Sunday, April 29, 2012

Baseball in Charleston

Maybe the Davidson County Civil War Round Table needs to change its mission statement, if not its missions.

On our last two forays — to Chattanooga last year and then last week to Charleston — part of the touring schedule has included purchasing tickets to those towns' minor league baseball games.

Yep, history wrapped in hanging sliders and breaking curves.

Charleston is the home of the RiverDogs, the Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees (immediately, my brain, tied irrevocably to baseball and the Civil War, said to myself "Imagine that — Yankees in Charleston") in the Southern Division of the South Atlantic League. That's the same league that the Greensboro Grasshoppers play.

My friend Paul Mitchell and I, who left a day earlier than the rest of the round table so we could take in the Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, arrived in Charleston Thursday evening, about 90 minutes before game time. We weren't even sure there would be a game because it had been raining off and on all day and temperatures were uncomfortably chilly.

Turns out, none of that stuff mattered. There was a break in the weather and the game was on. The RiverDogs were playing the West Virginia Power, the Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which happens to be headquartered in Charleston, West Virginia. Yep, Charleston vs. Charleston. Yep, weirder vs. weirder.

The grounds crew prepares Joe Riley Stadium for that night's baseball game.
 We bought our tickets and beer wrist tags and settled in. We took a quick walk around relatively refreshing Joe Riley Stadium — known as "The Joe" to locals —  to get a feel for where we were. Unlike the stadiums in most urban settings, this one does not offer a breathtaking view of the city skyline — no doubt mostly because Charleston doesn't have much of a skyline. There are hardly any high rises or sun-blocking skyscrapers to oooh and aaaah about. The tallest things around seem to be the palmetto trees.

However, the stadium is built next to an estuary off the Cooper River which provides views of the nearby Citadel campus and inspiring sunsets. When you leave your seat to buy a hot dog and beer on the concourse, the view is spectacular. Even on a cold, rainy evening. The estuary, which is also a wildlife sanctuary, is where foul balls from the Joe go to die.

The view behind Joe Riley Stadium can be spectacular at times.
The game, when it began, immediately sank below sea level. The RiverDogs were horrible. By the third inning, they were trailing 6-1 and had committed four errors. Yankees, indeed.

In the fourth, Paul and I witnessed a triple play without even knowing it. The Power had the bases loaded when the next batter up lashed a sinking line drive to shortstop. The fielder caught the ball and stepped on second base for what we thought was the force out, then threw wildly to first in an attempt to make a double play.

Another error. Another run crossed the plate. The Dogs then threw the ball to third base and everything stopped for a moment. The umpires conferred on the third-base line. Then the plate umpire held up a fist and shook it once at the Power dugout, and the two teams traded sides without comment. The score was still 6-1. Huh?

The best Paul and I could figure out was that we saw a rare triple play. The sinking liner must have been caught on the fly by the shortstop, who stepped on second for the unassisted double play. Excited about making a triple play, he softly long-armed the ball to catch the runner trying to tag up at first, but threw the ball away. When the RiverDogs tossed the ball to third, they apparently caught that runner off base, who must have thought he was scoring a run instead of needing to tag up. Triple play. Nobody cheered. No PA announcement. Nobody knew what was going on.

We thought later that maybe we had seen a triple play with a error inside of it, but officially, there can be no error since the runner on third was declared out and did not advance. So the overthrown ball to first could only have been an evil Yankee ploy to catch the opponents off guard.

The game looked hopeless, so Paul and I left to resume our history tour and headed to the Battery.

The next morning, I got hold of a local newspaper and found out that the Dogs won the game 9-8 on the strength of a grand slam in the sixth inning. Go figure.

We took in another game the following night, this time with most of the round table membership on hand. This time, in a well-played game, the Dogs won 4-3, thanks to a great running, game-ending catch by the center fielder in the last inning with the tying run on third base.

When I got home I went online to see what the RiverDogs were really all about. They were in the midst of what would turn out to be an eight-game winning streak. As I write this, they lead the Southern Division by two games with a 16-5 record.

Yankees, indeed.

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