A Team of Our Own: Meet the Portland Sea Dogs

  • Justin Haley readies himself for a game against the Reading Fightin Phils.

  • George McConn from Brunswick, ME

  • Coach Dave Joppie works for the Boston Red Sox organization. He also serves as a hitting coach for the Sea Dogs.

  • Play ball! Tickets to a Sea Dogs game are highly affordable ($8 for adult general admission), so many families come week after week, season after season.

  • Before heading out to batting practice, a player shows off his cap.

 

On July 1, 2004, Derek Jeter made a catch that would go down in history as one of his all-time greatest plays.

At the time, Carlos Asuaje was an 11-year-old baseball enthusiast watching the game in his parents’ house in Florida. Even though his father had instilled in him a deep love for the Boston Red Sox (his dad played college ball for Boston University), “Jeter was my guy,” Asuaje remembers. “He has always been my role model. I was just a kid at the time, but when I saw him dive into the stands on that famous play? That was it.” In that moment, something became clear to Asuaje. He wanted to play ball like that, heroically and fearlessly. Over a decade later, Asuaje landed a position as an infielder for the Portland Sea Dogs, a Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. It’s Asuaje’s dream job—that is, aside from playing for the Red Sox. “I just want to be a professional player until I can’t possibly play anymore,” he says.

Sea Dogs pitcher Justin Haley grew up in California in a family of diehard baseball fans. It’s his second year with the Sea Dogs. Haley currently lives with a host family, like many of his fellow players. His 12-year-old host “brother” just got a new bounce-back net for practicing pitching. “His mom told me yesterday that this is the sixth one they’ve had to buy,” he says, laughing. “He throws so much he breaks them! You have to throw it thousands and thousands of times to do that.”

Being around a young fan has taught him many things—including the word “Maineiac,” which Haley uses to describe any kid crazy enough to be outside playing baseball in the snow. But most importantly, he gets to watch the next generation of players hone their skills and dream about standing on the pitcher’s mound at Hadlock Field (and maybe someday, at Fenway Park). “Kids really inspire me. And in turn, they look up to us. It’s a good tradeoff,” he says. Watching his little host brother destroy
his sixth net helps remind Haley of why he started playing baseball in the first place. “When a kid loves something,” Haley adds, “that’s love in its purest, best form.”

This spring, I listened to Sea Dogs games on the radio and chatted with players over the phone. I went to batting practice and hung out in the locker room on Media Day. From the seats of Hadlock Field I watched Justin Haley pitch, cheering him on between sips of cold beer. I talked to Sea Dogs staffers, employees, and co-owner Bill Burke. I heard stories about early baseball games, on-the- road mishaps, and childhood memories. What I learned is that this is a group of people who will readily and easily profess their love for their work. Although the team has only been around since the 1990s, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Maine didn’t have the Sea Dogs to root for—they just seem so deeply entrenched, a natural fit. Through my interviews, one thing became clear: The Sea Dogs belong to Portland.

The Sea Dogs played their first game in 1994 against Pennsylvania’s Reading Fightin Phils. Although they were playing away,
the Sea Dogs won (2-1). In the 20 years that followed, they would change their major league affiliate team, trading the Miami Marlins (formerly the Florida Marlins) for the Boston Red Sox. Every year, the Sea
Dogs face off against other members of their league in 142 games. For 71 of these games, they’re on the road, traveling as far west as Akron, Ohio, and as far south as Richmond, Virginia. For the other 71 games, they’re at home at Hadlock Field. (Once a high school stadium, the field was converted to a professional ballpark in the 1990s. Additional seats were added a year later, and again in 1998. It can currently seat over 7,000 fans.)

