams take the name of larger geographic areas (think Florida Marlins or Carolina Panthers) in hopes of increasing market share, the name of Portland's new team was never in doubt.
 
"I am a believer in letting people know where you are," Eshbach says. "We are located in Portland, and we are playing in a city-owned facility. The name just wasn’t an issue."
 
(In comparison, it was often a challenge to explain where the Guides were located: "Where in Maine?" "OOB." "Next to the beach?" "No. In a wooded area. Here's a map.")
 

Overcoming parking fears

In the planning stage, Eshbach heard his share of doubters.
 
It's not surprising that one of the biggest concerns was parking, that fearsome boogeyman that arises during any discussion of a new project in Portland.
 
(Consider the dire warnings preceding last summer's Mumford & Sons concert, or the current neighborhood criticisms about a proposed expansion of the St. Lawrence Arts on Munjoy Hill.)
 
But as is often the case, carmaggedeon failed to materialize, and people have simply figured it out, using a mixture of parking options, public and private, or simply choosing to walk because of Hadlock's central location.
 

Other success factors

The team's experienced approach was also evident in its choice of mascot, Slugger the Sea Dog, a choice that was criticized until people saw the logo and merchandise.
 
"I was driving around the weekend after we announced the name, and I was listening to a radio talk show on WGAN,” says Eshbach. “A guy called in to complain about the name. He said the only people who would like it were kids. I knew then that we had made the right choice."
 
Of course, the team's 2003 affiliation agreement with the Red Sox has been instrumental in maximizing fan interest, and the team has featured numerous familiar names: Pedroia, Ellsbury, Youkilis, Lester and many more. According to the Sea Dogs, 202 players have made it to the Major Leagues, with 18 making All-Star teams.
 
Eshbach also points to the solid support of founding owner Burke. Eshbach says Burke told him that he thought the team would be successful, but that he hadn’t anticipated this level of success.
 

Take aways

If there is a key lesson here, it's that a well thought out plan that gets strong city support can work and overcome whingers like me who obsess about past failures and about such obstacles as “not enough” parking spaces.
 
As the Sea Dogs have proven, with experienced planning and strong, forward thinking municipal support, things get figured out and ambitious endeavors can thrive.
 
Watching a game on a warm summer night, beer in hand, I am quite happy to have been wrong. 
 

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