At last month's Baseball Winter Meetings, the Charleston RiverDogs received the inaugural Charles K. Murphy Patriot Award. This award -- named after the late Florida State League president, an Army veteran -- recognizes "outstanding support of the United States Armed Forces and veterans."
Team president Dave Echols said the RiverDogs have excelled in this area because of a "culmination of effort and energy."
"When you're working in a military town, with commanders and personnel rotating out every two to three years, it goes to the strength of our relationship," he said. "So there's a willingness of the shifting personnel -- leaving and coming in -- who are hoping to hear from us and expecting to hear from us.... I've been here 15 years, but you can't do something 15 years ago and just hope it continues to work. You have to do the work -- at events and community meetings, sponsoring things when we can and making the ballpark available."
The city's military community is concentrated within Joint Base Charleston, which was founded in 2005 after a merger between the Naval Weapons Station and Charleston Air Force Base. Additionally, the Citadel military college is located in close proximity to the RiverDogs, and the team shares the Joseph P. Riley Ballpark with the Citadel Bulldogs baseball team.
A longtime area of focus for the RiverDogs, which has only increased in recent years, is hiring veterans to work at the ballpark as game-day employees. In 2016, this included employing five homeless veterans on the cleanup crew, an action that took place after the "Tent City" homeless encampment was shut down by the City of Charleston.
"We'd never had that high profile of a situation as it pertains to homelessness and veterans being homeless," said Echols. "So, how do we help? City officials were involved with the closing, and part of the back-and-forth banter with city officials was that there was nowhere for [Tent City residents] to go. The city called us, and we said we'd interview them."
Stadium operations director Philip Guiry, entering his third season with the RiverDogs, is the man responsible for hiring game-day employees.
"When you get out of the military and you've seen some stuff, it can be easy to come home and slip through society," he said. "It was low-risk on my side to hire them, but the benefits were innumerable."
The RiverDogs partner with Goodwill in their game-day hiring process. That organization has been a long-running proponent of bringing jobs to military veterans.
"Concessions, ushers, the parking lot crew ... anything we hire from, you'll find veterans within that," said Guiry. "If you can make it in the military, then obviously you can make it through a Minor League season. It's not as difficult as boot camp, although sometimes it's just as hot."
During the 2016 season, the RiverDogs tabbed Alfonso Rogers to be a full-time sales representative. The retired airman and current reservist said working with the team is in line with his long-term career goals.
"I've always had a passion for sports and always wanted to pursue it," said Rogers, who was a C17 Instructor Airdrop Loadmaster at Joint Base Charleston. "When I was a so-called 'young airman,' there weren't many opportunities to go out around town, but I became interested in the RiverDogs through [co-owner] Mike Veeck's [sports management] class at the Citadel."
He continued, "Being in Mr. Veeck's class, he saw something in me. He offered me a chance, and I trusted his guidance."
In his role as a member of the RiverDogs' sales staff, one of Rogers' primary duties is to serve as a liaison between the team and the local military community.
"My goal is to strengthen that tie," he said. "I still fly missions, and I've seen commanders [at Joint Base Charleston] who recognized who I was through my work with the RiverDogs.... One thing I've done is work with the first sergeants, as they have to deal with a lot through their squadrons. And we're also building a new club level, so that will be a great option for military retirements and promotional things like that."
Making the transition from the military to Minor League Baseball came as something of a shock to Rogers.
"It's not necessarily the hours, because as a military flyer, you're working long hours," he said. "But I think now I have more face-to-face interaction with people, as well as more phone call interaction, than I did in the military.... One of the similarities is obviously the hard work you're putting in and the discipline you've got to have. But the difference within that is here you have more freedom. It's obviously a stricter schedule when you're flying a cargo plane from one place to another."
For Echols, the Charles K. Murphy Patriot Award proved to be a nice bit of recognition for what has been an ongoing, ever-evolving effort.
"Even if this is something you're doing 24/7/365, each year, you still have to see what you can do better," he said. "We've always had military veterans as game-day employees in various capacities, but [in adding Rogers] we took it a step further and made the right hire. So that elevates it again."
And there's always room for improvement.
"We want to make sure there's a stronger emphasis in the next few years reaching military spouses and families, and subsequently, youth sports on the base. We want to get that word out, that we want to be involved with the youth, whereas the last few years we were making sure the military personnel know we're here and what we're doing.
"It's a constant effort, and we charge our staff to be in tune with the military and maintain that emotion year-round. We think the military recognizes that, appreciates it and returns the love."