Comeback of the Century: RiverDogs find success despite COVID-ravaged seasons
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the sports world in 2020 and 2021, and teams in every sport at every level had to find ways to adapt much less succeed. The Charleston Riverdogs found both.
On a late September evening, two minor league baseball teams found themselves in a position to win it all - a position that both could hardly imagine given the chaos COVID-19 had brought to the previous and current season.
After suffering a suspended season the spring prior, this was a game nobody knew if it was even going to happen, and now it was coming down to the wire with a decisive Game 5 in the championship. Both teams understood the circumstances - it was all or nothing.
The Charleston RiverDogs were not going to let this one slip away. Having taken the first game of the best-of-five Low-A East Championship Series, the RiverDogs won an exciting second game by breaking a tie in the ninth. The Down East Wood Ducks would win the next two to force a tie-breaking Game 5 to win it all.
But it was the RiverDogs who would be crowned champions, earning the first title in franchise history with the 9-2 victory and also bringing the first championship for a professional baseball team to the city of Charleston since 1922.
For many, the pandemic that started in early 2020, continued through 2021 and is still raging in 2022, has been a time to forget. A time filled with hardship, loss, sadness and regret.
It’s difficult to shine any light on such a tragic time, but Charleston’s minor league baseball team was a light, defying all odds and built a championship winning team for the first time in decades.
As a Low-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Charleston RiverDogs have had four different team names over the course of a 99-year championship drought.
Because of that, nobody could have predicted the success that was coming their way. After an abrupt suspension of virtually all sports in 2020, announced a mere few weeks before opening day, minor league baseball was left to fend for itself.
When discussions were being held in early March 2020 regarding the potential of a suspended season, the RiverDogs were forced to react and adapt to the incoming challenges.
After reeling in nearly $74 million in revenue in 2018, Charleston knew it was going to have to change things up if the RiverDogs were going to keep bringing in money. The organization relies heavily on ticket sales and merchandise, two funnels of revenue that became non-existent.
Chris Singleton, RiverDogs’ director of ticket sales, says the early discussions involved a lot of guesswork.
“At first we were left in the dark, there wasn't a lot of information being spread to us that we could relay to our fans about the season being suspended,” he said.
The initial worry about the suspended season was kept from the organization, as well as the fans, leaving an even more difficult situation for the players, coaches, and front staff to plan for.
“We knew that if the games were going to be suspended that our efforts were going to be much more challenging, and we needed to find alternate content to keep the community involved with this team." - Chris Singleton, director of ticket sales
During a time when nobody knew what was going to happen, the RiverDogs acted quickly to find alternative ways to get their players and coaches involved in the community and maintain that good relationship.
For some, this downtime was more difficult than others, especially within the front office.
Jason Kempf, RiverDogs’ director of broadcasting and media relations, had just moved here from the Midwest and found navigating the new playing field even more challenging than normal.
“I was trying to get ready for a season that started in a couple months, in a brand new place, and all of a sudden this happened,” he said. “I was like OK...what do I do now?”
Once the season was suspended, everyone was sent home, even the staff in the front office. There was no push for content during this time because everyone was in quarantine; it was the lowest point of the 2020 season for the RiverDogs.
There was a dire need for alternative content to be pushed out to the community to keep everyone involved and the team afloat.
“We began playing video games like 'MLB the Show' and live streaming it for people to watch. The players loved it and the fans had great reception from it.” - Jason Kempf, director of broadcasting
The team began shifting all its focus on helping the community through services, or doing local zoom calls with students, or even playing baseball video games with them.
Ben Azbug, assistant General Manager, believed staying connected with the community during such a difficult time was really important for the team and fans.
“Since we were not able to host events for our fans, how do we do right by those who help support and cheer for our business,” he said.
The RiverDogs took their talents from the field and implemented them into the community, which Azbug believes was a huge contributor to their successful 2021 season.
“You don't play well if you don't have good fans, and we have some of the best fans in the entire country,” he said. “It was important for us to show how much we care about them.”
