15 POP FLIES

April 3, 2013 

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    F YOU GO

    WHAT | Opening Night, Myrtle Beach Pelicans vs. Wilmington Blue Rocks

    WHEN | 7:05 p.m. Thursday

    WHERE | TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark, 1251 21st Ave. N., Myrtle Beach at the intersection with Robert M. Grissom Parkway, Myrtle Beach.

    HOW MUCH | Tickets are $8, $9 and $11

    CONTACT | www.myrtlebeachpelicans.com or 918-6000.  

BY CHRISTINA KNAUSS

Baseball fans know well there’s nothing slower than the time that stretches from the last out called at the World Series in the fall to the first pitch thrown out at spring training. Those months without America’s pastime (some people say that title now belongs to football, but baseball lovers know better) are an annual torture.

If you think that’s a long time, imagine going seven years without professional baseball to watch.

That’s what Grand Strand minor league fans endured between 1992 and April 12, 1999, when the roar of the crowd returned to Myrtle Beach with the debut of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been 15 years since the Pelicans arrived as a farm team of the Atlanta Braves. Since then, the stadium name has changed (From Coastal Federal Field to BB&T Coastal Field to Ticketreturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark), and the team is now an affiliate of the Texas Rangers.

The Pelicans kick off the team’s 15th season Thursday at Ticketreturn.com Field, and to get you prepared for opening day, we offer you 15 “pop flies,” interesting, little-known and sometimes downright quirky items about Myrtle Beach’s hometown hardballers, the fans, the staff and the venue. Some take you back to the past; some deal with Pelicans here and now - one for each year the Pelicans have been in town.

Read and learn a little bit about where the home team has been and where it’s going, take a minute to relax, close your eyes and try to smell the fresh grass, taste the cold beer and imagine that first crack of the bat.

Play ball!

Before there were Pelicans...

There was minor league baseball in Myrtle Beach before the arrival of the Pelicans, but it was a smaller, scrappier game played essentially in Conway, not Myrtle Beach. In 1986, the Florence Blue Jays left their inland home and took a 50-mile trip down the highway to become the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays of the South Atlantic League. The team played at the 3,500-seat stadium at what was then Coastal Carolina College, a venue later named Charles Watson Stadium. The Blue Jays had mostly fair- to mediocre seasons and attempted to rebrand themselves in 1991 as the Myrtle Beach Hurricanes. Some fans had mixed feelings about naming a team affiliated with a beach resort town after a killer tropical storm. Those opinions soon became moot points, because the team was sold after the 1992 season after the team failed in attempts to get a new stadium. They moved to Maryland and became the Hagerstown Suns, a team that still exists to this day, thriving on the ancient DNA of Grand Strand baseball’s past. Interesting how baseball history and karma comes full circle. Back in the day, Myrtle Beach players and fans had to make the 14 mile truck up U.S. 501 to Conway to play ball. This season, that’s reversed as Coastal Carolina University’s Chanticleers players are using the Pelicans’ field while their new venue is under construction.

Before there were Pelicans...

There was minor league baseball in Myrtle Beach before the arrival of the Pelicans, but it was a smaller, scrappier game played essentially in Conway, not Myrtle Beach. In 1986, the Florence Blue Jays left their inland home and took a 50-mile trip down the highway to become the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays of the South Atlantic League. The team played at the 3,500-seat stadium at what was then Coastal Carolina College, a venue later named Charles Watson Stadium. The Blue Jays had mostly fair- to mediocre seasons and attempted to rebrand themselves in 1991 as the Myrtle Beach Hurricanes. Some fans had mixed feelings about naming a team affiliated with a beach resort town after a killer tropical storm. Those opinions soon became moot points, because the team was sold after the 1992 season after the team failed in attempts to get a new stadium. They moved to Maryland and became the Hagerstown Suns, a team that still exists to this day, thriving on the ancient DNA of Grand Strand baseball’s past. And its interesting how baseball history and karma comes full circle. Back in the day, Myrtle Beach players and fans had to make the 14-mile truck up U.S. 501 to Conway to play ball. This season, that’s reversed as Coastal Carolina University’s Chanticleers players are using the Pelicans’ stadium for home games while a new venue is under construction on the Conway campus.

By the numbers…

The Pelicans have sent a total of 109 players in 15 years to “the show,” baseball talk for the major leagues. In 15 years, the team has racked up an overall record of 999-974, including regular season and postseason games, two league titles (1999, 2000) and three division titles. And since we’re talking about the No. 15 - the No. 15 Pelicans jersey has been retired in honor of former Pelican Rafael Furcal, who broke out as a star shortstop with the Atlanta Braves and is now a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Braves have it…

The Pelicans spent from 1999-2010 as a farm team for the Atlanta Braves, so it’s not surprising that in 15 years, they’ve sent the most players (70) to debut in the majors for…duh… the Braves. Next on the list is the current affiliate, the Texas Rangers, with 7 debuts, followed by San Diego and Baltimore (three each).

