The MLB may not be playing on their opening night, but the Tri-City Chili Peppers are. However, at this time last year, the Chili Peppers weren’t sure that they would have a season at all.
In the spring of 2021, Chili Peppers players and employees alike waited desperately for the government to lift COVID-19 regulations so that they could have their inaugural season as planned. With just 60 days until opening night, the team was given the green light. From there, they were laser focused on who they wanted to be and what they wanted to bring to their community.
“It was our number one focus to have a good environment,” Tri-City Chili Peppers owner Chris Martin said. “We wanted people to walk into the stadium and smell a hot dog being cooked and hamburgers and cheeseburgers and you know, we wanted that family feel.”
So, with two months until their opening day, the Chili Peppers began creating a family environment at Colonial Heights’ Shepard Stadium. They planned a variety of themed nights, determined how they would execute the entertainment, and set up food vendors.
Now, in less than three months, the Tri-City Chili Peppers will kick off their 2022 season with a home matchup against the Martinsville Mustangs. In preparation for their second season, past and returning players reflect on their 2021 opening night — the program’s first game and first win.
The Tri-City Chili Peppers made their debut at Shepard Stadium on May 31, 2021 with a 10-8 win against the Wilson Tobs. The Chili Peppers took an early lead in their program opener, up 3-1 at the end of the first. The Tobs struggled in the first, allowing a walk on the first batter they faced and also struggling with an early-game error.
The game was more evenly matched in the second inning. The Tobs scored two runs, and the Chili Peppers responded with two of their own. One of these was the result of Virginia Tech infielder and returning Chili Pepper Cade Swisher’s home run. Swisher is a Chesterfield, VA native who grew up playing in Shepard Stadium, and he made his mark there with the first home run for the Chili Peppers program.
“It’s pretty cool to go back there and do that,” Swisher said about his homerun in the familiar stadium.
Tri-City thrived in the third, holding Wilson to one run while scoring three of their own. However, they fell behind in the fourth, failing to score as the Tobs dominated the inning with four runs to tie the game at 8-8. The Chili Peppers failed to score again in the fifth, but luckily for them, so did the Tobs. The sixth was also scoreless, keeping the game tied. Both teams failed to score yet again in the seventh, and it looked as though the eighth would be scoreless as well when the Tobs didn’t score in the top of the inning. However, an error by the Tobs and a walk resulted in a pitching substitution and two runs for the Chili Peppers that allowed them to take a 10-8 lead. A single down the third-base line by UT Arlington’s Wilson Galvan caused these two runs to score.
“I remember opening night like it was yesterday,” Galvan said. “I knew I had to put up a good at-bat to kind of put our team in front and get our first win under our belt.”
After pitching for one inning, Troy University pitcher Logan Ross passed the torch to Brevard’s Huntley Hacker to finish off the last third of an inning. Hacker struck out a Tobs player for the final out to secure a 10-8 Chili Peppers win for the team’s first-ever game.
“As soon as the final out is made you’re like ‘wow, this is awesome,’” Hacker said. “It’s a special moment. It’s the first win in Chili Peppers history and all these people got to witness it.”
Liberty’s Eli Parks recorded the team’s first-ever save during the program opener, made even more significant by the fact that it was his first pitching performance in two years after recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“It was a surreal moment,” Parks said. “I worked my butt off to get back to this point. That opportunity was awesome.”
The Tri-City Chili Peppers’ 10-8 win in their 2021 season opener provided hope for the new program. The positive response from the involved community was just as significant.
“It meant the world to get the support of the community and the Tri-Cities as a whole,” Martin said. “To get the win at the end of the night, it was just icing. It was one of those magical moments that you dream about.”
The team will look to put on an equally admirable performance with heightened fan entertainment in their 2022 season opener on May 26 against the Martinsville Mustangs.
“We’ve put a lot of energy and effort into our fan entertainment,” Martin said. “Fans are going to see something completely different in 2022 than they saw in 2021.”
If you’re feeling down about your favorite MLB team not playing on opening night and are craving a hot dog and a good baseball game, be sure to visit Shepard Stadium for the Tri-City Chili Peppers’ opening night on May 26th.
Season Tickets are available here: chilipeppersbaseball.com/tickets/