The Comeback Season
After months of time apart, zoom calls, and absolutely no baseball in 2020, it was time for the RiverDogs 2021 season to get back into action.
“We obviously were super excited for the games to start, but we knew it was necessary to have these conversations about spectator safety, and being smart about the pandemic,” says Singleton.
The stadium initially opened up with very low capacity, as sort of a test run to see if the initial guidelines were going to be effective for the actual amount of fans that come to the game.
“I thought our first actions were with good intentions, we were eager to bring fans back but we wanted it to be a safe environment,” Singleton added.
Azbug explained how the stadium shifted to a cashless venue, implemented social distancing, and opened multiple entry and exit ways into the stadium.
“It was definitely a shift in feel for the guys in the clubhouse, but it seems like we all did well in adjusting to the new normal, you could call it,” Azbug said.
The RiverDogs 2021 season started in full swing in late March, and fans began trickling in more and more as the games went by, and the team continued to win.
“It was funny, as we saw more and more fans come to the games, more and more Ws were put on the scorecard. It's like we fed off the energy of the fans coming back to the game." - Ben Azbug, assistant GM
The RiverDogs were blowing teams out, winning multiple games in a row and sitting at the top of the leaderboards only a few months into the season.
“Early on we felt we had something special, nobody realized it because there were more important matters at hand but once we got back to doing what we do best, we excelled,” says Azbug.
Players who were invited back after the suspension were hungry, they wanted to win more than ever and prove themselves that their team is worth keeping in the future
“We didn't know if we were going to come back, some players didn't have guaranteed contracts or money to play, so when we did come back, they wanted it more than ever,” says Azbug.
In a season where so much doubt was being placed on the players, they responded like never before and transitioned into an excellent and successful baseball team.
“I've said it before and I'll say it again, we won because of our fans, and our players' dedication to the game of baseball,” Azbug added. “I haven't been part of an organization that has such a great attitude.”
The RiverDogs went on to win 82 games in the 2021 season, putting them at the top of the standings in time for playoffs.
They cruised to the finals where they defeated the Down East Wood Ducks to win their first championship in nearly 100 years
“It was an amazing feeling, and you know we like to say that we saw it coming, but after such a crazy year, this blew away our expectations." - Chris Singleton, director of ticket sales
The assistant general manager wasn’t surprised by the team’s performance, but fans blew him away.
“I wasn't necessarily surprised by the talent of the team, but the reception from the community, combined with the dedication of the players created something really special,” said Azbug.
It was a near exact 100 year drought for this team, one of the largest in recorded professional baseball history, this team fought against all odds to secure a championship.
Even after such a successful season, the job still isn't done. The RiverDogs still face immense pressure and expectations to build and maintain this newfound success in 2022 and beyond.
But Kempf says the franchise is absolutely here for that challenge.
“We feel like we have created a new environment for baseball in Charleston, the fans are excited, we're excited, the city is excited too. However, we do understand that the job isn't over; there's always next season, and we aren't content with just one championship.” - Jason Kempf, director of broadcasting
The RiverDogs have set their sights on bigger and better things in the future, as Singleton hints at some upcoming projects they have been working on.
“We have adapted to the times, and applied tons of virtual and social media outlets that we didnt take advantage of before,” he said. “It wasn't that we didn't think it was worth it but it wasn't our focus, and now after the 2020 season, we understand the importance of social media and staying relevant in the community.”
Singleton added that its social media and community outreach departments have been “grinding non-stop to become a platform that we feel is suitable for our fans, and we’re excited for what comes next.”
The Tampa Bay Rays will send the RiverDogs their new set of players like every year, but this time is going to be a bit different. They have expectations, and many within the organization are refusing to settle for anything less than being at the top again.
“We are incredibly fortunate to come out of this situation like we have, and not to say we didn't lose a few soldiers on the way, but overall we are very happy with our position heading into next season,” says Azbug.