Take Me Out to the Ballpark

April 2023
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Alex Symcak, Larry Kave & courtesy of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans Ballpark

A New Season of Pelicans Baseball Starts Now!

Few fans of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans realize that the Pelicans franchise was first the Durham Bulls, featured in the film. The Bulls relocated to Myrtle Beach following the 1997 expansion of the Triple A International League and were renamed the Pelicans. The similarities between the teams and the movie end there, however, as the 2016 league champions Pelicans and their award-winning ballpark ­in no way resemble the rag-tag, dysfunctional (semi-fictional) Durham Bulls, who then played at their circa 1926 Durham Athletic Park.

Stadium Talk recently named Pelicans Ballpark (formerly Ticketreturn.com Field, Coastal Federal Field, and BB&T Coastal Field) in the top 25 minor league ballparks in the U.S. It was named #1 for “ballpark experience” in the U.S. by Stadium Journey and named Top Gameday Experience in 2022 for the fourth consecutive year (less 2020’s canceled Covid season).

Despite that, the Pelicans Ballpark is 25 years old, and there have been grumblings for years about the need for major renovations, upgrades, or an entirely new facility, though no firm plans, announcements, or recent comments of any kind from any source were available or public as of press time.

Previous reports from 2021 have Minor League Baseball demanding some $15 million in upgrades for cited “deficiencies” at the ballpark, which is owned by the City of Myrtle Beach and Horry County. These “deficiencies” are mostly inadequate clubhouse space, a need for weight training facilities, lighting and fencing, among other issues. Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune was quoted as saying she feels the Pelicans, the city, and county would benefit from a plan that would “get us through the next 20 years,” instead of Band-Aids.

Estimated costs of new stadiums holding not too many more fans than the current Pelicans Ballpark’s 6,600 could exceed $50 million; however, other regional ballparks have been recently completed for $30 to $40 million. The site of the former Myrtle Square Mall on North Kings Highway near 21st Ave. North has been floated as a possible location for a new, bigger, and better stadium, should the powers that be move in that direction. For now, Pelicans Ballpark at its original location on 21st Ave North in Myrtle Beach will continue to serve its fans and Minor League Baseball in the same fashion it has for decades, and that’s not such a bad thing.

“We always rank [highly] for sports experiences nationally each year,” says Pelicans General Manager Kristin Call. “Our focus, energy, and efforts go to the in-game experience. If you look at our promotional work over the last 10, 15, 20 years, you’ll see what we do to enhance the fan experience — giveaways, fireworks, Trick-or-Treat each Halloween, disc golf, our mascots. Yes, there are some purists who come to watch the game and only care about the baseball, but most of our [crowd] are coming here for a good time, to hang out with friends, family, and co-workers. We’ve shifted our dollars in that direction.”

And the front office can boast about the sellouts to prove the plan is working, though average attendance is around 3,800 per game.

With the new season and opening day on April 6 upon us, Call anticipates more sellouts and has big plans for the season.

“Our opening day, Forth of July weekend, and others are always sellouts,” she adds. “We have 20-plus fireworks shows per season, we upgraded our lights to LED, the ‘show package,’ so they flicker and dance in amazing ways. Our great promo crew is out there with signs [that say] ‘Do this, clap now, cheer here.’ It’s all about the experience. Knockerballs, ribbon dances, trike races, and those types of experiences are fun but typically involve two to four people on the field. What else can we do that engages everyone? T-shirt tosses, Bark in the Park [a Bring Your Dog to the Game event] and that sort of thing work for everyone.”

The fun to watch knockerball tournaments aside, many fans will come to the games for one reason alone: to see the real star of the show, Bat Dog Slider. A seven-year-old yellow Lab, Slider is the third dog in the canine lineup following the original Dinger and, later, Deuce.

“Everyone knows Slider is the real star of the show,” says Call. “He gets the biggest cheer, without question, every single night. He delivers bats and runs the bases after each victory as well.”

Recovery after Covid

So many entertainment and sports attractions were hit hard by the pandemic, and the Pelicans were no exception—even Slider had a year off. Instead of an anticipated sellout crowd on opening day April 9, 2020, the stadium was silent, staff and ballplayers in shock, along with the rest of the world. By mid-season, it became apparent there would be no season.

