When you attend a Columbia Fireflies baseball game, you are actually seeing two performances.
One, of course, is on the field, where players from the Class A affiliate of the New York Mets — and their opponents from across the South Atlantic League — ply their trade. It’s a collection of mostly young players from around the world trying to claw their way up the minor league ladder of professional baseball, in hopes of one day cashing in on Major League glory.
But then there’s the other performance, one that is put on 70 home games per year by the Fireflies’ front office and gameday staff. A modern minor league baseball game is not only a showcase for the sport’s possible future stars, but a robust, meticulously scripted night of entertainment that can include promotional giveaways, music, dancing, plentiful food and beverages (chicken fingers are the top-selling food item at the park), between-innings games and contests, recognition of local dignitaries, and a teeth-rattling fireworks show. It’s kind of a circus, but centered around a baseball game.
While, from a fan’s perspective, the games can have a whimsical, sometimes madcap feel, it takes a carefully put-together army to create that night of family fun, with each battalion doing its job to keep the unit moving efficiently. Now in their fourth season in the City of Columbia’s $37 million Segra Park, the Fireflies typically have as many as 300 employees — usually about 40 full-timers and 250 part-time, seasonal workers — on-site for a home game.
For two nights in June — while the team was facing off against the Lexington Legends — the Fireflies allowed Free Times a peek behind the curtain, a chance to meet some of the folks who play roles, big and small, in making the circus come to life.
We went into back kitchens and beer keg coolers, to the announcing booth and video control room, into the tunnels that lead to the dugouts and locker rooms, into the team’s corporate offices and onto the playing field. We even got a look into the holiest of sanctums: the storage room where the Fly Guys — the collection of team front office employees, led by Executive Vice President Brad Shank, who do a choreographed dance while sweeping the infield at the end of the 6th inning — practice twerking, flossing and various forms of ass-shaking. We chatted up ushers, peanut men, ice cream dippers and beyond.
What we found was a motley crew of folks who were here for different reasons. Teenagers working their first jobs. Older people supplementing their income with a second job. Full-time staffers who, like the players on the field, hope to use their particular skill at a higher level of pro sports one day.
Seemingly everyone was pulling some kind of double duty: The public-address announcer is a high school guidance counselor by day, while the ballpark DJ is also the team’s graphics manager.
But despite the multiple roles, long hours on gamedays and the circumstances out of their control — rain, a bad performance by the team, etc. — there is an indelible esprit de corps among the organization’s staff, a sort of let’s-put-on-a-show verve that permeates throughout the park.
It’s the game that surrounds the game.
John Katz has Swagger.
Specifically, the Fireflies team president has a can of Old Spice Swagger body spray that he keeps on his desk, spritzing on a bit of pleasant fragrance before a night of baseball. On a typical gameday, he arrives at the stadium as early as 8:30 a.m. and doesn’t go home until after the game has ended, often well after 10 p.m. Every once in a while, he needs a refresher.
A native of Massachusetts, Katz is a minor league baseball front office lifer. He’s been in the game for 26 years, having worked for teams in Arizona, North Carolina, California, Virginia and Georgia. (The Fireflies moved to Columbia from Savannah, where they were known as the Sand Gnats.)
While he spends much of the 9-to-5 day heading up the overall operations of the team, on game nights Katz is in almost perpetual motion within the stadium. Hours before first pitch he walks the park, looking for little things that might be out of place. In the final half-hour or so before first pitch, you can spot him on the field, chatting with Fireflies manager Pedro Lopez. Also, before the first game of a series, he goes over to the opposing team’s dugout and speaks with its manager.
“If we ever have weather issues or anything, I want them to know I’m here,” Katz says of the opposing head coaches. “Also, it’s just Southern hospitality. Those guys are here for three or four days. They should be able to put a face with a name. That way, if there is an issue they need to address, they know where to find me and that I’m always here at the same time.”
The team president also has a bit of a quirk in how he patrols the stadium when the game starts: He always walks around the concourse to the left, in a clockwise motion. The reason: He says 90 percent of the fans who come in the stadium through the main gate turn and walk to the right, down the first baseline. By walking in the opposite direction, he’s able to see their faces and better overhear conversations, gleaning whether or not they are having a good time, or whether there might be a problem.
