No one truly knows if reincarnation exists. But in baseball, rebirth is happening all the time. Every year there's roster turnover, front office shake-ups and reshuffling of priorities. Those are the more common forms of change. But every once in a while something much bigger occurs -- one organization becomes something entirely new, and the whole personality of the group begins to change.
In 1994, the Charleston Rainbows had reached the end of their path. The Padres had rebranded the club the Rainbows when they took ownership in 1985, and Texas held onto the name when the team changed hands in 1993. But something different was on the horizon. The club was headed in a unique direction.
After a naming contest, the rebranded Charleston RiverDogs played their inaugural season in 1994. In the years since, the team has become part of the city's identity. Much of the reason for that was the new ownership group that took over when the 'Bows became the 'Dogs. The Goldklang Group, led by Marv and Jeff Goldklang, along with Mike Veeck and Bill Murray, among others, established an entirely new mindset when it comes to baseball in the Holy City: Fun is good.
It's an ethos that runs through every single thing the RiverDogs have done for 25 seasons -- and they take that credo very seriously.
In the Minor Leagues, the game on the field is often secondary to the spectacle off of it. The between-innings games, the mascots and the promotions are all designed, or maybe overdesigned, with the sole purpose of getting fans into (and sometimes up out of) their seats.
As much as baseball is America's pastime, the truth remains that a ticket to see Low-A players learn to play professional ball in pursuit of a dream just isn't as hot as the Taylor Swift concert or the food festival going on downtown. So the staffs of Minor League clubs have to be a little creative when it comes to drawing fans to the ballpark. And few, if any, are better at that than the RiverDogs, who won the 2017 Bob Freitas Award from Baseball America for their promotional efforts.
"Not to pat ourselves on the back, but it's just embracing the idea of, 'Let's have some fun with it, and it can turn into something great,'" says Nate Kurant, the RiverDogs' director of promotions. "We could give away T-shirts. We could give away hats, and it would be fine. But every team can do that. What I think we do a really good job of here is, we try to put the spectacle into the hands of the people. You can show them fireworks, and that's great. But if you give them the moment and they are the show -- you're not watching the show, you are the show -- that's where I think we've been fortunate as an organization because we're allowed to try things."
The 'Dogs will try just about anything. From "Nobody Night" -- a 2002 promotion during which the club set the record for lowest attendance by locking fans out of the park until the fifth inning, at which point the official attendance was counted in the books -- to the world's biggest Silly String fight on String Night, to Joseph P. Riley and the Amazing Technicolor Ballpark, during which fans at "The Joe" were given bags of colored powder that they tossed up in unison during the seventh-inning stretch to form a massive color display over the stadium -- nothing is ever off the table.
"It's all about somebody just saying 'Sure,' instead of 'That's stupid,' or 'That'll never work,'" Kurant says. "Of course it won't work. Nothing will ever work until you try it. Just try stuff. And so we try stuff, and we're really good at failing, but because of that we get to succeed a lot, too. My thing is I want to be a failer, not a failure. So keep trying and failing, but eventually you'll find success."
That method works for the entire front office, too, including president and general manager Dave Echols who, now in his 14th year in the position, has made it his job to encourage all of his employees to take as many risks as possible.
"I want Nate to think that way because if he's afraid to fail, then we don't have a Silly String night -- he'll be too afraid to do it," Echols says. "The RiverDogs operate under a 'Fun is Good' philosophy, and it's something we as a staff try to push through and have as an underlying message in how we make decisions. And the Goldklang group, they are our owners and we take directives from them, and they want us to infuse fun into the success and brand that we have."
During this past offseason's organizational meetings, the history of the brand was naturally brought to the table when discussing how to commemorate the RiverDogs' 25th season. Obviously the club was going to celebrate; the question was how? The team could easily have gone with a commemorative patch on its sleeve in 2018, but these are the RiverDogs. To have a run-of-the-mill 25th season patch would be boring.
"You take 25 years of being the RiverDogs, well that's 175 in dog years," Echols says with a chuckle. "It was really a no-brainer when we were sitting around discussing things."
So the 'Dogs ran with it and created a logo that celebrates 175 canine years rather than their actual 25.
"We could have put a 25 on our patch just like every other team would have done, and not one person would have batted an eye," Kurant says. "But when we did it in dog years people were like, 'Yeah, that's a fun team, they do fun stuff.' Fans were calling it the logo of the year."
The commemorative logo was just the beginning. There was still more in store to celebrate all those years as 'Dogs.
Charleston is big on history -- the National Parks Service lists 38 National Historic Landmarks in the city alone, which doesn't even touch the state- designated historical sites and the areas of local legend. The RiverDogs have become very much a part of that heritage. They also like to have some fun with it.
