Riley honored at the ‘House that Joe Built’

Mayor Joe Riley throws out the first pitch during a pre game ceremony honoring the mayor on Joe Riley night Friday, July 27, 2015 at Joe Riley Park. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Joe Riley, of course, did not want it to be named Riley Park.

“I had picked out the name, a beautiful name, I thought,’ Charleston’s venerable mayor said Friday night. “Ashley River Park, I had that name and I thought it was terrific, like Fenway Park.”

Charleston’s city council had other ideas some 20 years ago, overriding the mayor’s opposition to naming the ballpark along the Ashley River as “Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park.”

A ballpark by any other name might sound as sweet on a summer night, but it’s somehow fitting that Charleston’s field of dreams — popularly known as “The Joe” — is named for the 72-year-old Riley, who is nearing the end of his 40-year run as Charleston’s mayor.

The Charleston RiverDogs celebrated Mayor Riley on Friday night, presenting him with a RiverDogs jersey bearing the number 40 and video tributes from the likes of actor Bill Murray and Gov. Nikki Haley. The night’s prize possession — a figurine of Riley in the embrace of Murray, the RiverDogs’ “Director of Fun,” given to the first 1,000 fans.

“There wouldn’t be pro baseball in Charleston without Joe Riley,” said RiverDogs president Mike Veeck.

“It would have blown away on the winds of Hugo. But he said, if you guys stick with us, we’ll build a new ballpark. And he got it done.”

With more than 250,000 fans flocking each year to Riley Park, which is also home to The Citadel’s baseball team, it’s easy to forget how close Charleston came to losing pro baseball in the early 1990s.

After Hurricane Hugo swept through in 1989, the old College Park on Rutledge Avenue was decimated. Repairs kept it going, but Major League Baseball made it clear that College Park would not be adequate for the needs of an affiliated minor league team.

Riley’s plan for a new park required a land swap between the City of Charleston and The Citadel, and building a 6,000-seat stadium on the site of an old landfill on the banks of the Ashley River.

The cost rose from a projected $6 million to $19.5 million, the ballpark finally opening for the RiverDogs on April 7, 1997. The stadium took so long to build that one city councilman said the new name of the team should be “the Charleston Turtles.”

“It was a big fight to get it done,” Riley said. “It was a lot of money, and a lot of people asked, ‘Why does the public have to put money into a private thing? And why on this site, because it was a complicated site and it cost more.’

“But the reason for the site is, it was the best site. The citizens owned the finest site, and we paid for it responsibly. It was contentious, but I knew that when it was done, the citizens would rejoice. Even if there’s some unpopularity in the process, it’s OK because you know in the end, the citizens will say it’s wonderful.”

Some well-known citizens paid tribute to Riley via on the RiverDogs’ videoboard Friday night. Among them:

Former College of Charleston president Alex Sanders, who called Riley “the most important person in Charleston since George Washington visited here. When he leaped into the arms of Bill Murray, he proved he’d do anything for Charleston.”

Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who said, “You are a great Braves fan, and we’re proud of that. Congratulations on 40 great years of leadership.”

Gov. Nikki Haley, who said, “Mayor Riley is a source of strength, not only of his city but for the state of South Carolina.”

And finally Murray, who filmed his tribute while apparently on location deep in the woods for a movie.

“Long after this country has completely forgotten the two presidential terms of Lindsay Graham,” Murray said, “and long after Mike Veeck has finally stopped talking, people will come to this ballpark, the House that Joe Built, and talk about one who served mankind, the citizens and God, just like the real giants do.”

In the stands, Anthony Wright held up a Joe Riley fan that said “Thanks Joe” on the back.

“The mayor has an insight as to what makes Charleston,” said Wright, better known as “Tony the Peanut Man.

“This is one of the most remarkable stadiums in the country. It’s like going to Yankee Stadium. It’s one of the places everybody comes to in Charleston to have fun.”

After the tributes were over, Riley — whose love of baseball dates back to his days as a 9-year-old boy playing “roll a bat” at Hazel Park on East Bay Street — threw out the first pitch from the pitcher’s mound.

It was a strike.