ORONO, Maine — Despite the struggling economy, life is still good at Hadlock Field.
That was the word from Charlie Eshbach, the general manager and president of the Eastern League’s Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
“Things are going great,” said Eshbach, who spoke at an early-bird breakfast Wednesday for local business people sponsored by the Oxford Networks at the Best Western/Black Bear Inn.
“Red Sox interest couldn’t be higher. Sea Dogs interest couldn’t be higher,” Eshbach added. “Our attendance is running about where it was last year. I wasn’t sure how the economy [would impact it]. We average around 6,300 over the course of the year. This time of year, we’re up around 5,400 and it will grow as we get into summer.”
He said the team has promise.
“The team is hovering around .500, so we’ve still got a shot at the playoffs. Hopefully, now that summer is here, I think [it’s here], we’ll probably start doing even better,” said Eshbach.
The fourth-place Sea Dogs entered Wednesday night’s play with a 33-36 record and trailed Northern Division leader Connecticut by 5½ games.
They have a number of young prospects who are having productive years.
Those prospects are hoping to have their names added to the list of former Sea Dogs who have played in the major leagues. That number currently stands at 161, including 19 who have played for the Red Sox this season, according to Eshbach.
The 2005 opening-day roster for the Sea Dogs included current major leaguers Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen (Boston); shortstop Hanley Ramirez (Florida); outfielders Brandon Moss (Pittsburgh) and David Murphy (Texas) and pitcher Cla Meredith (San Diego).
“That was pretty amazing,” Eshbach said.
As for the current Sea Dogs, after a sluggish start, highly touted power-hitting first baseman Lars Anderson is hitting .262 with seven homers and 35 RBIs.
“He has come around. He’s starting to hit regularly,” said Eshbach. “[Center fielder Josh] Reddick is a good prospect [.276-7-12]. Righthander [Tunichi] Tazawa [7-4, 2.92 ERA] has done very well and T.J. Large [2-0, 7 saves, 0.78 ERA] has been very effective out of the bullpen. And there’s more in the pipeline.”
Two outfielders, Aaron Bates (.340-7-39) and Bubba Bell (.275-5-20), were recently moved up to the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, he said.
Eshbach, a University of Connecticut graduate, said Red Sox World Series championships in 2004 and 2007 and the Sea Dogs’ Eastern League title in 2006 have “increased the fervor for the Red Sox even higher than you ever thought. I always wondered if once the Red Sox won [the World Series], what would happen. And it has just grown from there.”
The Sea Dogs were the property of the Florida Marlins from 1994-2002 before they began their affiliation with the Red Sox in 2003.
“The Sea Dogs were very successful under the Marlins. They were the hometown team. But only about two out of 10 fans knew we were affiliated with the Marlins,” Eshbach said.
But everybody knows they are now affiliated with the Red Sox, he added.
“They never used to boo the players when we were affiliated with the Marlins. Now they’ll get booed if they don’t hustle. They’ve gone from being the hometown team to a birthright,” said Eshbach.
He said they are continually making improvements to the facility, but they won’t figure out what they will do for next season until September.
“With the economy, I don’t think you’ll see us expanding the seating immediately. But there are always things we’re looking at. We built a brand new clubhouse last year and we’re replacing the left field video board as we speak,” said Eshbach. “We try to do something to keep the place alive and improve it.”
Eshbach, who has been involved with the Eastern League in some capacity since 1975, including an 11-year stint as the league president, said the league’s growth over that time span has been “revolutionary.”
“When I was in Bristol [Conn.] in 1975, we drew 42,000 fans for the whole season and we were fifth in an eight-team league. In the middle of the summer, we’ll draw 42,000 [at Hadlock] in one week,” he said.
He pointed out that the Bristol franchise was bought for $22,000 in 1975 and now a franchise can cost in the $20 million range.
Spending 11 years as the league president was beneficial.
“It was perfect for what I’m doing in Portland. Twenty percent of what I learned taught me what to do to be successful, but 80 percent taught me what not to do to be successful,” quipped Eshbach, who considers himself a business manager more than anything else.
And the blueprint created by owner Dan Burke and Eshbach is the same as it ever was: good, affordable family entertainment.
“Our most expensive ticket is a $9 box seat. And if you’re going to provide family entertainment, the facility has to be clean and neat. You want to impress the mothers,” he said.