A quick change of outfits in navy blue and gold tells a story of unprecedented glory. A cheery Charleston River Dogs fan who showed up at Riley Park in his 2021 Championship jersey was quick to cover it up with a free Carolina 2022 Playoff shirt handed out at the front gate.
Let’s say it’s the case in The Joe: Charleston, after 99 years without a league championship from 1922 to 2021, suddenly became minor league baseball’s Kings.
“It’s great for the River Dogs,” co-owner Jeff Goldclang said as he stood amid the scorching excitement of the playoff at Riley Park. “It’s great for the city of Charleston.”
The franchise previously best known for its signature franchise show fare, in-court appearances by Fun director Bill Murray and promotions like Nobody Night (fans aren’t allowed until the fifth inning) and Go Back To Ohio Night (a free one-way ticket to Cleveland) are being respected by their rivals like …
Well, yes, believe it or not.
Charleston has had a minor league baseball team since 1886, and a steadily low-ranking first-division team since 1980. But these teams did not win a playoff series in successive seasons until September 15.
That’s when the RiverDogs completed a playoff sweep of Myrtle Beach for a spot in the Carolina Top-of-three Championship Series against the Lynchburg Hillcats, which began on September 18 and continued on September 20.
RiverDogs management is ditching the industry-wide belief that winning doesn’t matter in minor league baseball, and that marketing at that level is only about the experience of the field.
It turns out that success in the field sells.
Concerned about attendance after COVID-19 canceled the 2020 minor league season and affected 2021 restrictions, RiverDogs were pleased to finish second in the 12-team league in 2021 (208,641) behind Augusta GreenJackets (211,561). ), the Atlanta Braves farm club.
This year, the regular season home attendance reached 251,491. That’s still well below the pre-pandemic total of 301,320 in 2019, but it’s third in the Carolinas behind Augusta (262,172) and Fredericksburg (260,546).
Or where would RiverDogs be without the recently winning teams?
“A good baseball, quality and consistent winning are definitely beneficial,” Goldklang said. “It helped us from a season ticket sales point of view, it helped us with the sponsors. It’s great to know that the product in the field is going to be amazing when we go out to market pre-season, or even during the season.”
X-rays are one step ahead
Charleston teams have had some catchy nicknames over the decades. Seagulls, palmettos, pals, rebels, pirates and rainbows, among others.
Rising stars such as Hall of Famers Kiki Cuyler and Roberto Alomar, as well as David Cone, Willie Randolph, Josh Hamilton and Aaron Judge have played in Charleston.
Then came this two-year bid for the Tampa Bay Rays’ prospects, including 60 different players on their ever-changing 2022 roster. The director is 30-year-old Blake Butera, in his second season with RiverDogs.
“It’s a credit to the players and staff who, day in and day out, go all out to push each other and stay one step ahead of the competition,” said Jeff McCleran, Rays Minor League Operations Manager.
The Goldklang ownership group is led by Marvin Goldklang and Jeff’s father, who bought the Charleston franchise in 1989. That was before a hurricane devastated Hugo’s College Park, the team’s former home. After the 2019 season, the owners made the difficult but smart decision to switch RiverDogs’ affiliations from the New York Yankees to the Rays.
The Yankees are one of the most popular teams in the sport, and Marvin Goldclang has long had a minority interest in the major league club. The Yankees from 2005 to 2020 presented Charleston with mostly good teams and some outstanding prospects.
But the Rays were meant to be the most accomplished small-market team in baseball, with innovative exploration and analytics strategy being showcased to players daily in one of the most respected farm systems.
It’s no coincidence that Tampa Bay’s minor league teams win often.
“I think they focus on winning as a positive component of development,” said J.J. Cooper, executive editor of Baseball America. “They want to win, and they’ve been very successful in emphasizing the win.”
Bill Murray’s Taco Pie
Honolulu’s Shane Sasaki is looking for Poke Bow restaurants and stealing bases (47 during the regular season), but the left-footed player has great potential in the league.
So does 19-year-old Carson Williams, who is petite. The San Diego native was Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2021.
Dominican Republic natives Junior Caminero and Willie Vazquez were some of the top hitters of the post-season.
Meanwhile, the RiverDogs slogan “Fun is Good” devised by former co-owner Mike Vick lives within a widely admired business model.
The stadium food is still extraordinarily diverse, from the seafood burger and taco pie to Mexican street boys.
That’s thanks to VP of Food and Beverage Josh Shea, who’s totally willing to share his roster with the winning baseball.
“Definitely, without a doubt, it enhances both the food scene and in-game promotions,” Shea said. “We couldn’t be happier with the team’s performance right now and we can’t wait to start the crazy fun food ideas for next year.”
The immensely popular Murray was an additional playoff.
He’s not content with just snapping Charleston wedding photos or surprising customers at Starbucks lines in Mount Pleasant. 2021 RiverDogs (and fans) has given a championship series an impassioned debate on the Riley Park video board of a wrestling ring in Spain.
Murray threw the first pitch before the September 13 opener against Myrtle Beach.
Just as some RiverDogs fans were swapping out their merry-go-round T-shirts with new ones.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff
1922: Charleston Palace wins the South Atlantic League
1923-2020: No minor league titles for Charleston teams
2021: Charleston River Dogs, a Tampa Bay Rays affiliate, wins the Low-A East Championship Series
2022: RiverDogs, with a new team of players, scores best of three from the Carolina League Series (Game 1 September 18 against Lynchburg; Game 2 September 20 at Lynchburg; Game 3, if necessary, September 21st in Lynchburg)