May 5—Michele Reagan walked into Hadlock Field on Tuesday afternoon bubbling with enthusiasm about seeing the Portland Sea Dogs return to action for the first time since 2019.
"This is the best day of the year so far," she said. "I'm here, and there's baseball to watch."
A 63-year-old resident of Standish, Reagan has attended every Opening Day since the Sea Dogs made their Portland debut in 1994 — except for that year she broke her ankle. She watched Tuesday's game from Section 107 in a three-person pod that included her daughter and grandson.
They were among a sellout crowd of 1,805 that saw the Sea Dogs fall 11-2 to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats to end a COVID-inflicted drought of 610 days since Hadlock played host to a Double-A baseball game. (Reduced capacity was originally pegged at 2,087, but a plexiglass buffer between fans and the visiting bullpen has yet to arrive, rendering the left field grandstand unusable for the first homestand.)
"I haven't been in a crowd for a while," said Ben Mallon, 22, of South Portland. "So this is pretty nice."
From his bleacher seat high above the visiting dugout, Mallon picked up a foul ball that had struck the empty row behind him ... and handed it over to 5-year-old Blake Davis, who was sitting with his moms and older brother P.J. just above where the ball landed.
"If I had caught it in the air, I might have thought about keeping it," Mallon said. "But it wasn't that exciting."
If exciting moments weren't exactly plentiful on the field for the Sea Dogs Tuesday night, their fans didn't seem to mind. Yes, they were masked. Yes, they were spread throughout the park to ensure social distancing. Yes, they mainly stayed in their seats and had concession items delivered instead of milling about the concourse.
But being back in the community of others, being back in the community of baseball, that struck a chord.
"It was a little emotional," Blake's mom, Yana Davis of Portland, said about coming through the gates of Hadlock and hearing staff members say 'Welcome back.' "It feels really comfortable."
After players and coaches were introduced and lined up along the first and third base lines before the game, the Sea Dogs asked fans to stand and remember those lost since September of 2019. As poignant piano music wafted over the loudspeakers, a list of 13 names appeared one by one on the video board. The departed included season-ticket holders, team employees, two local sportswriters, community members involved with the Citizens for Portland Baseball group, former public address announcer Dean Rogers and head usher Dave McConnell.
James White, a critical care nurse from Maine Medical Center, followed with a stirring rendition of the national anthem. Next came former radio broadcaster Mike Antonellis describing the last out of the most recent game played at Hadlock and saying, "That's a wrap on the 2019 season."
On came the song "Soldier" by Gavin DeGraw, with lyrics that included "Where did all the people go?" Moments later, 9-year-old Sloan Tomazin of Scarborough (attending with her grandfather, Rich) yelled "Play ball!" and the first of 120 games was underway.
"It actually feels like normal," said Linda Einsiedler of Falmouth, a season-ticket holder since 1994 with her husband, Charlie. Both were involved with Citizens for Portland Baseball, the group that formed in 1993 to encourage the return of a professional franchise.
"Baseball always signals a rebirth," said Charlie Einsiedler, seated several rows behind the home dugout. "Even more so this year as we come out of COVID."
"I can't wait to see some of these kids," said Jim Pierce of Cumberland, joining the Einsiedlers in a four-person pod that included his wife, Polly.
Pierce was also among the Citizens group and kept his season tickets during the 12 years he and Polly lived in Chicago until returning to Maine in 2012. He spoke lovingly of the early Sea Dogs years, of catcher Charles Johnson throwing with pinpoint accuracy to second base, of middle infielders Edgar Renteria and Luis Castillo flashing leather, of outfielder Mark Kotsay making spectacular catches in centerfield.
"It's such a great atmosphere here," Pierce said. "I just love watching the infielders throw the ball around."
The process of ordering concession items from seats and having them delivered was not without delays and glitches Tuesday. Sea Dogs management said staff is learning and will improve.
Drew Kinney, 35, of Portland and his 6-year-old daughter Lola endured a 30-minute wait between arrival of their hot dogs and pizza and arrival of their lemonade, even though all were ordered together.
"I'm a chef, so I know all about online ordering," Kinney said. "And I understand the challenge of finding staff. I can't imagine what's happening behind the scenes."
One reason for Kinney's patience with the process was the environment at Hadlock.
"Everybody is super-welcoming," he said. "That's one of the best parts of this park. Everybody wants to be here, from top to bottom: players, staff, fans and kids. Especially kids."
And the best part for Lola?
"Everything!" she exclaimed.