After he was done helping out in the ticket office and with concessions, Geoff Iacuessa had time to stop for a few seconds and take a look around Hadlock Field on Tuesday night.
He saw a baseball game on the field, friends and neighbors in the stands, and his staff busily going about their jobs.
“I took a deep breath and thought, ‘This is awesome,’ ” said Iacuessa, president and general manager of the Double A Portland Sea Dogs. “We had been waiting a long time for this.”
Six hundred and ten days to be exact. It was the first game Portland had played since Sept. 2, 2019. Minor league baseball was shuttered for 20 long months because of the pandemic.
The shutdown in 2020 came less than a month before Opening Day.
“All systems were go and all of a sudden everything just stopped,” Iacuessa said.
Portland filled the void by turning Hadlock Field into a pitch-and-putt golf course last summer. It hosted open-air dinners on the field and an event for kids at Halloween.
There was some money to be made, but that wasn’t the primary motivation.
“We wanted to stay connected with the community in a way that was safe for them and for our employees,” Iacuessa said. “It was a way to give people a new memory at the ballpark. You want to find a way to stay in people’s minds.”
In the minor leagues, the GM is not involved in baseball decisions. He’s more the CEO of a small business. The Sea Dogs have 19 full-time employees and dozens more during the season.
They were a chief concern for Iacuessa, who joined the Sea Dogs as an intern in 2001 before becoming full time in 2002 as director of group sales. At a time when many major league and minor league teams laid off staff members, owner Bill Burke kept on the full-time employees.
“That was one of the things that we kind of celebrated. Our biggest goal was we kept the entire front office staff,” Iacuessa said. “It was a testament to ownership. They’re incredible people.”
There were some moments of despair. A company the Sea Dogs used to book tickets to the golf and dining events went out of business and the team lost money. Iacuessa wrote it off as just another problem spawned by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the staff did projects around the ballpark to spruce it up and prepare for this season. People who normally handled business aspects of the operations grabbed paint brushes and went to work.
There were outside issues, too. Minor league baseball was being reorganized under the control of Major League Baseball and 43 teams were dropped in December or converted to amateur teams.
The Sea Dogs were confident their partnership with the Red Sox, which goes back to 2003, would be maintained. But there were no guarantees.
“There was certainly some concern in that process,” Iacuessa said. “But it was a good process for us, and we’re excited about the relationship in the future. It’s great for our fans.”
MLB is mandating that affiliates now maintain certain standards as far as facilities and team travel. The Sea Dogs have a few improvements to make but nothing major.
For now, Portland is allowed 1,850 fans per game. That will climb to 2,087 once plexiglass is installed in certain areas, which is scheduled to happen soon.
Hadlock Field’s capacity is 7,368. Iacuessa is working with the state government to determine how many more fans will be allowed as the season progresses.
With notable Red Sox prospects Triston Casas, Ronaldo Hernández, Jeisson Rosario, Thaddeus Ward, and Josh Winckowski on the roster, the Sea Dogs have an interesting team worth going to check out.
“It’s been a huge challenge, but having people back in the ballpark was a huge milestone,” said Iacuessa, a Greenfield native who graduated from UMass and always wanted to be involved in baseball.
“I always believed that things were going to get better and that we’d get back. It finally happened.”
Sox need more lineup balance
Through 32 games, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, and Alex Verdugo accounted for 60 percent of the runs batted in for the Red Sox, 56 percent of the extra-base hits, and 52 percent of the runs.
The 7-8-9 positions in the batting order were hitting .188 with a .536 OPS, the lowest marks in the majors.
It’s easy to suggest calling players up from the minors. But outside of Michael Chavis, the Sox lack viable candidates. Jarren Duran was 0 for 11 in his first three Triple A games before getting three singles Friday. He could be ready after the All-Star break, not in a few weeks.
It’s also far too early in the season to expect much via trade. The only hopeless causes at this point are the Tigers and Rockies, and probably the Pirates, although they went into the weekend only four games out.
The Rockies have first baseman C.J. Cron performing well on a budget deal. Maybe that could make sense at some point.
Albert Pujols? Let’s not go down that road. Forget Yasiel Puig and all of his issues, too.
The Sox have some wiggle room with the luxury tax, roughly $3 million, to make additions from outside the organization. But for now the best option is to prod more out of Kiké Hernández, Marwin Gonzalez, Hunter Renfroe, and Christian Vázquez, and hope Bobby Dalbec or Franchy Cordero gets at least warm.
But at the moment, the Sox are a team divided. Mashers at the top of the order and easy outs at the bottom.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Those two errors on Thursday aside, Devers has regained confidence in his defensive play. He’s moving more directly to the ball, his throwing has become more accurate, and he’s staying out of Bogaerts’s way on balls in the hole he can’t cut off.
When the Sox shift and Devers is alone on the left side of the infield, he looks comfortable on plays around second base.
The latest Defensive Runs Saved numbers have him at minus-2. If Devers can get to zero, essentially a neutral defender, that’s fine. His bat takes care of the rest.
▪ It feels like Chris Sale’s rehab after Tommy John surgery, going on 14 months, has been slow. But Noah Syndergaard, who had his surgery three days before Sale, isn’t back yet. Nor is Luis Severino, who had his surgery a month earlier than Sale.
Will Carroll, whose “Under The Knife” newsletter on injuries is invaluable, points out that while the rehab protocols haven’t changed, teams and individuals are being ultra conservative with pitchers.
▪ Through Friday, the Red Sox had an average game time of 3:12, tied for eighth longest in the majors. But that’s a big drop from 3:25 in 2019 and 3:20 in 2020.
Pitching coach Dave Bush has played a big role in that by encouraging pitchers to work at a quicker tempo. It’s obviously working for them in terms of results, too. Matt Barnes is Exhibit A.
▪ As the minor leagues get started, the Sox and other major league teams will only be able to draw call-ups from Triple A for the immediate future as those players are already under the same COVID-19 testing protocols as major league players.
A player called up from Double A would require a quarantine first.
Triple A teams also could be missing key players from time to time as MLB teams will be allowed to continue having taxi squads of as many as five players on the road to make unexpected additions easier.
Triple A teams will be allowed 33-man rosters as a result, with 28 active for games.
Injury rehabilitation assignments also must be done at Triple A for protocol purposes. So even if Triple A Worcester is on the road and Portland is home, a rehab player would join Worcester. This could have an effect on Sale once he starts his rehabilitation games.
It’s hard to end well, even for a Hall of Famer
There’s no reason to feel too badly for Albert Pujols, who was designated for assignment by the Angels on Thursday. He’ll get the remainder of the $30 million he is owed for this season, followed by a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract once the season is over.
His numbers are first-ballot Hall of Fame worthy — 3,253 hits, 667 home runs, and 2,112 RBIs. Only Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth drove in more runs.
But Pujols hit .198 this season and the Angels are a better team if Shohei Ohtani is the designated hitter and Jared Walsh plays first base. In the end, what helps the team is more important than sentiment.
Pujols wasn’t interested in being a bench player, the Angels said, so they let him go.
Two things came to mind after hearing the news.
The first was that the home run Pujols hit off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series remains the most astounding thing I’ve witnessed in person covering baseball.
With the Cardinals facing elimination, Pujols crushed a three-run shot to left field off Lidge in the ninth inning. The ball sailed over the train tracks above the seats at Minute Maid Park and would have left the park had the roof been open. The crowd was stunned into silence.
That’s not casually using an expression. It was dead quiet for a few seconds. Pujols later told writers who covered the Cardinals that he could hear his cleats hit the dirt as he rounded the bases.
“You saw some magic there, believe me,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said that night.
The series went back to St. Louis and the Astros won Game 6 behind Roy Oswalt. But that was an amazing moment.
