May 2—Sea Dogs founder Dan Burke told his children not to blur the lines between business and family. Business is business. Family is family.
The daughter and youngest son of the man who brought professional baseball to Portland in 1994 may not have crossed that line as owners of the Sea Dogs, but in an awful year, they came awfully close.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was leading to shutdowns, Sally McNamara and Bill Burke quietly decided that the team's employees — 19 full-time staffers and more than 200 people who work in game-day operations — would not miss a paycheck if any of the home games couldn't be played.
Of course at the time, they still held out hope part of the season could be salvaged.
McNamara said she figured the effort to flatten the curve would allow baseball to return by June. Burke, who as chair of the board of trustees for MaineHealth was getting weekly virus updates, had a clearer understanding of what lay ahead.
"I was not at all prepared for what happened," McNamara said last week. "But the discussion about paying everybody was very straightforward. It's what you had to do at the time."
That sense of loyalty — that sense of family — may have seemed obvious to them, but Sea Dogs President and General Manager Geoff Iacuessa said he does not know of another minor league team that paid all of its seasonal employees last year as well as those who work year-round. The 2020 season was canceled for all minor league teams in late June.
He said that among the 12 franchises in the Eastern League (now called Double-A Northeast since Major League Baseball took over the minors), only Akron and Reading joined Portland in avoiding furloughs or layoffs and in continuing to write regular paychecks to their full-time staff despite having no games.
"In one of the earliest conversations we had, the three of us agreed that we wanted to treat everybody — our employees and our fans — right," Iacuessa said. "And that when we get to the other side of it, that people would look back and say they handled that well. They treated people fairly. And really, whether it's COVID or not, in all the decisions we make, that's always what we try to do."
'WE'RE SORT OF YIN AND YANG'
Burke has served as chairman of the Sea Dogs for 12 years, since Dan Burke's health began declining prior to his death in 2011. For the past decade, McNamara has served as treasurer. They have two older brothers, Steve and Frank Burke, both retired, who are not involved in operating the franchise.
Sally, 58, is the optimistic extrovert. Bill, 55, is the realistic introvert. It's a combination that has served them well in dealing not only with the pandemic, but also with personal tragedy. Annie McNamara, the oldest of Sally and husband Mike's four children, died in November 2019 of complications brought on by acute myeloid leukemia.
It was Annie and her cousin, Bill's son Chris, who threw out ceremonial pitches on Opening Day in 2012, the first Sea Dogs game following the death of their grandfather.
"For both Bill and I, our children grew up in that ballpark," said Sally, whose family lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts, but spends most of each summer in Kennebunk. "The daughter that we recently lost, it was her greatest thrill being at those games with us and being with my parents. So this is not just a job. We've inherited a love for it and a love for Portland and for Maine."
Charlie Eshbach, president emeritus of the Sea Dogs since retiring in 2018, said Burke and McNamara are both good listeners, intelligent, have been close to the team since its inception in 1994 and have attended many games with their families.
"They were very good at making suggestions that were extremely helpful, yet they let you do your job," Eshbach said. "And that was really how Dan operated."
McNamara does some college counseling for high school juniors and seniors. Before having children, she worked in human resources for a government contractor after earning a master's degree in counseling and consulting psychology.
"Sally has more friends than anyone I know," Burke said of his sister. "Her husband is the same way."
Burke serves on several boards, worked as a television executive, co-wrote Ted Turner's autobiography and produced a documentary about the automobile industry bailout. He lives in Cape Elizabeth with his wife, Karen. They have two grown children currently living in Minneapolis and New York City.
"Bill and I are very close," McNamara said of her brother. "Bill is incredibly thoughtful and careful about his relationships. He's the smartest person I know and probably the funniest."
While Burke didn't mind pandemic lockdown measures (he managed to write a novel and his sister joked that he hasn't left his house in a year) McNamara chafed against the forced isolation. She's more of a social being.
"We're sort of yin and yang in a lot of ways," she said. "I think we came into COVID and all these challenges in a way that we were strong to begin with, which has been a really big help, because it's been a great personal challenge for both of us."
