RiverDogs honoring Mayor Riley at The Joe

Actor Bill Murray carries Charleston Mayor Joe Riley off the field during the Charleston RiverDogs’ opening night this season.

When Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is able to break away from the business of running a city and catch a baseball game, he likes to sit away from the crowd, a little higher up in the stands so he can catch the evening breeze off the Ashley River.

It’s there that Charleston RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols can always find the namesake of the ballpark, talking baseball with anyone within earshot of him.

There’s little doubt that without Riley there wouldn’t be a ballpark on the banks of the Ashley River that is home to both the RiverDogs of the South Atlantic League and the Citadel Bulldogs.

The RiverDogs will honor Riley for his 40 years of service and dedication to the city and the game of baseball on Friday night in a ceremony before the club’s game with the Delmarva Shorebirds. The festivities will start around 6:30 p.m. and the game is set to begin at 7:05.

Riley, who graduated from The Citadel in 1964, began his political career serving in South Carolina’s House of Representatives for six years. He won the mayor’s seat in 1975 and has remained Charleston’s mayor since. He has announced that he will not seek an 11th term and his run as the city’s longest-tenured mayor will come to a close in early 2016.

“I wasn’t here when The Joe was first built, but it’s my understanding that there wouldn’t be a ballpark without Mayor Riley,” Echols said. “He’s been a tremendous friend to the Charleston RiverDogs and it’s obvious he loves the game of baseball. We’re proud to have this opportunity to honor Mayor Riley as a token of gratitude for everything he has done for us and Charleston.”

Riley and former Citadel president Claudius “Bud” Watts were driving forces behind bringing a new baseball facility to downtown Charleston in 1997, which has become known as “The Joe” around the Lowcountry. The city was in desperate need of a new, modern baseball facility in the 1990s. Both The Citadel and the minor league baseball teams had been sharing College Park, which first opened in 1939.

“Mayor Riley was extremely instrumental in getting the ball park built,” said Citadel baseball coach Fred Jordan. “He and president Watts worked tirelessly together to finish the project and give the city of Charleston this tremendous ballpark. He has always loved the game of baseball and has been a tremendous supporter of the game.”

It’s been a tradition to have Mayor Riley throw out the first pitch at the RiverDogs’ home opener. But Riley doesn’t limit himself to just one game a year at The Joe.

“I’ll get word that he’s coming about a half-dozen times, but then there are a half-dozen more times when I find out the next morning that he was here at the ball park,” Echols said. “For the mayor of the city the size of Charleston and the issues that he’s dealing with, that’s a lot of games to make. He has this one area that he really likes to sit in, to get that breeze off the river and see the entire game. He pays for his ticket and he pays for parking even though the park is named after him. I think that shows you his love of the game.”

Every January the RiverDogs sponsor a Hot Stove Banquet to celebrate the game of baseball. Every year, Riley sits down with the keynote speaker to talk about the game he loves.

“I know that’s something that the mayor looks forward to each year,” Echols said. “He just loves to talk about the game with someone who’s played it or been in it. You can see the passion when they talk. It’s always fun to see the mayor and someone like (former Atlanta Braves manager) Bobby Cox exchange stories for 20 or 30 minutes about baseball.”