Charlie Eshbach, who helped establish the Portland Sea Dogs as one of minor league baseball’s model franchises, died Tuesday morning after a long illness.
He was 70 and had been hospitalized since May, team officials said.
Eshbach was the Sea Dogs’ first employee and served as team president for 25 years. In 2013, he was named “King of Baseball,” Minor League Baseball’s highest honor, for his work creating family entertainment at Hadlock Field. His impact on the community went even further as co-founder of the Strike Out Cancer In Kids program which has raised over $5 million since its launch in 1995.
Eshbach was hired by then-team owner Dan Burke in October 1992, leaving his post as Eastern League chairman to oversee the construction of a club that would begin play in 1994 in as a Double-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins expansion.
Both Burke and Eshbach were longtime Red Sox fans, and the Sea Dogs switched affiliations from Florida to Boston after the 2002 season. The Red Sox connection led Eshbach to modify Hadlock Field to looks more like Fenway Park, with changes as obvious as a 37-foot left-field wall dubbed “The Maine Monster” and as subtle as the Morse code initials on either side of the scoreboard. honoring Burke (DBB) and his wife, Bunny (HSB).
“He and my dad made this perfect match,” said Bill Burke, who along with his sister Sally McNamara took ownership of the club after their father’s death in 2011. “It was easy.”
Burke and McNamara called Eshbach “the heart and brain” behind the Sea Dogs, named in 1999 by “Baseball America” magazine as the best operation in minor league baseball. Eshbach also served as Portland’s general manager during the 2010 season and remained with the club as a senior adviser after stepping down as team chairman in September 2018.
DIRECTOR OF THE MINOR LEAGUE AT 22
He grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, graduated from the University of Connecticut, and became general manager of the Bristol, Connecticut Red Sox at age 22. He was 29 when he was elected president of the Eastern League and served in that role for 11 years. , until Dan Burke convinced him to join the expansion franchise in Portland.
“I just thought Charlie was the perfect fit for a community like Portland,” Dan Burke told the Press Herald in 1994. “Charlie is a marathoner, not a daredevil.”
It was in Bristol that Eshbach met Guy Gilchrist, an artist and illustrator who drew a comic strip based on Jim Henson’s Muppets and was a regular at Muzzy Field.
“We were both big Red Sox fans,” Gilchrist, 65, said Tuesday from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “Charlie really learned the whole thing from scratch. You weren’t just the general manager, but you were serving hot dogs.
At the time Eshbach moved to Maine, there were only two notable mascots in minor league baseball, Gilchrist said, the Durham Bull in North Carolina and the Toledo Mud Hen in Ohio. Dan Burke was against the idea of a mascot, his son said, but Eshbach prevailed and sent Gilchrist some of the suggested team names, including Puffins and Wharf Rats as well as Sea Dogs.
While on the phone with Eshbach, Gilchrist drew a young seal wearing a cap with a P and biting on a bat. The Sea Dogs logo was born and the Slugger mascot became the lovable face of the franchise.
The team continues to rank among the top 25 minor league baseball franchises in annual merchandising sales.
“He was more business oriented with his background and I was more artistically trained, but we both liked the same things,” Gilchrist said. “Charlie had an imagination and he had the business sense to set the imagination in motion.”
“HE HAS INSTITUTED PRIDE IN US”
Promotions are a staple of minor league life, but Eshbach maintained a family atmosphere and never allowed between-innings entertainment to interfere with the game itself. In 1997, he pioneered the Field of Dreams-inspired entrance of players and coaches in flannel uniforms through an improvised cornfield into center field.
The Sea Dogs have never embraced promotions like dizzying bat races where the fans go crazy.
The idea is “to treat everyone with respect and have a good time,” said Jim Heffley, the Sea Dogs’ business manager who joined the club aged 23 in 1994. I’ve never met someone so dedicated to the integrity of the game. He always reminded us that they had a job to do and we couldn’t get in their way.
Heffley is among longtime Sea Dogs employees who have spoken of Eshbach’s integrity and loyalty. He regularly stood at the front gate before games, greeting fans and listening to any concerns. He was never Mr. Eshbach, always Charlie.
“He instilled a pride in us,” Heffley said. “He coached and guided us on how to do things right. We learned early on: don’t do anything to embarrass the club.
Susan Doliner has worked in the philanthropy department at Maine Medical Center since 1990. She and Eshbach helped develop the successful Strike Out Cancer In Kids program.
She said Eshbach and the Burke family wanted to start more than a local ball club.
“They wanted a connection to the community and to give back,” she said.
A golf tournament called the Slugger Open also raises funds for Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital.
“Charlie made sure the players came to meet the kids,” Doliner said of patients in the pediatric unit, which overlooks the ballpark. “The ball players knew what it was like to have a kid who looked up to them. And often, a player arrived alone.
Doliner said she often travels outside of Maine to tout the success of the Strike Out Cancer partnership. She described Eshbach as calm and wise but with a great sense of humor.
“I was also able to be with him when he was with his professional colleagues and my boy, did they respect him,” she said. “He was not only respected in Portland, but across the country.”
“CHARLIE WAS THE GOLD STANDARD”
Jon Jennings was exploring where in New England to put an expansion minor league basketball team in 2007. Intrigued by the success of the Sea Dogs, he approached Eshbach, who pitched the idea to Portland.
The Red Claws, now called the Maine Celtics, played their first game in November 2009. Jennings served as the team’s president and general manager for the first three seasons before becoming Portland City Manager, a position he currently holds at Clearwater, Florida.
“Charlie was the gold standard that I based all decisions on when we created the Red Claws,” Jennings said. “I met him several times to get his opinion. He was integral to the success we had with the Red Claws early on.
Eshbach emphasized that a minor league team should be part of the community, beyond the game day event, Jennings said.
“That was frankly the hallmark of what Charlie taught me,” Jennings said. “We wanted to be a vital part of the community and wanted to make a difference, and a lot of the things we did, from the promotions to the fundraising events we did as a team, grew out of those initial conversations with Charlie.”
Carlos Tosca, manager of the Sea Dogs in their first three seasons, choked up when he heard the news of Eshbach’s death on Tuesday afternoon.
“His character and his honesty — I don’t mean they were rare in the minor leagues — but he was definitely a cut above,” he said by phone from Florida. “He had such a laid-back manner, but at the same time, you knew there was fire and intensity in there.”
Tosca was silent for a moment.
“He did it right,” he said of Eshbach. “I loved the man. He looked after me very well and he always made sure the players were taken care of.
Eshbach and the Sea Dogs won several accolades during his tenure. In 2000, Minor League Baseball awarded the Sea Dogs the President John H. Johnson Trophy, presented to the baseball franchise for its stability and contributions to the league, its community, and the baseball industry in its together. Eshbach was named Eastern League Manager of the Year in 1978 (while with Bristol), 1994 and 2002.
Tosca said Eshbach’s two decades of baseball experience before the Sea Dogs meant “nothing really ruffled his feathers, nothing ever surprised him,” the former coach said. “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Editor Steve Craig contributed to this report.
The Sea Dogs beat the Rumble Ponies 3-1 to claim a seventh straight win