January 24, 2019
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Portland Sea Dogs make losing a winning proposition for 25 years

PORTLAND, Maine — Today’s home opener marks the start of the Sea Dogs’ 25th baseball season on the diamond at Hadlock Field. In that quarter-century, the Sea Dogs have seen more defeats than victories, posting only two winning seasons in the past decade. They usually don’t make the playoffs and have managed just one Eastern League title.

But the fans keep coming, anyway — maybe not just for the baseball.

Along with the ballgame, Sea Dogs fans get a steady deluge of between-inning kiddie competitions, bobblehead giveaways, fireworks and celebrity appearances. They’re also often treated to a condiment footrace, with children dressed as ketchup, mustard and relish.

Then there’s Slugger, the wildly popular, 6-foot-something, angry-faced seal mascot, who leads the YMCA dance on top of a dugout every night.

“Between ’08 and last season, we’ve made the playoffs once,” Executive Vice President and General Manager Geoff Iacuessa said. “Yet we still continue to draw really well. I think it’s showing that people are enjoying the experience, not necessarily the competitiveness on the field. We want to give people as many reasons as possible to want to come.”

Team President Charlie Eshbach, who has worked in professional baseball for 45 years, agrees.

“I’ve often said, if you have 10 people coming to the game, two of them might be really tuned into the game, pitch by pitch. Some of them are just concerned about Slugger. Some are eating the food,” Eshbach, who was team founder Dan Burke’s first hire in 1993, said. Eshbach served as Eastern League president before joining the Sea Dogs.

Last year, the Dogs’ per-game average attendance was the best in 10 years, despite a losing season. It was still slightly higher than they drew in their inaugural season. They consistently sell more tickets than most of the rest of the league. In 2016, they welcomed their 9 millionth fan to the ballpark.

Looking at the history books, the Dogs have eked out a mere 10 winning seasons in the 25 years since starting as a Florida Marlins farm team during Bill Clinton’s first presidential term. Their attendance spiked in the early 2000s, but not because of the team’s onfield performance. They sold a season record 434,684 seats in 2004, with a losing record. That was, however, a year after becoming the AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

Oh, and that’s also when Boston won its first World Series title in 86 years.

“That certainly helped, the Red Sox winning those World Series in ’04, ’07 and then again in ’13,” Iacuessa, now in his 18th season with the Sea Dogs, said.

In 2013, the Portland nine saw their lowest attendance numbers ever, despite the Red Sox World Series victory. It might have been the lingering aftertaste of the Sox’s last place finish the year before or the loss of their popular manager Terry Francona, coupled with several clubhouse scandals at the major league level. Iacuessa blames it on lousy weather that summer.

In any case, the Dogs were still fifth out of 12 league teams in total, and average, attendance that year.

Last season’s overall attendance was also down from the prior season, with several home games lost to rain.

As this season opens, the Dogs’ top major league prospect, Michael Chavis, is out of the picture. A week ago, he was slapped with an 80-game suspension for testing positive for Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, a banned performance-enhancing substance.

That doesn’t bode well for the team’s win column. However, it won’t affect the team’s plans for showing everyone in the stands a good time.

“We don’t control the players on the field, we don’t control the weather, but we do control the experience of the fan from when they come in, to when they leave,” Iacuessa said. “We try and make sure everyone leaves with a good memory.”

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