Our national pastime at last returns to Joe P. Riley Jr. Park.
In late May 2014, Jeff Francoeur played in a remarkably unremarkable minor league baseball game in Sacramento, Calif. as a rostered member of the El Paso Chihuahuas, the AAA outpost of the San Diego Padres. I was there, both because I happened to be passing through Sacramento, and because I graduated high school in suburban Atlanta in 2002 – just like Jeff. Frenchy played football and baseball – and a smattering of golf – at a rival high school, and his being drafted by the Braves straight out of graduation was a celebratory event back then.
That minor league game back in 2014 was surprisingly well attended, probably, almost definitely, because Jeffy was playing. Nor did he disappoint. In five at-bats, Francoeur raked off two hits, one for an RBI and the other for a solo home run. He also, characteristically, struck out twice and gunned down a runner at home from somewhere out in right field. It was classic Frenchy, all the way down to him looking up bewildered when my friend and I gave him an Atlanta shout-out.
It's easy to forget that Francoeur's Chihuahuas lost that night, 10-8, to the Rivercats. It was riveting to watch him there, in person, on the other side of the country from where we both grew up. A happy coincidence of timing and travel and geography and life that included a cartoonishly outsized hotdog and outrageously overpriced Heinekins. In the twelve years since we both left Gwinnett county, Ga., how utterly perfect that we would collide in Northern California. I, with approximately 11 years of college and a recent research grant behind me; and he, with approximately 11 years of professional baseball and dozens of different teams and cities behind him.
All thanks to farm league baseball.
There’s an immediacy to minor league baseball not felt in the majors. Summer afternoons and evenings spent in Omaha or Gwinnett or Sacramento or Charleston: these experiences smell and look and taste quainter than the nosebleeds at, say, Turner Field. It’s hilarious to watch Alex Rodriguez, fresh out of hip rehab, go hitless in Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park on July Fourth weekend, just as it’s hilarious to watch Bill Murray scoop up the former mayor and parade around home plate. Such is baseball in the Holy City.
The Charleston Riverdogs. The Sacramento Rivercats. The Asheville Tourists. The Savannah Sandgnats. The Albuquerque Isotopes. The Hartford Yard Goats. YARD GOATS. Such nomenclatural idiosyncracies permeate minor league clubs' mascots from top to bottom, and they betray the wonderful personality that is farm league ball. Who wouldn't want to play for the Orem Owlz, with a Z?
Baseball in the Holy City is distinctly Charleston. With the exception of the occasional New York Yankee guy needing to ease his way back into the game with some tune-up work in the minors, most of these players will never see MLB action, and that’s fine, because it keeps the summer tourists away. From last year’s roster, only centerfielder Slade Heathcott – a wonderful #BaseballName, if ever there were – got the call up to New York. He played 17 games for the Yankees, registering 10 hits on 28 plate appearances.
The Charleston Riverdogs commence their 2016 campaign at home on April 6 with an exhibition against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, for the first occasion of the “Battle of the Beaches.” The Pelicans, a single-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, make the 95-mile drive to Chucktown for a quickie warmup to begin the week. Wednesdays – industry nights – at the Joe normally will feature various “Chopped” styled cooking competitions, and those who work in food-n-bev will enjoy prime seating and drinks and food specials.
Charleston’s season-opener proper opens the following Thursday, April 7, against the Columbia Fireflies, and the two clubs will play a full weekend tilt through Sunday, April 10. Thursdays at the Joe are naturally Thirsty Thursdays, which promise $1 beers during the game and the audio stylings of DJ Natty Heavy. The Friday mainstay fireworks will of course return – the bane of your and my dogs’ existences – and other pleasantries continue throughout each week.
You can also check out the team’s events calendar here, and I’ll see you next week at the ballpark.