Between innings, the high jinks move onto the field. "It's SUMO TIME!!!!" the announcer cries in the middle of the seventh, and out waddle a father and son wearing huge inflatable fat suits. To the strains of L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," they gleefully bounce into each other. On one night, a local Greek restaurant sponsors "My Big Fat Greek Olympics," whose events include a leg-of-lamb toss and "bowling for baklava."
As if all that goofiness weren't enough, in 2004 the Rox staged what they hoped would be the quietest game in baseball history. Fans were issued signs with yeah written on one side and boo on the other, and were asked to remain silent throughout the game, even for home runs. Decibel-meter readings were sent to the Hall of Fame; confirmation of the record is still pending.
You've got to love a team with a mascot like Slugger. "He's a puppy with flippers!" one girl shouts. "He's a walrus with paws!" her sister says. "No, girls, he's a sea dog," their father decides. Slugger is the beloved icon of the Portland Sea Dogs, one of the brightest spots of the minors. Founded in 1994, the Dogs quickly set minor-league records for attendance. Until recently, they were a Double-A farm club for the Florida Marlins.
In 2003, to their fans' unmitigated delight, the Sea Dogs switched their affiliation to the Red Sox—and how. A replica of Fenway's Green Monster was erected in left field, complete with a Citgo sign. The skyboxes were renamed for Boston legends: Williams, Petrocelli, Fisk, Yastrzemski. Fans show up with T-shirts declaring I SUPPORT TWO TEAMS: THE RED SOX AND WHOEVER BEATS THE YANKEES. Portland's lineup today includes two of the minors' top prospects: shortstop Hanley Ramirez and knuckleballer Charlie Zink, who may soon be big-show stars.
Hadlock Field is a terrific ballpark, not least for its location—smack in the heart of Portland, abutting the old red-brick Expo Building. As at Fenway, there's no foul territory to speak of, so you're right there next to the action. From our seats, we can hear the conversation between a runner and the third-base coach. (I think they're talking about a postgame clambake.) The crowd starts to cheer when the players jog onto the field, and never lets up, stomping on the aluminum floor and banging ThunderStix until the last pitch is thrown. When Portland hits a home run, a massive lighthouse rises from behind the center-field wall, bells clanging, foghorn blaring. You'd think they were playing the Yankees in the ALCS, so deafening is the applause.
It's here that we encounter the ZOO-perstars, an independent mascot troupe that travels around the minor leagues performing skits in sports-themed animal costumes. Some of the highlights: Nomar Garciaparrot, Ken Giraffey Jr., and Shark McGwire. Jesse is skeptical at first—just more "silly distractions." But he quickly dissolves into hysterical laughter as a giant grinning seashell named Clammy Sosa gobbles up a Sea Dogs player whole, belches loudly, then proceeds to spit out his socks, his shoes, and his helmet.
Alas, we never got to see the Cape Cod league—the best-of-three championship series ended after two games, and by the time we hit Hyannis, the boys of summer had gone. Sigh. In those immortal words learned by every kid who grew up in New England, There's always next year.