When Winning Isn’t Everything by Sterling Pingree

People love a winner.

Put a winning team on the field and like a baseball diamond in an Iowa corn field, “People will come Ray, people will most definitely come.”
Winning in major sports trumps almost everything, including at times the illegal activities of its star players. In the case of the Portland Sea Dogs, sole tenants of the Eastern League cellar, (currently in year two of their lease) that hasn’t seemed to matter as they’re also among the top of the league in attendance annually. This doesn’t make sense, unless you get to the heart of the purpose of minor league baseball; player development.

I’m a competitive person. I live and die with the Patriots, Red Sox and sometimes the Celtics. The Grady Little game in 2003 rendered me almost catatonic and I still can’t talk about Super Bowl 42. That being said, besides the first Sea Dogs game I ever attended, (it was my best friend Zach’s 11th birthday in 1996, Sea Dogs won on a walk off base hit) I don’t think I could tell you definitively if the Dogs won or lost any one of the numerous games I’ve attended at Hadlock Field.

I remember making the connection between the Sea Dogs and what I watched on TV in 1998 when I pulled a Kevin Millar card and had seen him play at Hadlock earlier that summer. The players in my home state were working towards playing with Mo Vaughn in the Major Leagues and that made sense to me as a 12-year old. Charles Johnson was the first star of the Sea Dogs and his image was everywhere during the Marlins affiliation era (1994-2002) as the example to which all others strove for.

Growing up in Maine the only players you rooted for that didn’t play for the Red Sox were Mike Bordick, Billy Swift and Charles Johnson. Bordick and Swift were from here, Johnson was not, but playing in Portland was enough to claim him as one of our own. From the onset of the franchise the most compelling feature has been the chance to see star players on the rise.

I am first and foremost a Red Sox fan, my interest in the Sea Dogs generally centers on them being a part of the Red Sox organization. The goal isn’t necessarily the Sea Dogs winning, though it’s nice when they do, it’s about restocking the big league roster with enough young talent to win the World Series.

The Sea Dogs became a Red Sox affiliate in 2003 and by 2007 had produced 5 key pieces of the World Series champion Red Sox. (Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen and Jon Lester) Baseball is a team game, but it is the most individualistic team game of all sports; batter-vs-pitcher, mono-a-mono.

In the Red Sox affiliation era, I go to games like most do, as an amateur scout. I want to see top prospects play and to try and imagine them playing in Boston. I went to a game in 2014 and couldn’t tell you the score, but I’ll never forget watching Mookie Betts play second base. Betts snared a line drive and with my hand on a bible, I swear that while still in mid-air he threw over to first base and doubled off the runner. Winning and losing that day didn’t matter, but that play did and always will to me.
Nowadays my trips to Hadlock are motivated by seeing the likes of Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada, which is akin to seeing a movie premier. After you’ve seen them up close, everybody wants a report. After seeing Benintendi strike out three times in his third Portland game, I went on the Morning Pitch with Dale Duff and Bryan Stackpole to give a full report; ditto to when I was fortunate enough to see Moncada’s first game on June 21st. (I have video of his first base hit on my phone.)

There is a pride in having a star like Xander Bogaerts or Mookie Betts play every day in your own back yard, even if it’s only for a summer. Sometimes it’s not only stars on the horizon that make a cameo, but the biggest constellation in the galaxy.  David Ortiz made a rehab appearance at Hadlock in 2008 and felt like what it must have been like to watch Babe Ruth barnstorming through small towns almost 100 years earlier. Seeing one of the greatest Red Sox of all time in my home state was surreal. Big Papi in Maine? No, he could only be witnessed in the biggest cathedrals of baseball and on television. Double-A pitchers worked around Ortiz on a perfect summer night and even with a million pictures from this game, the image that is embossed on my memory is of #34 walking back to the clubhouse through the right field fence. It reminded me of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, walking back into Ray Kinsella’s corn field.

These memories are more personal and more intimate because they happened in a smaller ballpark in a smaller city than Boston. Baseball games are won and lost every day, but memories like these don’t happen as often, but they are the reason why people come back again and again.
“This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” -Terence Mann, Field of Dreams-1989.

 

 

Sterling Head ShotSterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm-6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket. Follow The Drive on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.