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Toast

A bobblehead doll — well, a bobble-arm, really — depicts Rod Blackstone, aka “The Toastman,” who has been entertaining Charleston minor league baseball fans for nearly a quarter of a century. Blackstone will be in his familiar spot behind home plate when the West Virginia Power opens the 2021 season Friday night as a member of the independent Atlantic League.

The last time we saw professional baseball in Charleston was back around Labor Day, 2019, when the West Virginia Power -- then the low-Class A minor-league affiliate of the Seattle Mariners -- finished up a mediocre season in the South Atlantic League with a 69-70 record.

As we're all too painfully aware, the 2020 minor-league season was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Appalachian Power Park stood empty. It was the first year since 1986 that Charleston went the summer without professional baseball.

We were left without the sounds of the game. No crack of the bat, no fastballs popping into catchers' mitts, no spontaneous roar from the crowds at key junctures in the game. No shouts from the stands of "YOU. ARE. TOAST!" when a visiting batter was struck out by a Power pitcher.

Then came the really bad news. On Dec. 9, we learned that the Power was one of 11 full-season Major League Baseball-affiliated minor league teams not invited by MLB to retain their minor-league affiliations for the 2021 season.

A day later, Power front-office personnel held a virtual press conference, putting up a brave face and promising that, one way or another, there would again be professional baseball at Power Park. They couldn't say when, or what it might look like, but they were confident that Power Park would be buzzing again with those same sounds and sights.

And what do you know? On an unseasonably warm and sunny day on Feb. 24, Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin announced, at the ballpark, that a new chapter of pro baseball would indeed begin this year, not as an MLB-affiliated club but as a member of the independent Atlantic League.

Happy days are here again, and they begin for real Friday night when the Power hosts the Southern Maryland Blue Claws in the season opener.

Bats will again crack, fastballs will again pop into catchers' mitts, crowds will roar and, once more, toast will burn.

"We still have professional baseball. I think people are kind of jazzed by it," said Rod Blackstone, whose official title in the Power front office is "Community Ambassador," but whose claim to fame in minor-league baseball has come as "The Toastman."

For 30 years or so, Blackstone could be found in the stands behind the plate -- first at Watt Powell Park and then, since 2005, at Appalachian Power Park -- leading chants for the home team, coming up with clever taunts aimed at the visitors and flinging freshly charred slices of toast to fans every time an opposing batter struck out, punctuated by leading the chant of "YOU. ARE. TOAST!"

(Followed, appropriately enough, and for safety's sake, by Blackstone's second line of the chant: "DON'T EAT THE TOAST! YOU DON'T KNOW WHERE IT'S BEEN!")

It's a role he's passionately relished, a unique part of the minor-league fan experience, and he's as thrilled as anyone that the old ballgame is back.

"So far what I've heard is great feedback from people," Blackstone said on the eve of the season opener. "For one thing, they're relieved we still have professional baseball in Charleston, and at the same time excited because it's going to be some higher-quality players than we've seen before, and also excited that it's a new era, something new and different that we haven't seen before.

"Coming out of the pandemic, it makes it easier to get people excited about getting together again. When we had exhibition games last weekend, it was kind of a reunion for the people that hadn't seen their ballpark friends for a year and a half."

When the team was axed from its MLB-affiliation status in the midst of a pandemic, there was a sense of grief among the denizens of Power Park. But Blackstone thinks the new era of Charleston baseball, coming on the heels of MLB's cost-cutting contraction, will be better than its predecessor.

"There is an anticipation after losing the entire 2020 season to COVID, an anticipation after almost losing professional baseball in Charleston," he said. "We were on the outside looking in, but we've landed in a better place in many ways.

"There are all kinds of freedoms we have here now. We're signing players from around here, we're signing players that want to be here, we're signing players that have been here already, as opposed to having players imposed on us [by MLB affiliates] that don't want to spend much time in Charleston on their way up the ladder."

Maybe we won't see young stars on their way up that ladder on the roster, such as Ryan Braun, or Josh Bell, or Jarred Kelenic, who all had all-too-brief stays with the Power before continuing their ascent up the ladded to the big leagues. Future MLB superstars like Bryce Harper, who came to Power Park in 2011 as a precocious, suddenly rich 18-year-old phenom with the Hagerstown Suns ... no, we're not likely to see that again.

But on the other hand, those passing ships in the night will be replaced by longer-lasting relationships with the players that have chosen to continue their ball-playing careers here, Blackstone believes.

"Once this all shakes out, it's more likely that we will have players sticking around here for a few years," he said. "You have Arik Sikula, who's from here, and now he gets to be our opening-day starter. What a great connection, whereas before it was a roll of the dice that you would ever see a hometown hero ever playing here.

"Diego Moreno, who pitched here [for the Power] in 2009, is back. He's not the rising star that he was in 2009, but here's a guy with major-league experience, who has a connection to the community, who wants to be here. These folks are still gonna be vying for the gig to get back to the majors, I understand that, but when it all shakes out I think you're gonna see more of the players having a sense of the community than we did before."

The most visible part of Charleston's longstanding baseball community is certainly ready for the new era of Power baseball.

"I'm gonna be down there on opening night in the Toast Section," Blackstone said. "I tried out the toaster this morning to make sure the plug still worked after all this time off. Toaster did, for now. It'll be its fourth season, the best toaster I ever had."

Will the toast receivers feel the same way about the new era of Power baseball? We'll start to find out at about 7:05 Friday night.

Contact Nick Scala at 304-348-7947 or nickscala@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @nick_scala319.