BY CAROLYN LaWELL
CHARLESTON, South Carolina | Harold Craw likes to watch families and friends stroll through the gates at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park and help bring The Joe to life.
Early during his career, though, Craw noticed that crowds never really reflected the diversity so visible in Charleston, where more than a quarter of those who live in the city are black. Craw is black himself, and he never believed the opinions that others spouted that minorities just aren’t interested in baseball. He quietly did his own research — talked with friends, asked strangers at the barber shop why they seldom attended games — and all of the answers pointed to bad marketing. Still, he quelled his thoughts.
That was until his second season with the team, when chairman Marv Goldklang and president Mike Veeck asked Craw for his thoughts on minorities in baseball. Craw told them the dreadful truth. They told him to change it.
The RiverDogs started to advertise on hip-hop and gospel radio stations, promoted their family atmosphere and talked about black players who had affected the game. Since 2004, their minority attendance has jumped from 2 percent of the crowd at The Joe to 10 percent.
Under Craw’s supervision, the RiverDogs underwent a diversity plan. They started to advertise on hip-hop and gospel radio stations, promoted their family atmosphere, wrote a hip-hop jingle and talked about black players who had affected the game. Craw visited schools, neighborhood associations and churches. They linked ticket sales to charitable organizations, including a minority scholarship and a homeless shelter. They expanded their annual Negro Leagues promotion, which now features the team in throwback jerseys to honor the lives and careers of those who both gone, like Hall of Famer Larry Doby, and those very much still here, like Carolinas legend Carl Long, who love to tell their stories.
Since that original 2004 conversation to diversify the crowd at The Joe, the RiverDogs have increased minority attendance from 2 percent of their overall attendance to 10 percent, Craw says. That translates to about 400 fans per night, up from about 75. The success has been linked to his initial thought of expanding the marketing approach.
Now one of the team’s two assistant general managers, Craw has presented his plan and success stories to the entire Goldklang Group — which also includes the Fort Myers Miracle, the Hudson Valley Renegades and the St. Paul Saints — and has worked with Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner on how all of the minors can embrace the idea of attracting more minorities to the game.
Craw is happy with the accomplishments thus far, he says, but there is still a long way to go.
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Time for minor league trivia. The RiverDogs’ total attendance tops 200,000 annually, ranking them in the top half among their South Atlantic League rivals. They even reached that mark in 2002, when they set the record for lowest official attendance for a single game. How many fans showed up at the park? (Keep reading for the answer.)
The Yankees promoted three of Charleston’s top hitters — outfielders Tyler Austin ( who was batting a team-best .320) and Mason Williams (.304) and catcher Gary Sanchez (.297) — to Tampa on the same day, but all the moves hardly affected the outcome. The RiverDogs knocked 10 hits and put together a two-run, eighth-inning rally to beat the Greenville Drive, 3-2. The RiverDogs notched three singles and the Drive committed two throwing errors in the inning, giving Charleston the lead. RiverDogs righty Scottie Allen went five innings, giving up two earned runs on five hits, and relievers John Brebbia, who picked up the win, and Nick Goody, who earned the save, had superb appearances, struck out nine over the last four innings.
The RiverDogs changed their playing field, literally, for the South Atlantic League All-Star Game home run derby earlier this season — the 10 batters slugged balls off the USS Yorktown into Charleston Harbor. RiverDogs employees idled in the river on jet skis, waiting to retrieve the soaked balls. Ballpark Digest named the event its promotion of the year. (Hear what former Kannapolis Intimidators Mark Haddow had to say about the experience.)
Want the answer? Zero. The RiverDogs played four and a half innings behind closed gates, locking out their fans until the game was official and the attendance was recorded as an unbreakable round number. Fans who arrived for the game were directed to a party with discounted food and beer until the bottom of the fifth. The RiverDogs didn’t play in front of a completely empty stadium that night, though: Employees, scouts and media were allowed into the ballpark.
And in random statistical news, the Palmetto Voice Project sang the national anthem in 1 minute and 26.9 seconds, the game started four minutes late, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter popped out to second. For dinner, we dined on press box holiday cuisine, which included pulled pork and baked beans, so Southern, and a couple of Diet Pepsis for the caffeine.
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