PORTLAND, Maine -- The Sea Dogs have been building it for years, and for years, the fans have come.
On Sept. 1, Portland hosted New Hampshire for a Sunday matinee and the penultimate game of the 2019 season. If you looked quickly, though, you could convince yourself it was the penultimate game of the 1919 season. Before first pitch, broadcaster Mike Antonellis, decked out in early-20th-century garb, issued a heartfelt thank you to the 7,368 fans on hand. He concluded with a recitation of James Earl Jones' climactic monologue from "Field of Dreams," at which point the Sea Dogs players and coaching staff -- wearing replica uniforms of the 1926 Portland Eskimos -- emerged from a temporary cornfield in center field.
For the Sea Dogs, the "Field of Dreams" promotion is about more than paying homage to the movie or celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. It's a tradition dating to 1997 and a key component in Portland's Fan Appreciation Day, which this year included an acknowledgment that more than 10 million people have come through the Hadlock Field gates since the team debuted in 1994, with nearly 350,000 turning out this year.
Video: Sea Dogs thank fans with a "Field of Dreams" homage
"I would say it's the biggest promotion we do -- certainly the most unique, and it's certainly the most embraced by the fans, too," said Geoff Iacuessa, president and general manager of the Double-A affiliate of the Red Sox.
The team lined up along the baselines while manager Joe Oliver stood at home plate and offered fans his personal thanks. Players then dispersed to the areas in front of both dugouts, where children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation greeted them with handshakes and high-fives before the players went into the stands to give more of the same throughout the park.
Red Sox prospect Bryan Mata meets the Hadlock Field faithful. (Josh Jackson/MiLB.com)
"The 'Field of Dreams' game, I was just saying on my way over here, is probably my favorite day," said Thomas Bonin, who has season tickets. "There's a kind of mystique about it. It's the end of the summer. They come out in the crowd and make it a little more personal."
Kevin Soares and Amber Taylor-Soares, who were married at Hadlock during the 2016 season, consider the game an end-of-season custom. ("It's kind of sad," she said, and he, wearing a '26 replica hat, said, "The promotion stuff is one of a kind.") Fan Appreciation Day -- in its current iteration utilizing the "Field of Dreams" theme to create a sense of timelessness as well as emphasize the club's gratitude that its fans do continue to come -- dates to 1997. But its origin was accidental. Whereas most Minor League promos are conceived in offseason brainstorming meetings, the "Field of Dreams" tie-in came from an off-the-cuff remark by Charlie Eshbach, the team's first president and general manager who stepped down after last season -- his 45th in baseball.
In '97, the Eastern League marked its 75th anniversary by asking teams to wear throwback uniforms on Sundays. Eshbach and Sea Dogs founder Dan Burke were taking in a Sunday game at Hadlock when the GM hit upon an idea.
"I wasn't totally serious about it," Eshbach recalled. "[We] were sitting there watching a game on a beautiful day in July, and I said, 'It's too bad we don't have a field of corn.' I was making a joke about the movie, even though at that time I had never seen it."
Iacuessa, who started with the Sea Dogs as an intern in 2001, said the early years of the promo demanded six or seven hours of cornfield construction. Although the club has that process down to a science requiring just over two hours of set up and mere minutes of removal, it still involves the staff arriving to work at 6 a.m., an hour roundly considered ungodly by those who work in pro baseball.
"It's one of those days we all actually look forward to getting up early, because we all enjoy this game," said Chris Cameron, vice president of communications and fan experience.
Antonellis has emceed the promotion since 2007. (365DigitalPhotography.com)
Iacuessa noted that the early hours are hardly a sacrifice, given the payoff.
"It's my favorite promotion we do, and I think it's most of the staff's. I'd be surprised if it wasn't," he said. "You talk to the coaching staffs and the players for both our team and the opposing teams, and those who have seen it and been through it are excited about it. Everybody else is kind of like, 'Wait ... what are we doing? You're building a cornfield? How's that happening?' And then as soon as they see it, they say it was one of the coolest things they've ever seen."
Generally scheduled for the second-to-last home game so that the Sea Dogs can still do it in the event of a rainout, Fan Appreciation Day is the piece of the promotional calendar Antonellis most looks forward to.
"I don't think we could ever change it," the broadcaster said, admitting he can deliver the speech off the top of his head at any time of year. "I just love doing it. I would be mad if I didn't get to do it. The music and everything, it's really a magical day. It's easy to get into the character of it."
That's not to say it's always been easy to stay in character.
"The first year I did it, it was hard. I saw the [Burke family] and they were in tears, and that kind of threw me off," Antonellis said. "For them ... it's emotional. So now I know not to look in their area."
Nearby Pumpkin Valley Farm provides the team's corn. (Chris Cameron/Portland Sea Dogs)
True to form, chairman Bill Burke (son of Dan Burke, who died in 2011) saw Antonellis in costume on the field before Sunday's show and said, "Oh, man, I'm going to cry like a baby."
The emotion comes from knowing that in baseball-mad Northern New England, where the weather is often inhospitable to the game throughout much of the season, a Minor League franchise is thriving in its third decade even as its predecessor struggled to last five years. It comes from knowing that for everybody who's fallen in love with the Sea Dogs, the year has come to a close. But it also comes from knowing another one will begin next April.2019 MiLB include
"I think it's the best thing I've been a part of in baseball," Antonellis said. "What I love about it is, how do you do a fan appreciation day? You say thank you to everybody, but how do you make it special? This is the perfect thing. When the players come through, too, that's another element of it that I never realized how great it would be until you see it. They go in the stands ... it's like we built a movie set here, and you're part of the movie."
For Eshbach, the long-running promo epitomizes the Sea Dogs' story.
"It mirrors the franchise," he said. "My expectations [for the franchise] were high, but nothing like what happened. It's the same with this. I thought, 'Oh, it sounds cool,' but the fact that it had such legs is terrific. The acid test is, it's been 20-something years since we started it, and we're still getting goosebumps. That means it's still doing well."