“We did a lot of upkeep and a lot of cleaning,” reminisces Call. “[Covid] was not great, and I think anyone would tell you that in sports. We got down to a skeleton crew, but we were fortunate to be able to keep paying benefits for a few folks we had to furlough, and through the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program], we were able to help, and eventually bring everyone back, except for one person.”

About 17 months after that first missed home opener in 2020, the Pelicans announced they were returning with a 120-game season and 2023 is gearing up for another record-setting year with 132 games scheduled.

“We open a three-game series against Charleston [RiverDogs] on April 6,” says Call, who also unveiled a few new tricks up their promotional sleeve for 2023.

New Season, New Kinds of Fun

“The one thing we’ve found over the years is we look to the things that worked, and bring them back, and replace the things that were so-so with new ideas. With the change in 2020, when Major League Baseball took over as our governing body, we changed to a new game format: six days in a row at home, with an off day, then six days on the road, and another off day, with only one or two exceptions in the entire season,” says Call. “So now our fans know that once the team is home, they’re home through Sunday, and we can better plan and promote weekly specials, like a restaurant would. Such as every Tuesday is Tacos and Tallboys, every Wednesday is half-price hotdogs, Thirsty Thursdays has its deals, every Friday we have fireworks. Fridays have become a real family day with a kid-friendly theme. We’re bringing back Dino Night with fabulous dinosaurs. It’s amazing – it looks like you’ve stepped into Jurassic Park. They’re very realistic. In fact, our T-Rex throws out the first pitch. The kids go crazy.”

Tito’s Beach Party is a special sand beach down the line from third base. Ticket prices include a buffet and beach chairs and require a minimum of 75 people.

The Big Show

Beyond all the fun and frivolity, baseball is still at the core of a Pelicans game night. And because the Pelicans, who are in the Carolina League, and are a Single-A affiliate of the Major League Baseball [MLB] Chicago Cubs, anyone seeing the Pelicans in Myrtle Beach or who catches the Pelicans on the road may be seeing tomorrow’s big show players on their way up. It’s also not entirely uncommon to see a Cubs or Triple-A Cubs’ affiliate player recovering from injury or needing work on parts of their game to show up for part of a season and play as a Pelican before returning back up the roster and maybe even to Wrigley Field. And for true baseball fans, that’s a big deal.

The 2023 Pelicans roster was not available as of press time, and early season, mid-season and post season moves and releases are common, so it’s hard to say who will or won’t be around for a season.

“That very thing makes it hard for minor league teams to keep their momentum within a season,” says Call. “For instance, we had a great start to the season in 2022, but the really exceptional players got moved up, and the Pelicans had a harder time winning games in the back half of the season. But seeing your [local guy] move up is an exciting and inevitable part of the [minor league] process.”

That being said, Kevin Alcantara and Pete Crow-Armstrong (nicknamed “PCA”) are on the top 100 Prospects list by MLB Pipeline and have big futures ahead in the MLB. PCA was recently named to the Top 10 Outfield Prospects by the MLB Pipeline as well, and is a powerhouse hitter known for triples. Many other Pelicans, including Matt Mervis (2021), are also in the Pipeline.

Former Pelicans pitcher Jerimiah Estrada, 24, who moved to The Chicago Cubs in 2021, is just one of the long list of Pelicans who have made the jump. There are online sources among the statisticians lurking in the worldwide web listing many Pelicans since 2000 who’ve found their way to The Big Show. Who will be next?

Tickets, Please

Individual ticket prices for the 2023 Pelicans season will start around $20 and increase for premium seats. Corporate and group rates will apply to certain bulk ticket purchases, and private air-conditioned boxes with a dedicated server are available for around $1,000 per night. Season ticket holders save even more per game and qualify for other perks.

Myrtle Beach is filled with opportunities for visitors and locals both, including the fun of high-stakes baseball and the show that is so unique to minor league action. Hot dogs and beer are a must and, of course, you also have to buy some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and root, root, root for the home team!

Yankees slugger Yogi Berra, who died in 2015 at the age of 90, is a well-known master of the one-liner. He is credited with saying, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and “Baseball is 90-percent mental, the other half is physical,” and perhaps his most simple and profound baseball-ism of all: “It’s fun; baseball is fun.”