What happens in the field gets its start in Boston. “The Red Sox take care of all the player stuff,” explains Sea Dogs general manager and executive vice president Geoff Iacuessa. We’re sitting in his office, which is filled with tchotchkes and gift bags, baseball caps and various pieces of sports paraphernalia. Iacuessa has the kind of

scruffy, affable face that makes you want to grab a beer and a hotdog with him—perfect for someone in the business of recreation. A longtime Red Sox fan and Massachusetts native, Iacuessa loves the symbiotic relationship between the two New England teams. “We maintain the stadium and take care of all the business operations,” he says, “while the Red Sox staff draft, assign the players, and hire the coaching staff.” Boston decides when players will be promoted and whether to draft individual players or sign them as free agents. They oversee the technical aspects of the game. The Sea Dogs staff in Portland provides another kind of support, which is summed up simply on the back of their caps in the acronym ETFE, or Enhancing the Fan’s Experience.

“We like to imagine that everyone is there for their first game ever and that we have the chance to make a first impression,” says co- owner Bill Burke. “Baseball, of all the sports, is something that crosses generations.” For Burke, it’s extremely important that baseball remains accessible to all families, which is why the Sea Dogs have kept ticket prices low (starting at $5 a seat and topping out at $10 per ticket). “We manage things brutally,” admits Burke. “It’s an important part of the business plan.” But that doesn’t mean they cut corners. A Sea Dogs game has all the elements you want from a pro sporting event, from dancing mascots to a craft beer booth to between-inning entertainment.

Achieving this American fantasy takes quite a bit of behind-the-scenes elbow grease. In the summer, Iacuessa works long hours. It’s not uncommon for him to arrive at the office at 8 a.m. and leave the ballpark after 11 p.m. “I’ve worked jobs where an eight-hour day will feel like 16 hours,” says Iacuessa. “Here, a 16-hour day will sometimes feel like four or five hours.” For the players, too, baseball season can feel like a marathon, a nonstop whirlwind of travel and games. But like Iacuessa, who says he’s found the perfect job, the Sea Dogs are truly just happy to be playing pro ball.

“We’re all here because we dream of playing for the Red Sox one day,” says outfielder Kevin Heller. This puts them in an interesting position. On one hand, they’re competing against each other for a shot in the major leagues. On the other, they have to be a great team in order for any one player to succeed. Every player I talk to agrees that the 2015 team is particularly close. We’re in the locker room and all around us players are standing stiffly, waiting for press to descend.

In Heller and his buddies, I seem to have found a corner of relaxation amongst the pre-opening-day chaos. They’re laughing and interrupting each other, trading jokes and mild insults with good-natured ease. “I consider everyone here a really close friend,” says Heller, leaning over in his folding metal chair with a slight smile. “Even him?” I ask. He points a thumb at shortstop Mike Miller in a gesture of mock-embarrassment. “Even that one,” he says. “These guys, they’re my brothers.”

On a clear April afternoon, I caught a game at Hadlock in which the Sea Dogs took on the Fightin Phils again. The away team
eyed the sky while a home run sailed over them. It was just the second inning, but Sea Dogs outfielder Keury De La Cruz had just knocked one out of the park. The stadium exploded with noise. In front of me, a little boy stood up on his chair, hollering and cheering at the top of his lungs until his mom told him to get down. “Didja see that?” he said, reluctantly climbing back into his seat.

As the players circle the bases, I remember Burke’s observations about baseball’s cross-generational appeal. Families are everywhere, chowing down on hot dogs and high-fiving the goofy team mascot, Slugger the Sea Dog, as he bounds through the crowd. The stadium is filled with fans of all ages, shouting the names of their favorite players and cheering for the new recruits. “Fans up here are really passionately involved. They really know the game—every detail,” says pitcher Justin Haley when asked what makes playing for this team unlike others in the minor leagues. Even for a California native, the most notable thing about living in Portland isn’t Maine’s harsh weather or the East Coast accents. It’s our baseball fans. “They lift you up,” he says. “You know you have more than just yourself to play for, more than just your team to play for. You’re playing for the city.”

 

 

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