When a woman has an issue with the team’s clear bag policy at the front gate, Katz later tracks her down and discusses the situation, and gives her a couple souvenir baseballs as a mea culpa. When a man drops his nachos and Katz spots it, the team president runs into the concession stand himself to fix him a new tray, so that concession workers can keep helping others in line. When the Beer Batter — the Fireflies offer 15 minutes of discounted beer if a specified batter on the opposing team strikes out — takes a third strike, Katz will help pour brews.
He also keeps an eagle’s eye on the weather (he has WOLO meteorologist John Farley on literal speed dial), participates in some between-innings contests, and often wishes fans safe travels home from the gates at the end of the night. He might be the team’s president, but you won’t often find him hobnobbing up in the corporate suites during the games. He’s a hands-on executive.
“The thing that keeps me going, and it’s why I’m a huge fan of this business, is because it’s about bringing people together,” he says with a matter-of-fact shrug. “I’ve always considered myself a people person, not a baseball person.”
And there are at least three people he works with that he knows better than any of the hundreds of others: his children. Katz’s three teenagers — daughter Abby and twin sons Jacob and Ty — all have part-time jobs at the park. Ty makes cheesesteak sandwiches at a cart along the concourse, and Abby and Jacob sling Dippin’ Dots, the long self-proclaimed “Ice Cream of the Future.” Of Jacob’s Dippin’ Dots prowess, Ty offers the following: “My brother is the best and most efficient Dippin’ Dots seller in the South Atlantic League. I can say that confidently. Abby is kind of his protégé.”
During a Thursday night game, and with a Free Times reporter tagging along, John Katz stops for a moment and chats with Abby at her Dippin’ Dots stand. The president steps in and scoops ice cream while she speaks to the reporter. There’s a ruckus of a professional baseball game swirling around them — an announced crowd of 4,620 are on-hand, many of them there for the discount beer on Thirsty Thursday — but the father and daughter tell each other, “I love you,” as they part ways.
“It’s one of the best things about it, because I get to see my kids all the time,” Katz says. “When they were younger, it was a lot of work for Mom to bring three kids to a baseball game and try to entertain them. They’d end up coming and sitting for three innings and I’d never get to sit and talk with them. Now, I walk around and talk to people and I get to stop for a few minutes and talk to the kids.”
‘I Found This Along the Way’
The players aren’t the only ones who toil on the field at Segra Park.
Ashlie DeCarlo and Drew Tice also are among those who put in plenty of work there, too.
Tice has been the Fireflies’ head groundskeeper for about a year. He’s worked on fields for about five years, and has a degree in turf grass science from the University of Tennessee. He and a small staff of groundskeepers are the ones who keep the emerald green playing surface at Segra looking pristine.
Like many of the team’s full-time employees, Tice’s gamedays are long. For a 7 p.m. game he typically arrives around 9 a.m. and begins tending to the field. There’s a break or two during the day, but he doesn’t leave until after the contest is over.
The hours don’t bother him. Tice is here because he loves the game.
“Really, I love just being outside and being able to not sit at a desk all day. For me, a baseball field, right before first pitch, is the best-looking sports field there is,” Tice says, a tone of clear reverence in his voice. “I played baseball my whole life, and I just enjoy being outdoors and being around sports. I found this along the way, I guess.”
It’s of note that Tice takes pleasure in the manicured look of a baseball field just before the first pitch is thrown. That’s the moment where the playing surface is as close to perfect as it can get.
Then players in spikes set about beating it up for three-plus hours.
“For the most part, it is inevitable that they are going to tear it up,” he chuckles. “The mounds, the plate, the bullpens, they get torn up. That doesn’t really bother me. The biggest thing, as far as things that happen during the game, is just if someone makes a sliding catch or tries to plant and make a throw, they can make a big divot in the outfield. That’s just part of it.”
As the Fireflies’ players dream of making it to the Major Leagues — and they’ve got a long journey; the South Atlantic League is “low A” ball, near the bottom of the baseball hierarchy — some staffers also harbor big league dreams.
Tice admits to such aspirations.
“Ideally, I’d like to be at an MLB stadium,” he says. “But there’s only 30 MLB teams in the world. People don’t leave when they get to that point. They don’t leave those positions. But, I’d love to be the head guy [for a team] in the MLB or NFL or MLS. There’s always major college, too.”
