Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

The bases remain 90 feet apart. Thirsty Thursday endures as a party deck staple on the Charleston RiverDogs’ schedule.

You still never know when Bill Murray, co-owner/director of fun, might show up to take part in pregame festivities.

But the RiverDogs’ 2021 debut on the night of May 4 against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park will probably include more new things than any other season opener since the 1886 Charleston Seagulls introduced minor league baseball to the Lowcountry.

RiverDogs President Dave Echols said they intend to “provide a sense of normalcy” for Charleston baseball fans after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of all minor league baseball in 2020.

The new normal includes eight significant changes since the 2019 season:

Hello, Low-A East

The RiverDogs are still a low-level Class A franchise within the minor league stepladder to the majors, but are now part of a 12-team league replacing the venerable South Atlantic League, Charleston’s home since 1980. Major League Baseball’s comprehensive takeover of the minor leagues last year was largely meant to reduce costs with more geographically friendly travel (Columbia, Myrtle Beach and Augusta are also in the Low-A East).

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RiverDogs interns Caroline Killgo (left) and Katie McDermott practice their Rock 'em Sock 'em skills at Jospeh P. Riley Park in Charleston on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. The game will be used between innings. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Cashless policy

Credit cards, debit cards and QR codes only for parking, tickets, concession stand items and merchandise.

Streamlined concessions

Instead of adding a bunch of new menu items to a lineup that has drawn praise from famed food critics, the RiverDogs are emphasizing speedier delivery. That goes for such favorites as the homewrecker hot dog; funnel cake fries; and smoke house pulled pork barbecue, brisket and chicken.

“It really revolves around making our production level for each game better than it has been in the past,” said Joshua Shea, the RiverDogs’ vice president of food and beverage.

Tweaks, however, include a hydroponic bib lettuce salad in a helmet with Korean quinoa and smoked pulled chicken.

Ticket distribution

All tickets are sold online for 2021; no office walk-up cash sales (see riverdogs.com or call 843-577-DOGS for more information).

Rays replace Yankees

The Tampa Bay Rays are the RiverDogs’ new major league affiliate, replacing the New York Yankees, which stocked Charleston with players from 2005-2019. And what timing: the shrewd, frugal, small-market Rays not only made it to the World Series last fall, they rank No. 1 on Baseball America’s 2021 list of top minor league talent.

“Drafting well, signing well, developing well — those are critical components to our success,” said Erik Neander, the Rays’ 37-year-old general manager. “So is trading well.”

To celebrate, the RiverDogs on May 6 will give out bobbleheads of Rays pitching star Tyler Glasnow to the first 1,500 fans and offer a RiverDogs/Rays T-shirt to the first 50 fans who trade in Yankees apparel.

New prospects to track

Many RiverDogs fans enjoyed following former Charleston players such as Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino make it to the Yankees. The 2021 RiverDogs roster includes a pair of supplemental first-round draft picks, former Campbell University pitcher Seth Johnson (2019 draft) and former Arizona State shortstop Alika Williams (2020 draft).

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Kevin Coyne, the head groundskeeper at Joseph P. Riley Park, mows the grass on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Charleston. The RiverDogs have their home opener on May 4 after a year off due to COVID-19. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

New capacity at The Joe

It’s 3,500, per the city of Charleston’s COVID-19 restrictions. The RiverDogs hope to offer a full 6,000-fan capacity later this season.

Myrtle Beach rivalry

Myrtle Beach and Charleston haven’t been in the same league since 1992. The Pelicans, a Chicago Cubs affiliate, are dropping down from the High-A Carolina League.

If you know the RiverDogs — the franchise that once staged "Go Back to Ohio Night" with a one-way ticket to Cleveland as first prize — you know it’s only a matter of time before they poke fun at hermit crab sales, the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove and other Grand Strand classics.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.