The Charleston RiverDogs opened their 2013 home season Thursday night with pressing questions.
Can top draft picks Greg Bird and Peter O’Brien live up to their potential? Will the RiverDogs compete for the South Atlantic League title? Can the franchise reverse last year’s attendance dip?
And, most importantly, how is that beer milkshake?
“It’s good,” said Bill Wanner, a 58-year-old Charleston resident who bought the first beer shake — a Palmetto Chocolate, for the history books — sold at Riley Park.
“It tastes like a regular chocolate shake, at first,” said Wanner, who works at the Medical University. “But after it sits in there for a little bit, you get a little kick of the ale. I really like it. I think they will sell a lot of these this season.”
RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols certainly hopes so. He said he could not sleep on Opening Night Eve.
“Absolutely, I still get goose bumps,” Echols said as the first of 6,670 fans streamed into the park an hour before the game. “You see the ticket sales churning through the last week or so, the ball park coming to life. Everyone is excited, and I love it.”
“Fun is good,” is the motto of RiverDogs president Mike Veeck. The RiverDogs have added a “Food is Fun” amendment this season, with new items like the beer shake — it also comes in Guinness Caramel and Sweetwater Strawberry — drawing early attention from fans.
“We’ve really made a strong commitment to our food and beverage this year,” Echols said. “We try to introduce something new every season, but our food and beverage staff has gone above and beyond this season.”
The RiverDogs drew more than 254,000 fans last season, their average of 3,791 ranking fifth-best in the SAL. But that was actually down from recent years. Maybe the new PB&J bacon cheeseburger will help.
Of course, one of baseball’s enduring appeals — minor-league baseball in Charleston dates back to 1886 — is the fact that some things never change.
The familiar cry of “Ice-cold beer here!” went up from one of the more than 200 gameday employees that work at Riley Park on a big night. Charleston legend Tony the Peanut Man once again plied his wares in the stands.
“It’s the best day of the year for me,” said Veeck, veteran of 47 opening nights. “You work all year for this day, and there’s nothing like it.”
A fleet of Yellow Cabs brought in this year’s crop of prospects Thursday night, evoking the team’s parent club, the New York Yankees. Charleston fans can track the progress toward Yankee Stadium of players such as the first baseman Bird, a fifth-round pick in 2011, and O’Brien, a catcher and second-round pick out of Miami last year.
“I’ve heard so much about the fans here,” said Bird, who hit .337 last year in rookie ball. “I’m looking forward to playing in front of them, we all are. This homestand is going to be a blast, and so will this whole season.”
Like the fans, the players were jacked up for opening night. Pitcher Rafael DePaula, a native of the Dominican Republic, threw 11 straight balls to start the game, a 3-0 loss to Augusta. Before he recorded an out, DePaula walked three batters, threw a wild pitch, hit another batter in the head with an 91 mph fastball and gave up two runs.
And then, he struck out the side — all of which is probably to be expected for a 22-year-old pitching his first game under lights and his second in America.
That’s a story that the late Bill Veeck, Mike’s father and a baseball Hall of Famer, would appreciate. Mike is honoring his father this summer with “Bill Veeck Bobble-Leg Giveaway”, set for June 29, another in a long line of wacky RiverDogs promotions.
Bill Veeck, you see, had a wooden leg.
“What would the old man think?” someone asked Mike Veeck, who thought for a second.
“He’d laugh,” Veeck said.