South Portland High pitching coach Jason Cooke has worked as the head groundskeeper at Portland’s Hadlock Field since the 2018 season. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Jason Cooke’s day usually revolves around a baseball diamond’s pitcher’s mound.

In two distinct ways, Cooke is instrumental in helping ballplayers – especially pitchers – develop their skills.

Cooke’s full-time job is as the Portland Sea Dogs’ head groundskeeper. He’s responsible for maintaining the playing surface at Hadlock Field for Boston Red Sox prospects and other minor leaguers.

“Safety, consistency and playability,” Cooke said of his overarching goals for the field.

During the high school baseball season, though, Cooke will take a midafternoon break and hustle to his hometown of South Portland. That’s when the 44-year-old dons his other baseball hat, as the pitching coach for the South Portland High Red Riots, Class A champions in 2021 and 2023. He has filled that role since 2007.

“I rely on him so much,” said South Portland’s head coach, Mike Owens. “I always call him my co-head coach. And I give him free rein with the pitchers.”


Cooke’s two baseball bosses offer similar evaluations of what makes him good at his jobs.

“Attention to detail and pride in his job,” said Geoff Iacuessa, the Sea Dogs’ president and general manager. “I think he’s one of the best in all of minor league baseball.”

“Meticulous. His attention to detail is unbelievable,” Owens said. “He works at it. He studies.”

Jason Cooke works on the pitcher’s mound at Hadlock Field. Former Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale said it is “better than a lot of big league mounds,” according to Geoff Iacuessa, the Sea Dogs’ president and general manager. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Cooke doesn’t view his full-time job as a groundskeeper as helping players develop.

“It’s your job to do your thing, to prepare the field. I’m not trying to make players better. My focus is the playing surface,” Cooke said.

To Iacuessa, Cooke isn’t giving himself enough credit.


“I know he’s very humble and he may not see the direct connection, but based on the feedback we get, the road teams see it and our team sees it. The ability to set up the field is helping in the development process,” Iacuessa said, noting his opinion is backed up by players, managers, umpires and even major league stars.

“Chris Sale was here and I asked him after one of his starts, either in 2021 or 2022, how the field plays, and he said the mound was better than a lot of big league mounds,” Iacuessa said. “Time and time again, we hear how well the field plays and how well it’s prepared.”

Cooke, who has also been an assistant football coach at South Portland since 2007, is rightly proud of his part in the success of South Portland baseball. The Red Riots have reached the regional semifinals for four straight seasons and six of the past eight. One year they didn’t make it that far, they finished first in the regular season.

“We’ve had some talent to work with, but it’s not a coincidence,” Owens said. “Yeah, Jason has had some good guys, but he’s also developed some guys, and very rarely does a kid in our program not get better.”

Jason Cooke has been the pitching coach at South Portland High since 2007. Here, he instructs on throwing mechanics at an early season practice in 2016. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Twelve former South Portland players are now playing college baseball, including NCAA Division I pitchers Noah Lewis (University of Maine) and Andrew Heffernan (Merrimack). Lewis’ former classmate, Hunter Owen, is in his first full professional season after being a fourth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals last summer.

“He dives so deep into things and he’s so passionate in what he does, it’s always great to work with someone like that,” said Heffernan, the 2023 Varsity Maine Baseball Player of the Year who recently threw seven innings of a combined no-hitter against Maryland Eastern Shore to pick up his first college win.


Heffernan said Cooke’s emphasis on making every bullpen session and every workout meaningful helped prepare him for the jump to Division I baseball.

“If you’re dogging it, he’ll see it from a mile away,” Heffernan said. “He’ll notice, and he makes sure every rep counts, and that’s really the mindset you have to have as a pitcher.”

Lewis, a senior at Maine, said he still relies on Cooke’s guidance. As a junior, Lewis held America East hitters to a league-low .200 batting average and earned second-team all-conference honors. This season has been a serious struggle. Lewis has a 13.50 ERA, allowing 33 hits and 28 walks in 24 innings for the 6-18 Black Bears.

“I’m not ashamed to admit it. I had a stretch where I gave up 20 runs in six innings, and it was just not trusting myself and walking guys and I called Coach Cooke and talked to him for two hours. I just let it all go to him and he was so supportive,” Lewis said. “He’s just one of the most genuine coaches I’ve ever met. One thing in this game is it’s easy to get really results driven, and from day one as a freshman, he’s never treated me different whether I threw a no-hitter or gave up seven runs. For him, it was all about my character and not my results.”

South Portland High pitching coach Jason Cooke works as the head groundskeeper at Hadlock Field. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Cooke lives in South Portland, where he grew up. A three-sport high school athlete, he quarterbacked South Portland to Class A football titles in 1995 and 1996, and was a top scorer on the basketball team and a second-team all-Telegram League choice as a pitcher his senior season.

Cooke attended the University of Rhode Island, where he was on both the football and baseball teams as a freshman, continuing to play baseball for three seasons with modest success as a relief pitcher. As an applied sociology major, Cooke thought a field like sports psychology would be his way to stay involved in athletics. It was when the URI players decided they needed new sod in their infield, and they could do the work themselves, that Cooke’s career path changed.


“I took a liking to working on athletic fields,” he said.

Several years working as an assistant at the sprawling Wainwright Sports Complex in South Portland helped Cooke learn more about his craft. He joined the Sea Dogs’ grounds crew in 2010 and became the full-time head groundskeeper following the 2017 season. During the season, the hours can be long, particularly in the spring, because Hadlock is also home to the Portland and Deering High baseball teams.

Cooke says its because of the support and understanding of people like Iacuessa, Owens and especially his wife, Natasha, that he is able to balance his full-time job with his passion for coaching young athletes in his hometown.

“I love the fact that I’ve been able to stay a part of the game,” he said.

In two different, important ways.

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