While the Citadel baseball team spent this week on sparkling Bermuda Grass preparing for its season-opening weekend series against Virginia Tech, Charleston RiverDogs employees were elsewhere at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, busy in their zaniness laboratory coming up with new ideas for 2016.
It’s hard to top ‘Go Back to Ohio Night’ or ‘National Laundry Day’ at a ballpark that has changed Charleston culture by the turnstile turn since it opened in 1997. The RiverDogs shattered the franchise attendance record that first year, drawing 234,840 fans, and set a new record at 292,661 in 2015. There were a lot of Thirsty Thursdays in between.
The Citadel has won five Southern Conference Tournament titles in the friendly confines along the Ashley River.
A 20-year anniversary seems like a good time for a top 20 list of baseball — and baseball-related — highlights at The Joe.
In chronological order:
1. Vasectomy Night, 1997. RiverDogs co-owner Mike “Fun is Good” Veeck got off to a sizzling start, even if a plan to award one lucky fan a free vasectomy was called off after the Roman Catholic Diocese called and a monsignor complained of “bad taste.”
2. The Citadel’s first SoCon Tournament championship at The Joe, 1998. Sixteen SoCon tourneys have been held in Charleston since 1997, this one dominated by Bulldogs Brian Rogers, Philip Hartig and Terrence Smalls.
3. RiverDogs-Tampa Bay Devil Rays exhibition game, 1999. Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco played in the first exhibition game featuring a Major League team in Charleston since 1959.
4. Josh Hamilton, 2000. No Charleston minor league player was more popular or engaging with fans than the first overall pick in the 1999 Major League draft. Hamilton, on the way to a star-crossed career diluted by drugs but including two World Series trips and the 2010 American League MVP award, hit .302 with 13 homers for the RiverDogs.
5. Nobody Night, 2002. The RiverDogs padlocked the gates until the game was official in the fifth inning and the team had established a new minor league record for lowest attendance: Zero. Hilarious. Brilliant. National publicity.
6. Silent Night, 2003. This time, the RiverDogs set a record for low-energy enthusiasm — no talking or cheering allowed. To help keep fans quiet, librarians served as ushers.
7. Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame debut, 2003. The brainchild of Citadel and RiverDogs executive Andy Solomon, the Hall of Fame has inducted big leaguers, college stars, natives, contributors and teams with ties to Charleston. The honored range from Gorman Thomas and Reese Havens to Gettys Glaze and Lee Glaze to John Dodds Jr. and Drew Meyer.
8. Delmon Young, 2004. Like Hamilton, Young was a Devil Rays minor league outfielder and first-overall draft pick (2003) who spent his first full professional season in Charleston. He performed better than Hamilton, crushing 25 home runs and batting .322 for the RiverDogs.
9. The College of Charleston’s SoCon Tournament title, 2006. John Pawlowski’s Cougars made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances but this was the school’s only SoCon Tournament championship. Nick Chigges, Jess Easterling and Chris Campbell led the way.
10. Wofford’s unlikely SoCon Tournament title, 2007. The ninth-seeded Terriers went 8-19 during SoCon regular season play but rolled to an NCAA Tournament spot behind the hot bat of Brandon Waring.
11. Man vs. Food, 2009. The Elvis Sandwich, beer milkshakes, Wacko Tacos, cheese cake on a stick. Rachel Ray did a segment on the RiverDogs’ famed concession-stand fare, and Anthony Bourdain stopped by last summer. And Adam ‘Man vs. Food’ Richman took on a Homewrecker hot dog. The eat goes on.
12. Pat Venditte, 2009. When the ambidextrous pitcher from Omaha was in his first professional season, few people thought the RiverDogs right/left-hander had a legitimate big league shot. But Venditte made his Major League debut with Oakland last summer (2-2 record, 4.40 earned run average).
13. The Citadel’s last SoCon Tournament title, 2010. The Bulldogs got through the bracket undefeated, thanks in big part to slugger Justin Mackert and pitcher Asher Wojcieshowski.
14. Salute to Negro Leagues, 2011. The RiverDogs have retired Larry Doby’s No. 14 and annually salute black contributions to baseball, including a 2011 game against Greenville in which the teams wore Homestead Grays and Newark Eagles jerseys.
15. South Carolina vs. Clemson, 2012. The Gamecocks opened a three-game series against Clemson with a neutral site victory, 3-2 in 11 innings. Michael Roth started for South Carolina but wasn’t around for the decision when center fielder Evan Marzilli made a diving catch of a Jay Baum liner with runners on first and third.
16. Bill Murray, 2012 and always. The comic actor and RiverDogs co-owner is a ballpark staple. He was inducted into the South Atlantic League Hall of Fame in 2012.
17. Brett Gardner’s rehab assignment, 2012. Gardner is a Holly Hill native, former College of Charleston player and New York Yankees draft pick but Charleston wasn’t part of his minor league ladder. The veteran big league outfielder went 1-for-3 with a stolen base playing for the RiverDogs on a rehab assignment at The Joe.
18. A-Rod Week, 2013. The New York media descended upon Fishburne Street when Alex Rodriguez played two games for the RiverDogs on a rehab assignment. The crowd reaction was polite curiosity for the superstar hounded by a steroids stigma.
19. The Citadel upsets South Carolina, 2014. The Bulldogs held on for a 10-8 victory over the No. 11 Gamecocks on April 16. The crowd of 6,500 was the largest ever to see a college game at The Joe. Citadel second baseman Mason Davis had three hits and scored three runs. South Carolina regulars Joey Pankake, Conner Bright and Marcus Mooney sat out with injuries.
20. Jorge Mateo, 2015. The fleet, 20-year-old Dominican shortstop stole 82 bases in 99 attempts for the RiverDogs last season, rocketing to the top of the New York Yankees’ top prospects list. Fans at The Joe celebrated his exploits at The Joe with “Hip-hip, Jorge!” cheers.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff