If you have not read my previous articles about MiLB on the Batflips and Nerds’ website, I’ll give you a bit of background as to how my trip came about: I was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2017 and so made a bucket list. At the very top was a road trip and a game at a minor-league ballpark. What better opportunity than to combine the two things together – go to the Deep South and catch baseball in all of the towns and cities as we went along. My wife had, behind my back, been in touch with all of the clubs and arranged for me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The Charleston RiverDogs were the team I had most been looking forward to in the entire trip. They are a Yankees farm team, meaning that these players are in the Yankees system and stand a chance of developing into MLB players. The Charleston Riverdogs play in the low-A South Atlantic League, four levels below the New York Yankees. Once again, I had been promised a VIP tour and had even been invited to watch batting practice, which took place before the ballpark opened. Incidentally, their name comes not from dogs, but giant rats which ran along the river when sailors would come into port in Charleston. I now love them slightly less than I used to!
If you have not seen any baseball live, players practice their swings by hitting balls from an enclosed dome-shaped net and it was spectacular to hear up-close the sound of the ball being hit hard. Standing on the field next to the batters, it was easy to appreciate just how far they had to hit the ball to hit a home run.
At Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, or ‘The Joe’ as it is known, batters must hit the ball 121 metres to get a ball over the fence in centre field. Rounders, as my so-called friends like to call baseball, this is not. Seeing how fast a pitch came and how hard you needed to hit the ball gave me a new-found appreciation of baseball players and their skill levels.
The current Riverdogs team are made up of a lot of players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela, where the Yankees scout a lot to find young talent. Many of the players were around 19 or 20 and didn’t speak English. Their faces were a picture when it was explained that we were huge Yankees fans from England, who knew who their names. We got a photo with many of the squad, which I was delighted with. Even at this level, the Yankees take care of their players, teaching them English and how to handle the media.
I had some baseball cards that I had collected with me and got those signed. You never know if some of the players will make it through to play for the Yankees one day. Dellin Betances, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez have done just that and play in the team today. It was fantastic to think that they had stood where I was standing when they were younger.
We were given the VIP tour by Walter Nolan-Cohn, the director of marketing, and his young intern, Tina. This meant we got to go to every inch of the ballpark – suites, the groundskeeper’s shed, concourses, the lot. We even got to go in Bill Murray’s box. The actor is the co-owner of the team, lives locally and often attends games. We didn’t get to see him on this occasion, sadly.
Returning to the stands, I was able to pick up a souvenir baseball, which had been hit there by Wilkerson Garcia, one of the players who had signed my baseball card. Wilkerman was called up to high-A team, the Tampa Tarpons, at the end of 2018 and looks set to play for the Double-A team, the Trenton Thunder, should any baseball go ahead this season.
Tina introduced us to all the staff and showed us the view at the back of the stadium, overlooking a swamp. At night, crocodiles are clearly visible, eyeing up their prey while the game is on. I loved this feature of the ballpark – not only was it a gorgeous view when the sun was setting, but a pretty unique feature.
Baseball has been played in Charleston since 1886, when the team were named the Seagulls. Thirty-two people were in attendance that day. There were a whole lot more today. My name was announced over the speaker system and they told the crowd how I was on a road trip to celebrate being cancer free. The cheering from the stands was loud and people stood on their feet and waved their caps. It was a very emotional moment for me.
By now, I was proficient at throwing the baseball and managed to throw the ball somewhere near the strike zone. However, my arm was aching afterwards. I have no idea how a pitcher can throw many warm-up pitches before the game, throw a hundred more during the game and recover to pitch again in five days’ time. I felt like my arm was ready for ‘Tommy John’ surgery, a fix for a common injury for pitchers, who damage the ulnar cruciate ligament in their arms.
I have an actual video of me throwing this one: I would describe my pitch as a deceptive breaking ball. I have no idea how I have not yet been called up to MLB!
Ready to take calls from any Major League scouts
Charleston have some of the craziest promotions of any Minor League team, which is saying something! In 2002, they held a ‘Nobody Night’, where fans were locked out of the ballpark until the 5th inning, so that the attendance for that night was zero. Another of their famous promotions was one recounted to me by Walter, on an episode of The Empire Strikes Back UK podcast, recorded last week: a Technicolor Ballpark Night, during which RiverDogs fans took part in a multi-coloured powder toss during the seventh-inning stretch.
I think my favourite might be Helen McGuckin night, named after a two-star Google reviewer who only wrote ‘Just drove by’. The promotional team decided to name a night after her and sent her the following message: “Helen, we hope this message reaches you. We promise an unforgettable night at the ballpark that we hope ends with a new review.” Spoiler: Helen wasn’t able to make that night, but the team got a whole load of new five-star reviews out of it.
Tina, the intern who showed us around, had told us we would spot her during the game, but she would be in disguise. Mascots ‘toss’ t-shirts into the crowd in between innings and when Charlie, the Charleston one, pointed to me and waved as ‘he’ threw a t-shirt in my direction, I knew it was Tina inside. Sadly, a taller man in front of me grabbed it out of the air, just as I was about to lay my hands on it. Damn being small!
Our bad luck of watching teams on this trip was to continue when the RiverDogs lost 6-0. On the mound was a certain Deivi Garcia, who will be a familiar name if you follow the Yankees or take note of the MLB Top Prospects list. You will find Deivi at number 92 in all of MLB and number 3 on the Yankees. That night, he showed some filthy pitches, but little control of them. The Delmarva Shorebirds scored early and never looked back. I didn’t care, we had the best day and I will be watching the fortunes of the team as they rise through the ranks.
If you are interested in the Charleston Riverdogs, you can find them as @ChasRiverDogs on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They are a friendly lot and are running lots of competitions and promotions, even though the season is currently suspended like virtual fireworks night, tweet to be on the team, #dicebaseball and lots more. The team are fun to follow and if you are a Yankees fan, you should follow along, the next Aaron Judge might just be along the way!
Joseph P. Riley Park is a beautiful ballpark and has played host to the likes of Roberto Alomar (who played for the Charleston Rainbows in 1985), Carl Crawford and Justin Upton Jr in its time. If you find yourself in Charleston, South Carolina, take in a game. You won’t regret it!
Sarah is covering the New York Yankees during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow her on Twitter @sarah2572