On the evening of April 25, at Pepperhill Park in North Charleston, S.C., a youth baseball game between the North Charleston Recreation Royals and Angels was interrupted by gunfire. What had been a routine night on the ballfield devolved into chaos and fear, as players, coaches and parents ran for cover.
No one was hurt in the shooting; the perpetrators, involved in an altercation in a nearby parking lot, have yet to be apprehended. Video of the terrifying incident circulated widely, and the baseball community -- locally and nationally -- was quick to respond. On Tuesday evening at the Charleston RiverDogs’ home of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Ballpark, the baseball diamond became a place of healing and togetherness. The April 25 game, cruelly interrupted, was played to its conclusion.
The North Charleston Royals and Angels, comprised of 9- and 10-year-old players, took the field prior to a regularly scheduled contest between the RiverDogs and visiting Fayetteville Woodpeckers. The youth teams played the final two innings of their interrupted game, giving them the opportunity to showcase their talents while interacting with RiverDogs and Woodpeckers players -- Single-A affiliates of the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros, respectively.
“It was an easy brainstorm for us: Let’s get those kids out to the ballpark for a game. Then it evolved into let’s let them finish the game,” said RiverDogs president Dave Echols. “It only took one phone call to the North Charleston Recreation Department, to engage with them to see if they were comfortable with it. The city’s mayor was comfortable with it, the police department was comfortable with it. Everyone on board was extremely enthusiastic.”
The RiverDogs soon received calls from Major League Baseball and Senator Tim Scott, both of whom provided additional funding for the festivities. The Rays, meanwhile, sent hats for the youth players. North Charleston Recreation director T.J. Rostin praised the outpouring of support, saying that the event helped the players and their families "slowly put the events of [April 25] behind them."
"It could not have made a bigger impact on these kids and their families," he said. "The kids, on the field, in the dugout, were smiling from ear to ear. And the parents and coaches, too. There were coaches, 40-year-old men, who felt 9 and 10 years old again."
Many of the youth athletes asked for autographs from the Charleston and Fayetteville players, but RiverDogs pitcher Jack Snyder flipped the script.
“I knew that when I was that age, I loved getting autographs. But I wanted their autographs because of what they went through, and now they’re here today. It’s something I look up to,” said Snyder, who diligently collected the signatures of the youth players on a baseball. “It meant a lot for them to come out here and have fun. It’s a good reminder that this game is meant to be fun.”
Tuesday’s invite to Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Ballpark was extended to all athletes participating in North Charleston Recreation’s baseball and softball programs. Following the youth game’s conclusion, these guests of honor were treated to a picnic. One of the highlights was a talk given by RiverDogs director of community outreach Chris Singleton, a former Minor League Baseball player whose mother was killed in the Charleston Emanuel AME church shooting. Singleton is now a renowned motivational speaker, delivering the message that “Love is stronger than hate.”
Major League Baseball stars also contributed to the outpouring of support, surprising the youth players. Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. who attended the University of South Carolina, sent along a sympathetic and supportive video message. Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield, a South Carolina native, spoke with the youth players via Zoom.
“Did you have fun?” asked Merrifield, whose query was answered by a chorus of yeses. “Hit any home runs?” This, inevitably, was answered with a resounding no. “Yeah, it’s a big field,” Merrifield acknowledged.
The North Charleston Angels emerged as the winners in Tuesday's completed game, defeating the Royals, 8-2. But in this circumstance, the final score was largely irrelevant. What mattered was that they played the game.
"We're hoping to get past what happened, to get back to baseball and kids having fun," said Rostin. "That’s why we do what we do every day. We want them happy, we want them to play and we want to keep them out of harm’s way whenever possible."
"It was one of those feel-good events that clicked on every level," said Echols. "Baseball is still our national pastime, and provides the strongest bridge to come together. The ballpark is a place to relax, feel good and enjoy being around family and friends."