Thanks a lot, Floyd...

In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd did a lot of people dirty. Mowed down houses, flooded a stretch of the Waccamaw River in Horry County and a huge patch of North Carolina, and forced a botched evacuation in South Carolina (nine hours, in some cases to get from Mount Pleasant to Columbia) that some people say helped cost then-S.C. Governor Jim Hodges his re-election bid in 2002. Oh yeah, that huge messy storm also brought a premature end to the Pelicans’ first season. The new team hit a huge milestone by advancing to the League’s Mills Cup Championship in just its first season. The Pelicans were playing the Wilmington Blue Rocks (affiliated with the Kansas City Royals) and the championship game was tied two games apiece when Floyd came calling. The series was cancelled and both Pelicans and Blue Rocks earned “co-champion” designations. Not the ending everybody would have wanted, but still impressive for a brand new team in a brand new place that had to deal with one of the world’s most unwelcome guests.

The field that beats out Touchdown Jesus...

When you walk through the gates and take your seat at Ticketreturn.com Field, the Pelicans’ home, you’re sitting in one of the best sports venues in the nation, according to a recent survey.

In January, Stadium Journey Magazine ranked Ticketreturn.com Field as the 19th best stadium experience in sports. The Pelicans’ home field shared the list with legendary sports venues such as Fenway Park (home of the Boston Red Sox), Daytona International Speedway in Florida and the Staples Center in Los Angeles . Ticketreturn.com ranked higher than Wrigley Field in Chicago and even beat the home of Touchdown Jesus, Notre Dame Stadium at Notre Dame University. Stadium Journey relies on reviews by contributors and bases its rankings on criteria such as overall atmosphere, food and beverage available, fans, easy access inside and outside the stadium, and a venue’s unique features.

Section 106 wisdom...

Myrtle Beach resident and avid Pelican fan Jeff Menz has been watching baseball in this town since the days when there weren’t any Pelicans. He attended nearly every game that the long-defunct Myrtle Beach Blue Jays/Hurricanes played (see No. 1 above). Today, Menz is one of a handful of long-timers, fans who have held season tickets every year since the Pelicans started playing. He attends as many games as possible with his 30-year-old daughter and they sit near several other long-timers in section 106 of the stadium, right behind the home team’s dugout. It’s a section where people who started off simply sitting next to each other have grown into close, caring friends through the years, friendships nurtured by the camaraderie that comes from a mutual, deep love of the sport of baseball. Menz and several other people from 106 are key members of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans Boosters Club, which holds several fund-raising events during the year and offers support for Pelicans players, including providing necessary basics such as bedding and toiletry baskets for guys who have just arrived in town.

Oh yes, they call (ed) him the streak…

No U.S. sports team or venue worth its salt is without those dedicated fans whose greatest desire is to strip butt nekkid, dash across the field and share their assets with an unsuspecting, captive audience. Baseball has always been a statistics-obsessed sport, and believe it or not, somebody somewhere keeps stats on ball park streakers, and the Pelicans’ saw their first (name remains unknown) on Sept. 1, 1999.

Here’s one way to get in without a ticket...

There’s also someone in charge, apparently, of documenting ball park traffic accidents. The Pelicans’ field experienced its first on Aug. 29, 2000, when somebody veered of 21st Avenue North and hit the left field wall. No one was hurt.

The longest game…ever...

Occasionally you’ll hear people who don’t understand or appreciate baseball complain that “the games are too long.” These are the sports fans who prefer diversions like hockey, football and basketball because they’re played by the clock. Baseball, however, doesn’t play by those rules, which is why true fans don’t mind long, drawn-out pitching battles that sometimes last well into the wee hours.

Those picky clock-watchers would have lost their minds back in 2011. That year, the Pelicans took part in the longest game ever played in the 66-year history of the Carolina League: six hours, 27 minutes and 23 innings in a 3-2 loss to the Kinston (N.C.) Indians.

Kenny Powers comes to town, bitches!

Just in case you’ve been living under a TV rock or don’t have access to HBO, there’s a popular show on that premium cable network called “East Bound & Down,” starring Danny McBride as Kenny Powers, a former pro baseball player forced to return to his hometown of Shelby, N.C. as a middle school P.E. teacher, and his attempts at a comeback. Ticketreturn.com Field played host to the show’s cast and crew in 2011 and early 2012 as they relocated to Myrtle Beach for the third season, which depicted Powers playing for the fictional Myrtle Beach Mermen. The season spawned a line of Kenny Powers memorabilia including shirts, hats, Kenny Powers bobbleheads and pint glasses. Hint: you can still pick up a Kenny Powers mullet-laden costume set (on sale for $25) on the pro shop section of the Pelicans’ website.

Homers for Hogwarts...

When the Pelicans arrived in Myrtle Beach, the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling had just barely started to consume the bestseller lists and the minds of millions of kid…and adult…readers worldwide. By the time the team had been in town a little more than a decade, however, Potter-mania had reached its zenith, selling not only millions and millions of copies but also taking over box offices internationally with one of the most popular film franchises in history.