My other immediate thought was that this news truly underlines just how much David Ortiz got it right.
Big Papi announced his retirement before the 2016 season, was celebrated across baseball, led the Red Sox into the playoffs with an All-Star season, and left the game without an ounce of regret.
Pujols deserved that kind of sendoff. Instead, a losing team decided it was better off without him. His $240 million deal with the Angels will be remembered as an all-time bust. Pujols made the All-Star team once, had a pedestrian .758 OPS, and the Angels never won a playoff game with him.
Via Instagram, Ortiz expressed his support for Pujols.
“I do not agree on the move that just happened,” he wrote. “That was devastating for fans and player. l know this is a business, but l was expecting someone like you to walk away like you deserve. You have done so much for baseball that is hard to replace someone like you.”
Pujols wants to keep playing and perhaps he will get a shot to finish on a better note. But, for now, his situation is a reminder that writing a graceful final chapter of a long career can be hard for even the most accomplished players.
Even for Angel Hernandez, baseball’s most notoriously bad umpire, this was something. During the Indians-Royals game Tuesday, Salvador Perez’s deep fly ball to right-center bounced off the glove of center fielder Harold Ramirez. Hernandez, who didn’t venture very far from first base to make the call, signaled Perez was out. Andrew Benintendi, who was on second base and understandably confused, got caught in a rundown and was tagged out. The umpires got together and decided to put Benintendi on third. Hernandez claimed later he was “basically blinded” by the scoreboard lights. “I had to come out with the call,” Hernandez said. “I basically guessed on the wrong call.” Indians manager Terry Francona, as usual, summed it up well: “I just kind of told Angel, ‘Why’s it always happening when you’re here?’ It’s aggravating, but I don’t think there was anything we could do. Believe me, I was thinking about it. I didn’t know.” . . . Through four starts, Ohtani allowed seven hits over 18⅔ innings, three fewer than the number of home runs he has hit this season . . . Former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is running for mayor of his hometown of Stamford, Conn., as an independent. Now 70, Valentine has been athletic director at Sacred Heart University since June 2013 . . . A day after former Orioles pitching coach and manager Ray Miller died, John Means threw the first solo no-hitter for Baltimore since Jim Palmer in 1969. Miller, who always preached the value of working fast, changing speeds, and throwing strikes, would have appreciated the 113-pitch, 12-strikeout gem . . . The Yankees have a Double A pitcher named Janson Junk. The headline writers at the New York Post must be rooting for him . . . Did you know that games can no longer be played under protest? It started last season. The feeling by MLB was that protests were largely cosmetic and rarely led to anything. There hadn’t been a protest upheld since 2014 when a rainout at Wrigley Field was overturned because the grounds crew was too slow in covering the field. Before that you have to go back to 1986 . . . The University of Hartford announced its intention to drop to Division 3 in all sports no later than 2025. What a shame for a baseball program that has sent three players to the majors: Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell, current Braves reliever Sean Newcomb, and former Indians and Red Sox infielder Earl Snyder . . . Del Crandall, the last living member of the Boston Braves, died Wednesday. He was 91. Crandall, a catcher, played in Boston from 1949-50 before the franchise left for Milwaukee. Crandall played 16 seasons in the majors, making the All-Star team in eight of those seasons, and went on to manage six seasons . . . After a year off because of the pandemic, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) will host its Field of Dreams event at Fenway Park on June 16. The event, which started 24 years ago, brings together corporate teams for softball games to raise funds for ABCD’s SummerWorks jobs program for teenagers. Contact Liz McCarthy at (617) 620-6949 for more information about entering a team . . . Happy birthday to Floyd Robinson, who is 85. The outfielder played 23 games for the Red Sox in 1968. It was the end of a nine-year career that saw Robinson receive MVP votes every year from 1962-65 while a member of the White Sox. The Red Sox obtained Robinson from Oakland on July 31, 1968. He was 3 for 24, mostly as a reserve or pinch hitter.