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Coastal Clash creating a unique tradition
by Will Lingo
Among baseball's many traditions, Opening Day conjures images of the beginning of spring, the first sight of an expansive patch of green after a long, monochromatic winter.
While major league Opening Day is being splintered into international and television-driven events that now stretch over nearly a week, many minor league teams are establishing their own Opening Day traditions, with the typical minor league flavor that we all know and love.
The most common season-opening tradition--which usually takes place before the formal start of the minor league season--is the exhibition game. The most desirable of these for a minor league team is a chance to face off against its parent club as the club heads toward its season-opening destination. The lucky clubs this year included Midland (Texas), which played the Athletics, and Memphis (Pacific Coast), which actually got two games against the parent Cardinals.
Minor league teams also often play local college teams to get ready for the new season. The Nashville Sounds (Pacific Coast), for example, played Vanderbilt and Belmont on back-to-back nights before getting their season cranked up.
But the most interesting game of the exhibition season is getting to be the so-called Coastal Clash, a matchup of two coastal South Carolina teams that play in different leagues. The Charleston RiverDogs (South Atlantic) and Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Carolina) squared off for the second time this year, with the Pelicans winning 9-2 after a 9-3 victory last year.
"It's becoming a big event, definitely," said Dan Lehv, the RiverDogs' broadcaster. "We've been pretty happy with the results."
Give The People What They Want
The inspiration for the Coastal Clash actually came from fans who didn't understand why the two teams didn't play each other during the regular season. The two minor league teams worked on the idea of a preseason game, and after they agreed the major league affiliates signed off.
"Really, it's worked out well for both clubs because basically it's a dry run," Lehv said. The Braves, for instance, used the game as an opportunity to get extra work for Paul Byrd last year.
The minor league teams use it as a dry run as well, working on their stadium operations as well as their promotional chops. The teams reached a two-year initial agreement for the game, but after its early success it should become an annual event. The game drew 3,100 fans in Charleston this year.
The winner of the Coastal Clash gets a construction cone, in honor of the frequent construction on U.S. 17, the highway that connects Charleston and Myrtle Beach. But the Lexington Legends (South Atlantic) play for much higher stakes when Opening Day rolls around.
The Legends have been a huge success on and off the field in their three years of existence, but so far they haven't won an Opening Day game. That's had unfortunate consequences for team president Alan Stein.
In year one, he guaranteed a win in the franchise's first-ever game, against the Charleston Alley Cats, and said he would eat cat food if the Legends lost. They did, and he did. In 2002 he had his head shaved after a guaranteed win over Delmarva didn't come through.
Last year Stein said he would stay at the ballpark until the team won, which didn't happen until the fourth game of the season. Even after three days in the stadium, though, it could have been worse. After rallying for a win, the Legends lost their next four games.
Legends staffers have questioned Stein's sanity--"I wouldn't do it," radio announcer Larry Glover said. "I don't care if the (parent club) Astros are playing for us."
Undaunted, Stein made another guarantee this season, vowing to work as a bat boy if Lexington lost on Opening Night, and continuing in the job until the team won.
"Every game we've lost, I've seen a lethargic attitude and a general lack of pride in the bat boys' work and it will change this year, if I have to do it myself," Stein said.
Like Stein's willingness to embarrass himself, the impetus for most these season-opening traditions is simple: to get attention. That's why each spring, along with the players who actually make up the Peoria Chiefs (Midwest) heading north from Florida, a stand of palm trees make the trip as well.
The Chiefs started their tradition after moving into O'Brien Field in 2002. One of the team's investors had noticed palm trees at SBC Park in San Francisco and suggested it as a different look for the ballpark. The team investigated and found out it was actually workable.
"It adds a whole different feel to the ballpark," team president Rocky Vonachen said. "It certainly doesn't look like we're sitting in Peoria."
The trees are trucked in from central Florida in April and planted in the outfield berm. They grow there all summer and die off in the winter, to be replaced the next spring. For the Chiefs, it's well worth the expense, as local media cover the arrival and planting of the trees each season.
"It's great exposure for us," Vonachen said. "The trees generate so much attention."
And whether it's planting palm trees in Illinois, eating cat food or even playing an actual baseball game, in the minor leagues that's what it's all about.