In 2011, the Pelicans paid homage to the teen wizard and his Hogwarts school mates with a special “Wizards’ Night” promotion to coincide with the release of the final installment in the film series. Pelicans players wore jerseys that resembled the uniforms worn by students at Hogwarts, the school for wizards. The event was a huge success and pictures of the night made it to media outlets nationwide, including USA Today.

(Thankfully, the players haven’t been asked to don apparel related to some more recent box office phenomena. Nobody really wants to see baseball players dressed like, for instance, glittery vampire “Edward” from the “Twilight” series…do they?)

Zombies and boy bands...

Pelicans fans, don’t fear that the Harry Potter gig was the peak of wacky promo night activity. Each season the Pelicans promotions staff comes up with a bunch of new theme nights designed to add a little spice to the traditional baseball experience, and 2013 is no different, said Pelicans promotions director Jeff Borowski. Special nights this season include Zombie Night, Redneck Night and Boy Band Appreciation Night, with plenty of music by N-Sync, One Direction and maybe even some Menudo for good measure, and staff members dressed up like their favorite band members. Fans of a certain age might especially want to show up for Teacher Appreciation Night on May 11, featuring an appearance by actor Dennis Haskins, who played Principal Richard Belding on NBC’s “Saved by the Bell” during the late ’80-s and early ‘90s.

Gone to the dogs - in a good way...

For their first 10 years in Myrtle Beach, the Pelicans were accompanied by a devoted canine friend, Dinger the “Home Run Dog,” who instantly became one of the most popular personalities not only in Myrtle Beach but also around minor league baseball. Dinger, a yellow lab, carried a basket of balls to the home plate umpire between innings and ran a victory lap around the bases after every home victory. He even got his own baseball card. Sadly, Dinger passed away from heart and kidney problems on Sept. 15, 2009, prompting fans from around the country to flood the team’s front office with cards, gifts and their memories of the beloved dog. Dinger’s legacy lives on, however, through his younger brother, Deuce, who carries on “Home Run Dog” duties to this day (that’s Deuce on the cover of this fine, reputable publication).

Way beyond peanuts and Cracker Jacks...

Ask the average baseball fan to sum up ball park cuisine and you’ll probably hear two words: hot dogs and beer. And yes, you can find those at the Pelicans’ concession stand, but our home team also likes to offer fans some cuisine with a local flair. Since 2011, the team has sponsored a “Home Run Recipe” contest, inviting chefs and restaurateurs from around the Grand Strand the chance to submit recipes with a regional flair, something that says both “beach” and “baseball “ in one bite. The winning entry, with the chef’s name on it, is featured at the concession stands and the Pelicans restaurant, during regular season games.

Past winners included Ed Flambard and TJ Allinder from Socastee Station off S.C. 707, whose chicken bog balls were a big hit in 2012. What are bog balls, you ask? Well, you must not be from ‘round here if you don’t know. Chicken bog is a popular dish with Lowcountry roots that consists of chicken, sausage and rice. Bog balls, essentially, are chicken bog formed into a ball and deep fried in batter, served with sauce. Think of chicken bog as a finger food and you’ve got the idea. In 2011, John Venuti of Captain John’s Seafood Grill in Pawleys Island, took home top honors with his lobster roll.

For 2013’s recipe contest, the Pelicans staff asked for a slightly new twist: regional and healthy. Participants were asked to consider recipes that are gluten-free, vegan, fat-free, or “healthy” in other ways – but also appealing to baseball fans. Five finalists will be selected from the submissions and judged later in the season. So when you go out to the park this year, look for the newest signature item and consider trying something beyond hot dogs and beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with those…

Perfect attendance record, Pelicans-style...

In a world where many people don’t stay at the same job longer than a couple years, Ray Wurm is a true anomaly…and a true testament to what it means to love a sport. Myrtle Beach resident Wurm, 82, is the digital scorekeeper for the Pelicans. His first day of work was the team’s first home game back in 1999, and he hasn’t missed a game since. For those who don’t keep count, that’s 950 straight home games without calling in sick, even once.

“I’ve just (been) very fortunate health-wise and have been able to make every game,” Wurm said in a recent interview with Weekly Surge.

Baseball has nearly always been part of Wurm’s life. He played as a child while growing up on Long Island, and coached for 25 years while a teacher at his alma mater, Central Islip High, and then at the college level. After he and wife moved to the Grand Strand in 1992, he occasionally attended Coastal Carolina and Myrtle Beach Blue Jays games, but he said it was just pure luck that he was able to snag the scoreboard job when the Pelicans came to town.

Wurm spends time in the weeks leading up to the opening game making sure the score board is in working order and then studying the year’s roster.

What keeps him coming back year after year?

“It’s like any other sport – it just grips you,” Wurm said. “It’s been part of my life all the way through, and now I’m working at a ball park. It’s something I never figured I’d do, but I like it. …It’s just baseball, that’s all.”

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