RiverDogs ready to roll in 2012

Charleston hopes to add playoffs to busy summer schedule

By John Parker / Special to MLB.com | April 2, 2012 8:24 PM ET

League Preview The 2012 South Atlantic League campaign looks to be a particularly promising one for the Charleston RiverDogs.

The Yankees' Class A affiliate plays host to the 53rd annual Sally League All-Star Game on June 19. It's the midsummer classic's fourth visit to Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park and the first since 2004.

"We've had the All-Star Game here a few times before, but we always try to improve on what we've done in the past," said Dave Echols, the RiverDogs' general manager since 2004. "We set the bar high for ourselves, so there are a few new twists we'll be trying out over the three-day event.

"Charleston has a rich military history and is known for great food -- Conde Nast recently named us the country's No. 1 destination city -- so we've partnered with two local sponsors for the All-Star Game: Force Protection Industries (a local military contractor) and the Charleston Restaurant Association.

"We're looking forward to highlighting all the great things Charleston has to offer."

The RiverDogs are routinely among the innovators in Minor League entertainment, as one might expect from a club whose president is Mike Veeck and whose co-owner and "Director of Fun" is Bill Murray. And the ballpark features one of the tastiest menus around, including, of course, the Pickle Dog. MiLB.com's own Ben Hill recently pondered in print whether the RiverDogs have the best concessions in Minor League Baseball.

"Yeah, I'm already catching some flak [from other teams] for that," said Echols, laughing.

Though the Goldklang Group-owned team is renowned for its family-friendly fan experience, the RiverDogs -- and their predecessors the Rainbows (1985-1993) and Royals (1980-1984) -- have been rather less successful on the field.

Charleston is one of three current Sally League teams never to have won the circuit's championship. (The others are Hagerstown, which won a Carolina League title in 1981, and Greenville, which won the 1998 crown while based in Columbia, S.C.) In fact, Charleston has reached the postseason just twice in the past 22 seasons and hasn't won a playoff game since 1988.

This year could be different. The short-season Yankees affiliates that traditionally feed the RiverDogs' roster -- Staten Island in the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League and the Rookie-level Yankees of the Gulf Coast League -- both won their leagues last season. And the Yankees appear set to send a host of top prospects to Charleston this summer, including outfielder Mason Williams, whom MLB.com ranked as its No. 73 overall prospect in the Minor Leagues.

Along with Williams, who was first in the NYPL in hits (94) and second in batting average (.349) and stolen bases (28) last year, RiverDogs fans are likely to see right-handers Jose Campos and Bryan Mitchell, shortstops Cito Culver and Angelo Gumbs, third basemen Dante Bichette Jr. and Tyler Austin, and outfielder Ben Gamel at some point this summer. That's a list that includes eight of the Yankees' top 20 prospects.

Guiding the club will be Carlos Mendoza, who was the Gulf Coast League's Manager of the Year with the Yankees in his managerial debut last season. A 12-year Minor League veteran, the Venezuelan-born Mendoza served as the RiverDogs' first-base coach in 2010.

It remains to be seen exactly which players the Yankees assign to Charleston and how they'll perform, but Echols is looking forward to a promising season.

"Being a Yankees affiliate always makes things exciting, and when the team plays well the fans go home that much happier," he said.

Changes in Lakewood

After winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, the BlueClaws suffered their first losing season since 2005 last year. Lakewood fans can look forward to changes in 2012 both on the field and in the stands.

Youngsters Aaron Altherr, a 21-year-old outfielder, and 19-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco both struggled in brief stints with the BlueClaws last year but performed admirably at Class A Short-Season Williamsport. They'll likely be back by the Jersey shore this summer as they try to take the next step.

Joining them from Williamsport is new manager Mickey Morandini, who guided the Crosscutters to a 43-33 mark in his managerial debut last year. Morandini, who turns 46 later this month, was the Phillies' fifth-round pick in 1988 and played 11 seasons in the Majors.

The biggest change in Lakewood this summer will be the advent of the sellout. Though FirstEnergy Park has a listed capacity of 6,588, lawn seating has allowed the club to pack in many more fans on occasion. They drew 13,000 customers for their season finale in 2002 and over 10,000 for a Ryan Howard rehab appearance in 2010.

After studying the situation and listening to fans' complaints of long lines for restrooms and concessions, the BlueClaws have decided to improve the fan experience by capping attendance at 8,000. The team drew over 8,000 eight times in 61 home openings last season and averaged 6,263 fans per game, highest in the league.

"Over the last few years, particularly on Friday nights when we have fireworks, it's just gotten a little too crowded," said BlueClaws general manager Geoff Brown. "No one wants to wait 10 minutes for hot dogs or 45 minutes for a funnel cake."

It's a problem that a lot of teams would like to have, but Brown pointed out that other clubs have set attendance limits as well. "When [Triple-A] Lehigh Valley opened up, they said 10,000 was all they could reasonably handle and capped it there. But since we're an existing franchise, it's been important for us to let our longtime fans know about the changes."

The move has been somewhat controversial, with fans wondering if the reduced attendance will lead to higher ticket prices to offset the missing revenue. Walk-up customers can no longer be guaranteed entry. Nevertheless, the club is hoping that less crowding will make everyone happier.

"Last year if you called us up at noon on a gameday, you could always get a ticket," Brown said. "It will mean a little more advanced planning. ... But we really think that holding that limit will make the experience better for everyone."

Into thin air

Backed by Corey Dickerson's league-leading 32 longballs, the Asheville Tourists topped the circuit last year with 163 homers, 19 more than the second-place Greensboro Grasshoppers.

The Tourists regained the home run crown for the first time since 2005, when first baseman Joe Koshansky went deep 36 times. The Grasshoppers led the league in round-trippers each season between 2006 and 2010, with current Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton delivering 39 blasts in 2008.

What is it about these two teams that brings out the best from their bashers? Without taking anything away from the hitters, they may have been aided by playing in smaller parks at higher elevation.

At 2,134 feet above sea level, Asheville is far and away the loftiest location in the league. Lexington, at 978 feet, is second, while Charleston sits precariously perched just 20 feet above the Atlantic.

Perhaps more importantly, both clubs' ballparks are on the cozier side. The right-field wall at Asheville's McCormick Field (once the site of Babe Ruth's "bellyache heard around the world") is just 297 feet from home plate, although the fence stands 36 feet high -- nearly as high as Fenway's Green Monster. The short porch presumably aided the left-handed-hitting Dickerson, who hit 26 of his 32 longballs at home. Tourists first baseman Jared Clark, a right-handed hitter, led the league with 24 homers in 2010, however, and hit 11 of them on the road.

McCormick Field is 326 feet down the left-field line -- about average in the league -- but is just 373 to center. Charleston's Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, at 398, is the only other Sally League park shorter than 400 feet to straight-away center.

The arguments for park effects at Greensboro's NewBridge Bank Park are weaker. While not among the larger fields, it has roughly the same dimensions as Delmarva's Arthur W. Perdue Stadium -- and the Shorebirds were last in the league with just 60 longballs last season and 49 in 2009.

At any rate, the next time a Sally League slugger clubs three homers in a single game, the odds are good that it took place in Asheville. It only happened twice last season -- both times by Corey Dickerson, at home.

Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the South Atlantic League.

John Parker is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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