Charlie Eschbach has been involved in minor league baseball for 39 years.
But home openers are still as exciting as ever and the president of the Portland Sea Dogs is looking forward to Thursday’s Hadlock Field debut against the Binghamton Mets.
“It’s special. The wonderful thing about baseball is it starts in the spring,” said Eschbach. “When you go out to sell baseball in the off-season, people like to see me because I’m selling summer.”
The Sea Dogs will have played their first seven games on the road prior to Thursday, with four at Reading (all losses) and three more at Trenton.
Portland averaged 5,514 at Hadlock Field last year, which was sixth among the league’s 12 teams and 318 fewer than a year ago. It marked the fourth straight year that there was a decline in attendance, but Eschbach is optimistic that those figures will improve this season.
Hadlock Field holds 7,368, so the 5,514 still represents 74.8 percent of capacity.
In the previous six seasons, they were either second or third in attendance.
“We were hammered, weather-wise, last year,” explained Eschbach. “April, May and June were terrible. We got pounded.”
He also said the schedule didn’t help.
“Last year, we opened [our season] at home. That’s always a challenge for us,” said Eschbach, referring to the unpredictability of early April weather in Maine. “The schedule is friendlier this year.
“We open at home on Thursday and then we go into school vacation week [the following week],” said Eschbach.
The Sea Dogs, who are in their 10th season as the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox after nine years with the Florida Marlins, will play four games against Binghamton and three more against New Britain before they head out on the road for a seven-game trip.
By the time they return home, on April 27, Eschbach is hopeful warmer weather will be in evidence, which should boost attendance.
He said ticket sales are “running ahead of last year” and pointed out that their ticket prices are “among the lowest in the league if not the lowest.”
Ticket prices range from $9 per adult for a box seat or a seat in the U.S. Cellular Pavilion; $8 for a reserved seat and $7 for a general admission ticket. For children and seniors, it’s $8, $7 and $4, respectively.
There are also lower group rates.
Eschbach explained that the low ticket prices was the desire of late team owner Daniel Burke, the former CEO at Capital Cities Broadcasting and ABC who applied to the Eastern League to bring a franchise to Portland in 1992 and had his application accepted. The Sea Dogs made their debut in 1994.
“That’s what he wanted and we’ve continued to do that,” said Eschbach.
Burke died in October at the age of 82.
Eschbach was Burke’s first employee, signing on with the team in 1992.
Burke, a New York native who summered in Maine, retired in 1994 and spent a lot of spring and summer nights at Hadlock Field.
There will be a special ceremony to honor his memory on Thursday night. His family still owns the team.
“He said when he retired, he wanted to go to baseball games. He wanted to bring baseball to Maine and Portland was the only place he wanted to do it,” said Eschbach. “He liked Maine and it worked out real well. He was a wonderful guy to work for.”
The Sea Dogs finished last in the Eastern Division a year ago with a 59-83 record and they will be looking to overcome their slow start to finish above .500 for the first time since 2008.
Eschbach pointed out that they have a lot of returnees (17) and that should pay dividends.
He said several of them were in their first seasons at the Double-A level last year “and they usually do better in their second year because they have their feet on the ground and know what to expect.”
“It was a tough year on the field and, despite our start, we’re expecting better things this year,” said Eschbach.
A constant source of pride for Eschbach is the number of current major leaguers who spent time with the Sea Dogs.
“Just look at the Red Sox starting rotation this year: [Jon] Lester, [Josh] Beckett, [Clay] Buchholz, [Felix] Doubront and [Daniel] Bard,” said Eschbach. “They all played here. So did [second baseman Dustin] Pedroia, [center fielder Jacoby] Ellsbury and [third baseman Kevin] Youkilis.”
Flaherty makes MLB debut
Former Deering High School star Ryan Flaherty of Portland made his major league debut for the Baltimore Orioles in Saturday night’s 8-2 win over the Minnesota Twins.
He came on to play third base in the ninth inning and made a good play on a grounder. He didn’t get to hit.
The son of longtime University of Southern Maine baseball coach Eddie Flaherty and his wife, Debbie, was an All-American at Vanderbilt and was obtained by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft from the Chicago Cubs this past winter.
The Cubs drafted him in the first round in 2008.
In order to be available in the Rule 5 draft, you can’t be on your parent team’s 40-man major league roster; you had to be 19 years of age or older when you were signed by the club and you had to be in the organization for at least four years.
He was in the Cubs’ organization for four years.
The 25-year-old Flaherty helped himself by playing six positions in spring training: all four infield positions, left field and right field.
He hit .232 with a homer and 10 RBIs.