Portland Sea Dogs owner Dan Burke dies at 82
He passed away this morning at his home surrounded by his family.
Burke owned the popular minor league baseball team since its inception in 1994, and served as the team’s initial chairman.
Last year, Burke passed on the chairmanship to his son, Bill Burke, a Cape Elizabeth resident. Burke’s daughter, Sally McNamara, took on the role of the organization’s treasurer.
Burke. an executive with Capital Cities Broadcasting for 33 years, was promoted to CEO in 1985 when the company purchased ABC. He retired in February of 1994, a month before his Sea Dogs team would begin spring training in Florida.
“I just want to fade into the crowd and enjoy the game,” Burke told The Portland Press Herald during that first spring training. “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”
"Dan Burke not only brought professional baseball to Portland, but he also helped give the community a way to come together," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement.
Burke, a resident of Rye, N.Y., had spent summers in Kennebunk Beach for over 50 years. When he bought an Eastern League minor league team for Portland, he did not run the organization. He turned that task over to Charlie Eshbach, once the league’s commissioner, who took over as the Sea Dogs’ president and general manager.
“I wasn’t going to uproot my family for any situation, but Dan made it seem like a good idea,” said Eshbach, still the team’s president.
“I was impressed with him. It didn’t take much research to find out what he had done. But even though he was this powerful executive, he was also a big baseball fan. You could talk to him. He was a normal person.”
The Sea Dogs franchise experienced success before a pitch was thrown. Its catchy logo, with a menacing seal holding a bat in its mouth, became a hit. Sea Dogs merchandise was one of the leading sellers among minor league teams, before the team began playing games.
On opening day, April 18, 1994, Burke’s entertainment ties were evident. Kathie Lee Gifford, then co-host of the "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" television show, and her husband, sportscaster Frank Gifford, took part in a pre-game parade. Kathie Lee Gifford sang the national anthem and ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel emceed the pre-game festivities.
A sold-out crowd of 6,274 fans at a reconstructed Hadlock Field watched the Sea Dogs lose 7-6. But those fans returned, as the Sea Dogs led the Eastern League in attendance.
Later in the season, a “Barbara Day” promotion was put on, featuring appearances from Barbara Walters and former First Lady Barbara Bush.
George and Barbara Bush, summer residents in Kennebunkport, were friends of the Burke family, and were annual visitors to Hadlock Field.
The late ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings also watched games at Hadlock and even took part in a Sea Dogs batting practice, in a Portland uniform.
In 1995, Burke received national attention when ABC sports announcer Al Michaels suggested before the World Series that Burke should be named commissioner of major league baseball.
Michaels called Burke someone “who’s smart, who knows the law, who’s a tremendous businessman, who loves baseball, who’s moral … he is the man baseball needs.”
In fact, Burke’s name had surfaced as a candidate for commissioner during his CEO days at Capital Cities/ABC.
But, once retired, Burke said he could not imagine taking the commissioner’s job.
“It’s very flattering,” Burke said of Michaels' comments. “It’s nice of Al to say those things, but no one’s approached me about it in quite a while.”
As owner of the Sea Dogs, Burke watched his franchise become wildly successful.
As crowds increased, Burke kept expanding Hadlock. Low ticket prices, clever promotions and Slugger the Sea Dog mascot continued to draw in fans.
One tradition at the games were the Burkes - Dan and his wife Bunny - leaving their seats next to the Sea Dogs dugout sometime during the game, and walking up to the owners’ sky box. On the way, the Burkes shook hands and greeted well-wishers.
The Burkes supported the players, including holding an annual lobster bake at the Burkes’ home in Kennebunkport. George and Barbara Bush often attended.
Once a story leaked out that the fiance of player John Roskos lost her engagement ring. Quietly, the couple received a new ring – a gift from the Burkes.
On the field, the Sea Dogs, an affiliate of the expansion Florida Marlins, enjoyed success, reaching the playoffs occasionally, but never winning the league championship.
When Marlins owner John Henry sold his major league team in order to buy the Boston Red Sox in 2002, the Sea Dogs franchise would soon make a dramatic change.
On May 23, 2002, Burke welcomed Henry and Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner to Hadlock Field, to take in a game on a beautiful, sunny Portland afternoon.
At the time, the Red Sox minor league team in the Eastern League was located in Trenton, N.J.
The lure of placing a Sox minor league team in New England, along with Henry’s familiarity with Burke and the Sea Dogs, came to an inevitable conclusion: On Sept. 18, 2002, the Sea Dogs ended their nine-year union with the Marlins and announced a new affiliation with the Red Sox.
Burke made more changes at Hadlock Field, financing the construction of a 37-foot left field wall, replicating the “Green Monster” left field wall at Fenway Park. It was dubbed the “Maine Monster.”
Attendance continued to climb, as both Sea Dogs and Red Sox fans filed into Hadlock. The New England Sports Network (NESN) televised at least one game each season.
But Portland’s relationship with the Red Sox appeared threatened when an Eastern League team was moved to Manchester, N.H., in 2003, called the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
The New Hampshire team was owned by Drew Weber, who also owns the Lowell Spinners, a lower-level minor league affiliate of the Red Sox. There was hope expressed in the New Hampshire media that Weber might be able to attract the Red Sox’s Eastern League team from Portland to Manchester.
In response to the Sea Dogs’ concerns, the Red Sox, in 2004, extended their agreement with Portland for four more years. They have continued to extend the contract, with the current agreement running through 2014.
“There is no place else we would rather be, or we could imagine being,” said Theo Epstein, the Boston general manager at the time.
Ben Cherington, who was named to replace Epstein on Tuesday, was the team’s director of player personnel in 2004, working closely with the minor league teams. He said Burke was the ideal owner because he understood both Portland’s and Boston’s needs.
“It’s about player development, and he gets it,” Cherington said.
When Weber sold the New Hampshire team to Arthur Solomon in 2005, the new owner made public statements about trying to woo the Red Sox as an affiliate. Cherington quickly squashed that idea.
“We are very happy with our relationship with the Sea Dogs,” Cherington announced at the time. “They have extraordinary leadership in Dan Burke and Charlie Eshbach, and we have no interest in being anywhere else.”
On the field, the Red Sox not only provided increased interest, but also the first Eastern League championship for Portland in 2006.
However, 2006 was also a difficult year for Burke. A series of falls before the season injured both his shoulders, as well as breaking his hip. For the first time, Burke missed the season opener in Portland.
When Burke did make it to Hadlock, he rarely sat in the owners’ seats by the dugout, remaining in the skybox. He initially required a walker, but eventually switched to a cane.
In recent years, Burke became less visible. He was confined to a wheelchair. The owners’ seats were usually occupied by Bunny and her children and grandchildren; until Bunny made the walk up to the box during the game.
But Burke still enjoyed watching the games, still enjoyed the baseball.
Back in 1996, Burke talked about his baseball team, and how it instantly became a Portland attraction.
“I guess the truth is I’m sort of overwhelmed by the support so many people have given us,” Burke said. “Nobody in Portland knew me very well, but they took a chance. And I’ve always been hopeful I’ve performed up to their expectations.”