A staff of over 250 make Charleston RiverDogs home games a team effort 

The Other Home Team

click to enlarge riverdogs-84.jpg

Ruta Smith

click to enlarge SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence

A pile of mini pinatas sat in the middle of Nate Kurant's office when I stopped by on Wednesday. They'll be tossed out to fans at Saturday's game during the "Pinata Party" following Perros Santos Night, says Kurant, the Charleston RiverDogs' director of promotions.

"We probably did 1,000 total," says intern CJ Rizzo, one of four other people stuffed into Kurant's 10-by-10 office. "This started sometime last week."

Work on the finer points of Perros Santos Night began about a year ago, just like all the team's splashy promos. Whether it's the world's largest silly string fight or a helicopter ball drop, the RiverDogs manage to lure thousands of fans to 70 or more home games every spring and summer in a city with no shortage of stuff to do.

To make it all happen, a staff of more than 250 pitch in over the course of the season to ensure that fans are fed and entertained — and maybe enjoy a little baseball in between.

The RiverDogs team that takes the field at the Joe and the other team of folks who welcome you to the ballpark operate almost completely independently. For all intents and purposes, the mascots, the dollar beers, the whole operation off the field, is just an elaborate delivery mechanism for the New York Yankees player development program here in Charleston.

Team President and GM Dave Echols (left) has seen the RiverDogs staff grow from 10 to 30, including Assistant GM Ben Abzug (right) - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Team President and GM Dave Echols (left) has seen the RiverDogs staff grow from 10 to 30, including Assistant GM Ben Abzug (right)

"We provide a great place for them to play ... and obviously Charleston is not tough to sell," says Ben Abzug, the team's assistant general manager.

That means everything from concessions, merch, and marketing to groundskeeping, parking, and ticket sales are the responsibility of South Carolina Baseball Club Inc. (or some other RiverDogs subsidiary named in a filing cabinet somewhere.) The players, coaches, trainers, and club's roving scouts are all employees of the New York Yankees organization.

Morgan Powell may be the first person you see when you walk up to the park. The head of ticket operations, if you're holding a RiverDogs ticket in your hand, she may very well have been the one who put it there. From big clients like Boeing to birthday picnics and mini plan buyers, Powell's got her hands full. Even as we talk, standing behind the windows inside the box office, the phone never stops ringing and folks continuously walk up to buy tickets.

click to enlarge Morgan Powell probably sold you your tickets - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Morgan Powell probably sold you your tickets

"You really have to have your hand on the pulse of everything down here," she says. Whether you're a sponsor or a single game buyer, Powell just wants you walking through the gates at the Joe.

The Joseph P. Riley Jr. Ballpark is a city-owned facility used by the RiverDogs year round and as the home field for the Citadel baseball team. (Stadium construction was orchestrated by former Mayor Joe Riley in the late 1990s as part of a land swap between the city and the Citadel.) But since the field sits on an old landfill — hashtag Charleston — the city parks department comes in to mitigate 4-5 inches of settling that occurs each year in the unstable soil. A major rebuild actually came during the last offseason at a cost of just over $1 million from city tourism taxes.

With the sinkholes gone, maintenance of the day-to-day playing surface falls to head groundskeeper Kevin Coyne, who arrives at the ballpark around 9 a.m. on game day.

click to enlarge Head Groundskeeper Kevin Coyne and his team keep the field in pristine shape at the Joe for the RiverDogs as well as the Citadel Bulldogs - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Head Groundskeeper Kevin Coyne and his team keep the field in pristine shape at the Joe for the RiverDogs as well as the Citadel Bulldogs

He's got mowing and watering to do for the infield and outfield grass and more watering and evening-out to do for the infield dirt. Coyne has spent time on crews for the Minnesota Twins, the San Antonio Missions minor league squad, and the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

The sunny springs and summers in Charleston are no problem for the turf at the Joe. But, like last week, when the clouds roll in, Coyne's job shifts to a lot of watching and waiting.

click to enlarge The entire RiverDogs staff pitches in to roll up the tarp - SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
  • The entire RiverDogs staff pitches in to roll up the tarp

"Ready to pull tarp?" was the question that echoed through the RiverDogs front office at about 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday. With a Thursday home stand coming, the field needed to be covered overnight as rain threatened — if it's rolled out too early, the sunshine will scorch the grass. With a big field and a small crew, the full-time RiverDogs staff is split into two teams, green and orange, for this job, with everyone from Coyne to Abzug to salespeople, and others, gathered by the massive rolled-up tarp stashed along the wall by the visitors' bullpen, some in a fresh change of clothes. Tonight's crew, the orange team, gets off easy. Pulling the tarp at night usually means the green team will have to come in early the next morning to pull it off the field.

Food and beverage director Mike Liedl's team will be there regardless, around 8 a.m., to get ready to feed a few thousand people that night.

