Seacoast Mavericks baseball star Ryan Gendron (far left) stands beside former Boston Red Sox greats Luis Tiant (second from left) and Bill Lee (center), as well as recent MLB draft selections Ryan McKenna (second from right), of North Berwick, Maine, and Carson Cross (far right), of Brentwood, during the fourth annual Seacoast Mavericks Hot Stove Dinner and Silent Auction on Friday night at the Portsmouth Harbor Events Center.Ryan O’Leary/Seacoastonline
By Mike Zhe
PORTSMOUTH — In less than a month, local minor-leaguers Carson Cross and Ryan McKenna will head south and try to advance their professional baseball careers in their first full pro seasons. On Friday night, they got to take some pride in beating their geographic disadvantages. And local baseball fans were only too happy to cheer them on.
The 4th annual Seacoast Mavericks Hot Stove Dinner at the Harbor Events Center was highlighted by a pair of former Red Sox greats — Luis Tiant and Bill Lee — who held court with fans, delivered the keynote speeches and conjured up memories of some very good Boston teams in the 1970s.
It was a night to celebrate baseball, Sox nostalgia and the Mavericks preparing for their sixth summer season in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, which will play out a few blocks away at Leary Field.
But last June’s local draft picks had their moments, too. Cross, the former Exeter High School standout who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 14th round out of UConn; and McKenna, who was a fourth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles the same month he graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas, both grew up playing on USA Training Centers AAU Mavericks teams, operated by Seacoast Mavs owner/operator Dave Hoyt. Both spoke of the pride they have being former USA Mavericks and about their place in the recent chain of accomplished Seacoast ballplayers.
“At least for me, it means a lot,” said McKenna, who now makes his offseason home in Dover. “I was looking up to a lot of the guys who were good around here, like Mike Montville (of Portsmouth). To be a part of that is something special, for sure. A lot of people have reached out to me to say congratulations. That feels good.”
The 6-foot-5 Cross said he expects to be assigned to the Cardinals’ long-season Single-A team in Peoria, Ill. He and the other local players were asked during a dinner Q&A about the hardest part of being a professional baseball player.
“The hardest parts happen between your ears, when you experience failure,” said Cross, who battled back from injuries at UConn that could have derailed his career. “Either that or when you get stuck in a Days Inn motel that smells like cigarettes.”
McKenna, who signed out of high school after getting drafted in the fourth round last June — “a lot of rounds before I was,” noted Lee, a 22nd-rounder in 1968 — expects to be playing for long-season Single-A Delmarva (Md.).
New Hampshire native Ryan Gendron, who produced the best season in Seacoast Mavericks history last summer (.324, 22 HRs, 53 RBIs) was on hand as he prepares for his senior year at Southern New Hampshire. Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand Mike Fransoso of Portsmouth was slated to attend but had a baseball conflict in Florida, where he is preparing for spring training, said Hoyt.
The dominant personality was again the 69-year-old Lee, who also highlighted this event in 2014 and whose prowess as a very good off-speed left-handed pitcher (119-90 big-league record) was often overshadowed by his outspokenness on non-baseball issues and his transition into an ambassador for the sport he cherishes — and still plays.
“He’s crazy,” said Tiant, a teammate of his from 1971-78 with the Red Sox, before taking the stage for his own speech. “Tough crazy. He’s a good pitcher. I respect him a lot.”
Appearing in New Hampshire 11 days before the first-in-the-nation primary — he’ll be pitching in a game in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday — the Spaceman didn’t need much prodding. “I’m a firm believer that Bernie Sanders is going to win it all,” said Lee, who is also a Vermont resident, before the dinner, “because of ‘Moneyball’ and the movie ‘The Big Short.’ He is an anti-Wall Street guy and Hillary (Clinton) is pro-Wall Street, and ‘The Big Short’ shows the hypocrisy of our economic system. Bernie will exploit that; he’ll use it to his advantage and win the Democratic primary. “They’ll be no Republican nominee. They’ll all shoot themselves in South Carolina in a massive gun brawl with the NRA.”
The focus was baseball by the time the ballroom filled and dinner rolled around. Radio personality Mike Mutnansky, who hosts the Red Sox pre- and postgame shows on WEEI, insisted there was no correlation between him hosting this event in 2014 and ’15 and the Sox finishing in last place. “That’s the great thing about baseball,” he added. “No matter what happened, in spring training, hope spring eternal.”
In less than a month, the New Hampshire primary will be over and players will have reported to Florida and Arizona for spring training. With a light snow falling downtown, Friday was time for looking ahead and predictions, on both counts.
“A northern Vermonter will get into the White House,” maintained Lee, still rolling, “and raise eggs. Eggs and kale — that will bring America back.”
For at least one night in Portsmouth, baseball was back.