WITH NO GAMES, REVENUE PLUNGED
How challenging? Consider events of the past 14 months. After the 2019 season ended, the team made a significant investment by upgrading to LED lighting in the towers around the ballpark. The lights were ready a year ago, but they will mark their debut when the Sea Dogs open the 2021 season on Tuesday evening.
Unlike major league teams, which enjoy lucrative television contracts, minor league teams derive nearly all their revenue by hosting games. Typically, the Sea Dogs have 70 home dates to sell tickets, concessions, sponsorships and souvenirs. The pandemic wiped out all of last season — and eliminated all but 3 percent of the revenue generated in 2019, Iacuessa said.
Although the Sea Dogs are affiliated with the Boston Red Sox, the parent club's duty is to supply players, equipment and coaching staff. There is no other subsidy. None of Boston's television money trickles down to its affiliates.
Even managing to generate that meager 3 percent took some creativity. The Sea Dogs offered curbside delivery of concession food and later seated hungry patrons at tables on the field for Dining on the Diamond. They turned Hadlock into "Hadlinks" for rounds of target golf. They sold "Undefeated Tour" T-shirts with their 2020 schedule printed on the back.
A low point came in August, when Iacuessa informed Burke and McNamara that a third-party online processor for the dining and golf tickets had gone belly-up.
"They filed for bankruptcy in August before we collected all the cash," Burke said. "It was not a lot of money either way ..."
"... but it was just another oof," McNamara said.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the Toronto Blue Jays made inquiries last July about the possibility of using Hadlock as their temporary major league home. Travel to Canada wasn't allowed, case counts in Maine were low and the field was in great shape.
The Jays eventually opted for their Triple-A affiliate's ballpark in Buffalo, and plan to do so again this summer, but for a few days, "we were almost the home of the Blue Jays," Burke said. "We don't know what the business deal would have been and we couldn't have sold tickets, but there was a meaningful call from the Blue Jays to Geoff."
Despite the pandemic, the Sea Dogs pulled off several charitable events, raising $2,500 for the United Way with "I Miss Slugger" T-shirts, $17,390 for Make-A-Wish Maine with a virtual 5K road race and $20,000 for the Maine Children's Cancer Program with a virtual sellout.
When COVID concerns prompted local municipalities to discourage trick-or-treating, the Sea Dogs conjured up Halloween at Hadlock, offering photos with costumed characters and dispensing candy through plastic tubes as kids strolled the warning track of the outfield.
Mascot Slugger was hired out for distanced birthday or Valentine visits. He taped a pro-vaccination spot from the adjacent Portland Expo.
"All that stuff is important," Burke said. "It doesn't pay the bills, but it's a big part of why we're here. Not having baseball really drove that home to us."
The federal Paycheck Protection Program helped defray some costs. Businesses could apply for up to 2.5 times their average monthly payroll, and the Sea Dogs received $540,055 last April and another $493,298 in January.
"Both rounds are certainly very helpful," said Iacuessa, but the team still lost money last year and almost assuredly will do so this year because of a shorter season (only 60 home dates), limited seating (currently 2,087 of the 7,368 capacity) and rising expenses that include paying Portland's emergency minimum hourly wage rate of $18.23.
Iacuessa said that even without games in 2020, expenses dropped only to 55 percent of the previous year's level. This year, he projects expenses to be slightly higher than 2019 (outfield walls are now padded and plexiglass has been installed at the ballpark) and revenue "tiptoeing along that 48 to 52 percent line, depending where we end up. So it'll be another challenging year."
Despite not playing a single game last year, the Sea Dogs fulfilled the terms of their lease by paying the City of Portland $150,000. This year's payment will drop slightly because of an attendance clause. Burke, who has a master's degree in business, said the current goal is to lose less money than last year.
"For us, it's been a real gut check about our commitment to this business," he said. "This is tapping into personal resources. There's no other way to do it. We don't take out big lines of credit or loans."
The winter also included wholesale changes to the minor league system. Entire leagues were eliminated. Forty teams lost their affiliation. Even seemingly solid franchises, such as the Sea Dogs, couldn't be completely sure they were safe.
A new 10-year agreement with the Red Sox, longer than any other in Portland's history, helped assuage any doubts.
"They're still very happy with us," Burke said. "That's a great affiliation. So there's plenty of positives. Now we've just got to get out there and get games played."