The End of an Era in Portland
Portland Sea Dogs bought out by national corporation
It was startling to awaken, on this dismal, dreary December day, to the news that my hometown baseball team, the Portland Sea Dogs, had been sold.
This was startling because the Portland Sea Dogs, the Red Sox’s AA affiliate, are not only one of the most successful minor league baseball franchises in the nation, but because they’d been owned by the same family since their founding in 1992. They were founded by Daniel Burke, a businessman from Albany who was most well-known for engineering Capital Cities’ takeover of ABC and becoming head of ABC thereafter. He was the first owner of the Portland Sea Dogs, back when they were a Florida Marlins affiliate. This was back when the Marlins were no slouch, so we got to see players like Kevin Millar, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Livian Hernandez breeze through Portland.
Hadlock Field in 2017, during the Field of Dreams promotion. Photo by the author.
Then in 2003, they finally became a part of the beloved Red Sox’s farm system, and we kept seeing more great players in our little local ballpark: Jonathan Lester, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, and Jonathan Papelbon, to name a few. By now, the Portland Sea Dogs had become firmly engrained in the culture of Maine, so when they joined the Red Sox system they didn’t change their name, or their logo, as minor-league teams so often do these days. Instead, they just changed the color of blue in their logo and uniforms, from teal to navy - and we actually got to see our hometown heroes play in the bigs.
All along the way, the Burke family was there, first Dan and then his children, Bill Burke and Sally McNamara. Since it was Maine, the players weren’t the only celebrities in the stadium: George H.W. and Barbara Bush sometimes came to games from Kennebunkport as well. Going to Hadlock Field always felt like visiting a home. The current general manager, Geoff Iacuessa, has been with the team forever. Like the Burkes, he seems confident that the new owners will handle the team well, but there may be a problem there.
You see, it wasn’t some local businessman or celebrity who bought the team. Instead, it was a company called Diamond Baseball Holdings (DBH) that has been buying up minor league baseball teams all over the country. Now, hopefully they’ll be wise enough not to mess too much with the Portland Sea Dogs: According to the Burkes, they’ll be remaining a Red Sox affiliate, the front office staff will stay on, and Hadlock Field will remain their home. All of that makes sense for everyone: The Red Sox want a nearby AA affiliate, and they’ve already got their hands full with minor-league drama with the sale and relocation of the Worcester Red Sox, the team formally known as the PawSox. It was incredibly sad to watch the new ownership group dismantle the legacy of the Pawtucket Red Sox in one fell swoop; hopefully the same fate never befalls the Portland Sea Dogs.
Still, even if the Sea Dogs keep the same stadium, logo, affiliation, and most of their employees, nothing will ever be the same. We won’t be running in to the owners at the ballpark, or at any other place around Portland: You can’t just run in to some anonymous corporation. That not only takes away a lot of the personal touch of having a locally-owned team, but it represents a sad trend in not only baseball, but American society as a whole, of things that used to be small and local being co-opted or taken over by larger entities. In baseball, this began when Major League Baseball essentially took over Minor League Baseball and completely reconfigured it, shuttering many teams all over the country, showing little if any regard for the affected communities or the legacy of local minor-league baseball.
It’s no surprise that in the wake of that decision, an entity like Diamond Baseball Holdings would pop up: Major League Baseball essentially paved the way for them. It will be mildly interesting to see in the forthcoming years how much competition they face; with how many minor league teams there are still out there - even with MLB closing them left and right - there’s plenty of room for competition. In the end, we may get to a situation with minor league baseball teams like NASCAR did with its tracks, with most of them owned by a small number of corporations.
While that certainly makes things easier for the bigwigs who own the sport, the lack of competition is ultimately bad for local communities, players, the country, and the sport itself. As baseball is represented professionally in fewer and fewer American towns, it will reduce the number of Americans who get a chance to see future major-leaguers play live in their small towns all over the country. That will do more - far, far more - to harm the popularity of the sport in the long run than the length of the game ever did, and no amount of rule changes will undo it.