As weird and off-the-wall as the RiverDogs' new food offerings are each year, "People want hot dogs and beer," Liedl says from his office, tucked under the third baseline seats, across from the mascot room. "Those are the two biggest things that will move." On a busy night, Liedl and his team will sell 2,000 hot dogs.

click to enlarge Food and beverage director Mike Liedl and a staff of about 200 help keep fans fed at the Joe - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Food and beverage director Mike Liedl and a staff of about 200 help keep fans fed at the Joe

Liedl landed in Charleston just before this season, but has been a quick study of what people are looking for when they come to a game. (He's already learned to ask, "What can we put pimento cheese on?")

In addition to setting the menus at the stadium's five concession stands and eight portable stations, Liedl has to handle a few curve balls (sorry) in a busy stadium with a central kitchen ready to serve the 4,500 people in attendance, on average, each night.

"Dealing with a 20-year-old (plus) stadium, we definitely have some older equipment that we make work," he says. A busted tap cooling system at one stand, for instance, means only canned beer there for the time being.

About 200 foodservice workers are hired each season to make sure those dogs and beer are ready to be handed over to hungry fans. And a handful of independent vendors also set up in the park to ply their goods, part of the familiar soundtrack of America's pastime.

click to enlarge Gerry Green and the rest of the Tony the Peanut Man crew will sell about 500 bags of boiled peanuts on game night - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Gerry Green and the rest of the Tony the Peanut Man crew will sell about 500 bags of boiled peanuts on game night

On a busy night, Lee Williams says his team of three will sell about 500 bags of boiled peanuts. Williams has helped run Tony the Peanut Man's boiled peanut business since Tony, his brother, passed away in 2016. Cajun is the most popular flavor, and sales are brisk, better than last season, he says. Gerry Green, one of Williams' salesmen, fills a pair of baskets with 20 bags each three or four times each game.

click to enlarge RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

Looking ahead to next season, Liedl already has a wish list based on what's performing well this year: A new "House of Spirits" liquor vendor has done well; he thinks there's probably more they can do with pizza; and the "food court" deck near the entry to the park is underutilized, he says.

After the beer starts flowing, Liedl's role shifts to guest services: shuffling staff, fixing long lines, and "getting the crowd served as fast as possible in two or three hours and making sure they're happy."

Keeping folks happy and entertained is a big part of Nate Kurant's job as promotions director. From an office covered with tchotchkes from gimmicks past, Kurant and his team set a totally different lineup for each game than the guys in uniform on the field. A recent (Thirsty) Thursday included a "beer pong" challenge during the second inning, T-shirt toss after the third, and dizzy bat after the sixth, just to name a few. That's what a fan sees during the game. But there's a reason why those fireworks are shot on Fridays and kids eat free on Sundays. It's all about getting, and keeping, butts in seats.

click to enlarge Nate Kurant develops theme night ideas a year in advance, like that Pinata Party on June 8 - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Nate Kurant develops theme night ideas a year in advance, like that Pinata Party on June 8

"You make your money Thursday through Saturday," says Abzug, the assistant GM. "Then, whatever you make during the week is gravy."

So, the creativity comes in filling the stadium on those off days — moving Dog Days from Sundays to Mondays has proven to be a boon, for instance. That's not to say the weekends aren't a challenge too, though.

"How are we getting people here when they could go to the beach, when they could go to the Windjammer, when they could go to Music Farm, or whatever?" Kurant asks. "We can do something different or that they've never seen [before]." Kurant is excited for Saturday's mini pinatas. "It's going to be a big, colorful mess."

During games, Kurant is the guy you see on the outfield big screen with a big smile coaxing cheers from the crowd and queuing sponsor reads between batters. (A plush loveseat behind home plate, emblazoned with a furniture store logo is billed as the "best seat in the house.")

"Tonight's pulling teeth," Kurant laments after an energetic opening welcome on a recent rainy night. But it's nothing he hasn't dealt with before. "But it's OK."

"If we have a big crowd, it's actually a very easy night, despite there being a lot more." In the absence of that packed house atmosphere, "that means we have to create it, we have to execute it," he says. "We got a lot of work to do tonight."

Matt Dean is the voice of the RiverDogs and the director of media relations - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Matt Dean is the voice of the RiverDogs and the director of media relations

Kurant may be the guy you've seen on the big screen, but Matt Dean is the voice of the RiverDogs on the radio and the Sunday TV broadcasts. Dean is also the only staffer who travels all season with the team, juggling the radio play-by-play, game notes, team stats, and media relations.

During the game (and for a few hours before), Dean will be the guy in the headset in the press box, windows open wide, behind home plate. Game time or not, he's fluent in the latest RiverDogs stats, standings, and pretty much all things baseball.

Throwing out a hypothetical, Kurant reflects on his duty through the lens of what his mother, or someone else who found their way to a game, would think: "What would be the story she would tell?"

Kurant and others are under no illusion that that story may not be the game on the field: "That's why I have a job."

"Everything we do is to make people smile," Kurant concludes.


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