DeCarlo, meanwhile, is the Fireflies’ promotions and client services manager. Among her numerous roles under that title is heading up all of the team’s theme nights and all of the games and contests that take place on the field between innings. There are 18 different promotions that take place during a nine-inning game, many of which require DeCarlo and other staff members to wrangle fans out of the stands to participate.
“We just try to pick fans out that look like they want to have fun and have a good time,” says DeCarlo, 25, who was a sports management major at the University of South Carolina. “Obviously, for each promotion there are certain types of characteristics you need. You might need a child, you might need an adult, you might need a family. We want fans who want to have some fun.”
But sometimes the fans come to her. At a June 14 game, Brittany Wells brought her two young sons, Davion and Donovan, to the game, and sought the opportunity for them to participate. They were selected to go on the field for a contest called Junk in the Trunk, where participants put on backpacks filled with plastic balls and have to dance and shake — move the “junk in the trunk” — to see who can get the most balls to fall out of the pack.
“We came super early and we asked,” Wells says, when asked how the boys were chosen. “The last time we were here we heard that, if you come early, you might get asked to be a part of the games [between innings]. So, I just asked someone how they could be able to, and they invited us to do it.”
DeCarlo admits she has given thought to working in the front office for a major sports league. But she also has found a love for minor league baseball.
“I’d like to stay on this track,” she says. “I think being in the Majors would be cool, just to see how it’s different. But I do love minor league baseball, because we can kind of do whatever we want [as far as contests and promotions], and you can’t do that up there. I wouldn’t mind staying in minor league baseball, just maybe on a leadership track.”
‘The Atmosphere Was Just Insane’
Dan Duroux’s two jobs couldn’t be more different.
By day he’s an office man, working in systems configuration for insurance company AFLAC. But at night, he’s worked as an usher at Fireflies’ games for the last two seasons. He typically watches over a section behind home plate, just up the third baseline.
An endlessly amiable presence who seems created-in-a-lab perfect for being an usher, Duroux dutifully helps fans find their seats, watches out for any alcohol overconsumption issues, makes sure his section is tidy before the gates open and checks on fans after foul balls go careening into the stands.
Duroux relishes the atmosphere of the ballpark after a day working inside.
“It’s so nice after sitting in an office all day to be able to come out here and be outside and doing something physical,” he says. “A lot of the ushers are either retired or have another daytime job. We have a few that are school teachers, which this gives them something to do in the summertime, as well.”
He also has an affinity for baseball, as his sons played the sport at Columbia’s Spring Valley High. He enjoys being able to steal glances at the games, possibly seeing baseball’s stars of tomorrow.
“It’s interesting to see these younger guys like this come up,” he says. “Even during the season, you will see some of them just all of the sudden start to develop and come alive. You think, ‘That one has a chance to continue moving forward.’”
While some members of the Fireflies staff, like Duroux, are there for a second job, or working part-time in retirement, others are at the younger end of the employment spectrum.
During the June 13 game, Free Times found 17-year-old Dylan Guida, an A.C. Flora graduate headed to USC in the fall, hawking boiled peanuts on the first base side of the concourse.
This is Guida’s third summer working for the team, and he’s done a number of jobs. He’s made cheesesteaks, worked in the larger concession stands, scooped ice cream and more. The team is even trying to place him on its roster of back-up national anthem performers. (He was an accomplished choir member in high school.)
He tells Free Times the aura of the game has grown on him the last three seasons.
“Before I started working here, I didn’t have the biggest interest in baseball, at all,” Guida admits. “But, the first night I was here, it was a Friday night, and the atmosphere was just insane. It was a packed night, and a family environment. It was just a great atmosphere to be at. I have a lot of friends who work here, too. It’s good company and a good place to be.”
If you’ve attended a Fireflies game in the nearly four seasons the team has been in Columbia, you’ve likely grown accustomed to the booming voice of PA announcer Bryan Vacchio, who introduces the batters and pitchers and informs fans of various lineup changes, but who also keeps up a constant patter of advertisements and introduces the various on-field promotions during the game.