Around The Joe this season, fans will find placards similar to those that you stumble upon around every corner in Charleston proper that commemorate a historical site or event. But the ones in the park are specific to the RiverDogs both in a historical sense and through their sardonic playfulness. From the placard commemorating Mitch Hilligoss's South Atlantic League record 38-game hitting streak to the one remembering when a fan named Sue dropped her nachos and got a free replacement plate, the 'Dogs always find a way to bring a smile to the faces of their guests.
"There are so many historical markers around the city, so we thought it might be fun to play with that idea by tongue-in-cheek saying we're the youngest historical site," Kurant says. "Whether it's accurate or not is up for grabs, but that's some of the small stuff we've been doing here around the ballpark."
Other 25th year touches include photos of well-known former RiverDogs lining the walls of The Joe. And some of the former Lowcountry greats such as Hilligoss have returned to the park to help celebrate their shared history with the club. Every Wednesday the 'Dogs wear throwback uniforms from their very first year -- a horrendous teal jersey that for some reason was all the rage in the '90s and can now be rebranded as "retro."
The pièce de résistance, though, is the Silver Anniversary Dog, the most outlandish of the 12 new concessions items the team introduced for 2018. For just $25, fans can chow down on this silver-garnished, all-beef, wagyu hot dog topped with pan-seared pork belly, butter-poached lobster and a white truffle champagne aioli.
"It was silly enough where it was like, 'Yeah, let's try it,'" Kurant says, laughing. "We were thinking no one is going to do that. Nobody is going to buy a $25 hot dog. Until they bought a $25 hot dog."
Needless to say the Silver Anniversary Dog isn't the best-selling item at the park, but that's not the point. For the crew in Charleston, it all goes back to that idea of bringing as much fun as possible to the fans -- and having them connect that fun to the team on the field. Because when they suddenly realize that they're not only having a great time but that they're seeing the Yankees of the future, it makes for a top-notch experience all around.
"Having the Yankees as your calling card is nice by nature," Kurant says. "It is tremendous to have that as the backbone of where we are because the Yankees have that presence, and being connected to that is a huge positive."
Seeing Aaron Judge and Luis Severino and Miguel Andujar -- all of whom came up through Charleston -- shine in the big leagues gives the RiverDogs a bit of cachet. But the only way to make fans aware is to get them through the gates in the first place. And in doing so, a chain reaction occurs that reaches all the way onto the field and up the Minor League ladder.
"Whether it's $1 beer night or Color Night or they're dropping bouncy balls from the air, all that makes people want to come out and have fun, and it makes the players want to play well," says pitcher JP Sears. "And that leads to you wanting to do well here and then higher and higher. So it's a ripple effect. I like it, I think it's fun."
"I think they do a good job with the fans, which makes the baseball staff happy because when the fans come and support us, it gives us a little edge," says RiverDogs manager Julio Mosquera. "It makes you want to do more, and every day do a little something better to show the fans that the players care about them, too."
When the Rainbows became the RiverDogs, no one knew exactly what to expect. Now, 25 years later or, fine, 175, that's still true. Except fans know to expect the unexpected -- and to anticipate having a great time at The Joe.
"It's a lot of fun, it's a family atmosphere," says Bubba Lloyd, who has been a RiverDogs season ticket holder for 15 years. "My wife and I love to participate in all the promotional nights. It makes you feel like you never grow up. It means a lot that the club prioritizes fun because it allows everybody to get involved. I always know I'm going to have a good time because it's just a fun place to be, it really is."
Lloyd is not alone in his assessment. The 'Dogs have become ingrained in the Charleston community, which shows its love by showing up. In 2017, the club eclipsed the 300,000-attendance mark for the first time.
"We're just trying to find ways to truly connect and let the community know we care and we want to be a part of what they're experiencing," Echols says. "But we also want to be an outlet for them -- a place where you can come and you don't have to be a baseball fan, you don't have to care if we win or lose, but there are a lot of opportunities to come and enjoy this ballpark. It could be a cheap date night out, some good food, or you can just come and catch the breeze off the river. There's a lot of reasons we've been able to give the community a chance to come out, and I think that's the main thing with Charleston, and we're happy to do that."
"We don't take a night off," Kurant says. "We could put on the same show every night and most people wouldn't know, but that's not fun. So we're trying to put on the best show every night. We want to make sure the first time you're here or the hundredth time you're here that it's the best time you've ever had."
Fun is good. The RiverDogs have been proving it for 25 seasons. Here's to 175 more.
Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.