RiverDogs ready to play ball Season opens with fireworks, slew of new promotions

Thousands of fans are expected to pack “The Joe” tonight for the Charleston RiverDogs season opener against the Lexington Legends.

Longtime fans of the beloved minor league baseball team Charleston RiverDogs know how to have a great time at the ballpark, cheering the players despite the numbers on the scoreboard from inning to inning. For some in attendance, closely following the game and the statistics is the main goal, but for many, simply having fun in the stadium and sampling great food and beer on the busy concourse is just as important.

The Charleston RiverDogs are a Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees in the South Atlantic League. Over the past 15 years or so, under the guidance of RiverDogs team president and part-owner Mike Veeck and his executive team, the RiverDogs has developed a knack for elaborate (and often good-humored) promotions and giveaways at the team’s home, Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, aka “The Joe.”

Some of the more controversial gags and stunts took aim at current events, pop culture, or tacky celebrities. Other promotional efforts leaned toward wholesome, family-friendly fare.

With the additions of outrageous promotions, thoughtful fundraisers, impressive post-game fireworks displays, and truly creative concession-stand fare, Veeck and the RiverDogs have elevated the quality and vibrancy of the ballpark experience to new levels in recent years.

“There will never be a dull time at the ballpark this year,” says RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols. “We’ve increased the number of post-game fireworks nights, our giveaways are of better quality, and we’ve added a few more wrinkles that should make everyone smile as they enter and depart from Riley Park.”

“We still offer the classic, traditional ballpark experience that many people grew up with, but with all of the amenities at the Joe, we can really well-round it, too,” Echols adds. “We put a lot of investment into the technology side of things last year, we’ve put a stronger emphasis on our mascot program from an entertaining angle, and we’ve tweaked and improved the customer service, too. It’s looking pretty good.”

Most hardcore RiverDogs fans are glad to see the return of team manager Luis “Skip” Dorante, who led the RiverDogs to a 71-69 record in 2014. A native of Venezuela, Dorante spent six years primarily as a catcher in the Boston Red Sox organization before getting into coaching. He served as bullpen coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2008 to 2010 and managed 11 seasons in the minor leagues with teams affiliated with the Florida Marlins and the Montreal Expos before landing in the Lowcountry.

“I’m very happy to be coming back to Charleston,” Dorante stated in a recent RiverDogs release. “Charleston is a great city with a terrific ballpark and great fans. There is a tremendous atmosphere at our home games. Every game there is something special going on, and the players feed off that excitement.”

Last year, the RiverDogs nearly made it to the South Atlantic League postseason after a late-season winning streak. The 2014 season was the team’s third consecutive winning year, and the positive push ahead seems to be in full action as they approach opening day.

The RiverDogs will open the 2015 home campaign at Riley Park on Thursday when the Lexington Legends, the Kentucky-based team affiliated with the Kansas City Royals, come to town.

Thursday’s opening event has been billed as “Firsty Thursday.” The first 5,000 fans who enter the park after the gates open at 6 p.m. will receive a free 2015 RiverDogs magnet schedule, courtesy of South Carolina 811. The park will present an extended post-game fireworks display after the final inning as well.

“Opening day is always one of the biggest events of the season, and we work hard to make sure we have everything in place,” says Echols. “We’re going back to the ‘Yankees in Charleston’ kind of approach to the opening ceremonies, bringing the players into the park with yellow hats. We’ve done it in the past to great response, and we think it’ll be a great way to kick off the season.”

On a bittersweet note, Echols said Thursday night will also be the last time Mayor Riley will toss out the ceremonial first pitch.

“We’re not excited that it’s the last one, but we’re very excited that he will be able to come out and do it,” Echols said.

Upcoming weekly promos this season include a “first-date” themed Tuesday Date Night (presented by Miller Lite and NASH FM), HealthSouth Senior Wednesdays with complimentary food and soda, Budweiser Thirsty Thursday parties with DJ Natty Heavy on the soundboard, festive Red Shirt Fridays, a variety of giveaway Saturdays, and Kids Club Sundays, presented by Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission and Y102.5 FM.

Quirky theme nights to entice fans to come out to a ballgame will include Bromance Night on June 2, a surprise birthday party for mascot Charlie T. RiverDog on June 7, and the second annual Charleston Rainbows Night on July 27 honoring the team’s former moniker.

“A main part of our job is to involve and give back to the community as much as we can, while keeping with the ‘fun is good’ motto that is the blueprint of running a ball club,” Echols says.

“There’s no shortage of things going on to get people into the baseball mindset during opening week,” he adds. “There’ll be a lot going on to get baseball back into the blood of the Lowcountry.”