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 only sad folks at Riley Park with the sun setting across the marsh on a magnificent Tuesday night were a knot of kids hanging out near the Charleston RiverDogs’ dugout with their ball gloves.

No interaction with players allowed, per COVID-19 precautions handed down from Major League Baseball.

But the autograph-seekers pointed skyward and grinned along with everyone else as a C-17 cargo plane buzzed in low over the center field fence.

Bill Murray, the RiverDogs’ Director of Fun, was on board.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg played the national anthem on the piano, set up on the concourse behind home plate (those pesky MLB rules again – no one but players, coaches and umpires allowed on the field).

The RiverDogs’ 2021 Low-East A opener against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans was a hit, even with attendance at the 6,000-seat facility limited to 3,500. A 6-3 victory to start the season after a long month of Florida spring training.

Fans missing minor league baseball since August of 2019 hugged the ballpark experience.

Baseball hugged back.

The Who’s “Who Are You” blared over the PA system as the Pelicans were introduced.

It was Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” during the Charleston intros.

It’s harder to take that expanse of green grass, sweet view of the Ashley River and smell of hot dogs and kettle corn for granted when accompanied by the crack of a bat and comforting breeze.

The RiverDogs were beginning with a big inning (five runs in the bottom of the third) as Murray settled in at The Joe with friends and family.

“Social distancing doesn’t mean social silencing!” longtime PA announcer Ken Carrington said early on.

It didn’t take long for fans to get loud.

“I love it,” said John Kerwin of Charleston. “I’m ready for full capacity, though.”

Kerwin came wearing a Boston Red Sox T-shirt that says “Defend Fenway.” He is more than happy that the RiverDogs in the offseason switched Major League affiliates from Boston’s arch-rival, the New York Yankees, to the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays.

“That’s a win. That’s great,” Kerwin said. “And the Tampa Bay farm system is very good.”

Beware: sloppy baseball

Yeah, this is going to take some getting used to: a new league (Low-A East replacing the South Atlantic League), the Rays, six straight games against the same team (Myrtle Beach in town through May 9 as part of more geographically-friendly schedules throughout the minors).

For players, too.

With no affiliated minor league baseball in 2020, all these RiverDogs and Pelicans – and Amarillo Sod Poodles and Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp – were idle last season if not playing in college.

The RiverDogs made their first error of the season before they recorded their first out. But left-handed pitcher John Doxakis, Tampa Bay’s second-round draft pick out of Texas A&M in 2019, escaped the inning unscathed.

“I would expect some sloppy baseball early,” said Jim Callis, a veteran MLB.com analyst. “Especially at the Low-A level. This year is going to be an odd year, coming off the pandemic and with the minors contracting, not necessarily indicative of what it might be going forward.”

Few minor league players that have played in Charleston – from former stars Hank Aaron and Derek Jeter to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge – have been a part of such pent-up fan joy as on display Tuesday night (exception: the 1946 Charleston Rebels taking the field just after a World War II interruption).

Sad Sinatra, soft pretzels

There was a long line outside the gift shop where RiverDogs ballcaps in various colors and alternate logos were hot sellers.

There was a nice scoreboard tribute to RiverDogs co-owner and former American League president Gene Budig, who died in 2020, and to Rebecca Veeck, the inspirational daughter of former RiverDogs co-owner Mike Veeck. She died in 2019. 

The outdoor bar parts of the ballpark were busy and festive.

What a difference a difficult year makes.

Last season, the minor league theme song from Tacoma to Daytona Beach and so many Fort Waynes and Chattnoogas in between was an old song from a sad-eyed Frank Sinatra:

“And the people watched in wonder

How they’d laugh and how they’d cheer!

And there used to be a ballpark right here”

Of course, The Joe never left.

It was just empty, dark, no soft pretzels, no international icon appearances.

On Tuesday night, they sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with gusto carried over from when there were no ballgames.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.