But the voice you hear over the speaker system isn’t the voice you get when you chat one-on-one with Vacchio off the microphone. He’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, characteristics that fit in nicely with his day job as a guidance counselor at Saluda High School.
When Free Times popped into the announcing booth on June 13, Vacchio was at ease as he quietly discussed his role with the team, and his career as a counselor, between batters. But when a new player came to the plate, “The Voice” came roaring out.
“THE THIRD BASEMAN, NUMBER THREE, SHERVYEN NEWTON!”
Vacchio, who has announced at high school sporting events for years and occasionally filled in at USC baseball games, says the development of his PA voice began via another side gig, as a DJ.
“I’ve done DJ work for the better part of 20 years, getting on a mic and trying to keep people engaged and entertained,” he says. “People will tell me about my normal conversation voice, ‘Eh, I don’t think much of it.’ But when I get on a microphone they say, ‘You just sound so different.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I get that from time to time.’ It’s all about the diaphragm.”
Sitting alongside Vacchio in the announcing booth is the Fireflies DJ, Marcus Walker, a Lexington native who graduated from USC. During business hours he’s the Fireflies’ graphics manager, but during games he works to keep the crowd into it. He collaborates with the players on their “walkup” music — i.e. the songs that play when the batters are coming to the plate — and has dozens of the songs cued up and ready to go on the computer screen in front of him. (Some players change songs weekly, others keep the same one all season.)
And Walker’s the one who plays all those “ambient” sounds and songs that are common at baseball games, as well as hype music for moments when the team may need an extra boost.
“Usually I go with the crowd,” Walker says. “If the crowd is really into it, I play a lot of pump-up songs.”
At that exact moment, Fireflies’ outfielder Gerson Molina rips a double, and when he stops at second base, Walker plays Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” sending fans’ arms swaying from side to side.
“Like I said, I take cues from the crowd,” he laughs.
It’s the fifth inning of the Fireflies’ June 13 game against the Lexington Legends, and there is an intensity in the air in a storage room in the bowels of Segra Park, just steps from the locker rooms.
Shank, the team’s executive vice president, has gathered with three of the team’s full-time ticket office account executives — Jeff Berger, Scott Rhodes and Nick Spano — for one of the critical moments of the day: The final rehearsal for that night’s Fly Guys dance, to be performed to Blanco Brown’s country/rap hit “Git Up.”
Those who have attended a Fireflies game are doubtless familiar with the Fly Guys routine at the end of the sixth inning. That’s when Shank and his band of account executives will drag the infield — with each man literally pulling a steel drag to smooth out the infield dirt — and intersperse their work with elaborate, choreographed dancing. It’s an act that almost always goes over big with the crowd, with returning fans waiting to see what moves the guys come up with next. First-timers are often surprised when the four front office executives start to drop it like it’s hot.
Shank says he first got started doing choreographed dances during the infield drag when he was working in the front office of a minor league team in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (That team, the Tin Caps, is owned by Jason Freier, who also owns the Fireflies.) He said the gag became an every-night hit there, so he brought it to Columbia.
“The best way to describe it is that you take something that could be really boring and actually make it, in some cases, one of the highlights of the night,” Shank says. “People really crack up at it and think it’s hilarious. It just kind of took off.”
Berger has been with the team since it began in Columbia. He admits to having very little dancing experience before Shank roped him into duty.
“I had not done any public dancing,” he admits with a laugh. “I did do stand-up (comedy) a little bit in high school, so I bombed a couple times. But otherwise no public performing. … But, it’s awesome, to hear the crowd actually get behind us, and everybody laughing and having a good time. It’s definitely cool.
“I hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s my favorite part of the game,’ or, ‘The reason my wife comes out is because of the Fly Guys.’ It’s just nice to be that entertainment and hear that from folks.”
Berger admits he was initially reluctant to step outside of his role in the ticket office — he’s a senior corporate account manager — to shake his moneymaker as a Fly Guy. But Shank eventually talked him into it.
“[Shank] told me they had done it with another team, and my only question was whether it was going to make me look stupid,” Berger says. “He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, OK, I’m in.’ So, it seems like it was a match made in Heaven for us.”
Want to Go?
The Columbia Fireflies have home games July 10-14. Check columbiafireflies.com or call 803-726-4487 for schedule and ticket details.
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