The funniest actor on the planet was there to carry Charleston’s veteran mayor off the field after more hilarious ceremonial first pitch material. Players arrived on the field in taxi cabs. An overflow crowd of 7,796 made the fire marshal nervous.
It sure didn’t feel like low-level Class A baseball on April 9 as the Charleston RiverDogs christened the 2015 season with a 3-2 loss to the Lexington Legends. It doesn’t look that way at the turnstiles, either: The RiverDogs are averaging 4,547 fans per home game this season, more than nine of the 10 teams in the Double-A Southern League. At an average of 4,309, the RiverDogs would have finished fourth in Southern League attendance in 2014.
Unfortunately, solid attendance figures, famed food, madcap promotions and regular appearances by co-owner Bill Murray and baseball-loving power politician Joe Riley aren’t enough to push Charleston up the minor league ladder.
Lowcountry baseball fans deserve better. But they aren’t any closer to getting a Double-A team at Riley Park than when the facility opened in 1997.
It’s a Double-A double-play dilemma: Charleston attendance still isn’t good enough to prod RiverDogs ownership to invest in a push, and the stodgy minor league baseball business is slow to adjust to market fluctuations.
And you’re out of luck, 6-4-3.
“It comes up every season and maybe a little bit more when we’re having the type of first half we’re having, attendance-wise,” RiverDogs General Manager Dave Echols said of Double-A talk. “I’d say it’s a relatively frequently asked question.”
The same answer: RiverDogs management will pursue Double-A only after drawing 300,000 fans three or four seasons in a row. The RiverDogs got 280,075 in 2014 and a record 284,718 in 2007.
They are on pace for over 300,000 this season — if weather cooperates.
“The golden number is still 300,000,” Echols said, “but not just for one year.”
Upon reaching that threshold, the RiverDogs ownership team of New York-based Marvin Goldklang, Charleston marketing guru Mike Veeck and Murray are open to a Double-A jump, Echols said. They would be willing to pay the difference between a Class A and Double-A team (prices range from $10 million to $40 million) and incur the extra costs that come with Double-A team travel.
They would pay for bigger clubhouses and other Riley Park upgrades necessary for Double-A under minor league baseball rules.
“That’s the understanding that everyone was striving for when the ballpark opened, Double-A baseball,” Echols said. “But we just haven’t been able to make that happen.”
A Charleston switch to the Southern League isn’t as simple as willingness.
A complicated process of hurdles would require the RiverDogs to:
Find a Double-A franchise that wants to move.
Find one that wants to move and sell (the Goldklang group will not give up the Charleston market).
Beat other South Atlantic League franchises to the punch; the RiverDogs are fourth in the SAL in attendance behind Greensboro, Lakewood, N.J., and Greenville.
Compensate the SAL for lost territory.
Help the SAL find a landing spot for its Charleston franchise.
It’s not all bad.
Some of the RiverDogs’ best 2015 promotions are coming up, including Larry Doby Replica Jersey Night (June 20), July 4th fireworks, Shark Week (starts July 5) and the annual Kindness Beats Blindness Auction (July 25).
Bobble Boob Night is Aug. 22.
Double-A baseball isn’t necessarily double the ballpark fun, but better players are two steps closer to the majors (the South Atlantic League is separated by high-level Class A leagues from Double-A). While many RiverDogs are playing their first full professional season, players are frequently called up to big-league clubs directly from Double-A.
“I think everybody would be able to recognize a higher level of quality on the field,” Echols said.
The frustrating part is juggling RiverDogs attendance figures and those lesser numbers in the Southern League while waiting through another long season.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff