Baseball: Sending off the Sarge in style

Fans, players stick around after victory to say goodbye to beloved field May 18, 2008 

For awhile, the sentimentality was tough to find. There was other business, and anxiety was conquering nostalgia.

It took a thrilling finish, a perfect ending for South Carolina baseball fans, to bring out the emotion. And then it lasted until they ushered the fans out of Sarge Frye Field for the final time.

“We finally realized this is it,” said super-fan Bill Golden, the Elgin resident notable for wandering around during games while wearing a batting helmet.

Hundreds of fans seemed to take a breath, then lingered on the field to say their farewell to the Sarge. Nearly an hour after Reese Havens’ game-winning homer, fans remained on the field, kids playing catch and adults taking pictures of the scoreboard. Star first baseman Justin Smoak was among the last to depart.

There could still be another Gamecocks home game, but that seems unlikely. Barring a big turn of events, the late-season swoon will send them on the road for the NCAA tournament.

USC coach Ray Tanner treated Saturday’s 10-8 win against Tennessee like the stadium finale. He got choked up after the game thinking about Sarge Frye, the stadium’s namesake and longtime groundskeeper.

“You got what we think will be the last day, and Sarge’s family here,” Tanner said, stopping himself. “It was tough, it was really tough.”

But for most of the day, the send-off was secondary.

Part of that may have been the repetitive aspect; Last year was supposed to be the Sarge’s farewell, but a few months after the season the school delayed the new stadium’s opening a year.

Darryl Cooper, the head of the Gamecock Dugout Club, was one of those who said he was happy the new stadium was delayed, giving fans this one extra year at the Sarge. But even he admitted there were bigger worries on Saturday —- if the Gamecocks lost, they would have missed the SEC tournament.

“The main story today is winning the game. It doesn’t matter that this is the last game at Sarge Frye Field,” Cooper said. “It’s winning the game and getting into the (SEC) tournament on your own merit, and not worrying about what anyone else does.”

It was a subdued sendoff. Remembrances were kept to a minimum. After the third inning on Saturday, the count went to zero on the “games-remaining at the Sarge” placard along the first-base line. Final attendance was 5,361, a few hundred short of a sellout.

Retired broadcaster Bob Fulton, 87, started calling games at the Sarge in 1974, when they used to bring in extra bleachers from Fort Jackson and put them in left field. For years Fulton had to call games in the stands at a card table, before a press box was built.

The new park will have that and more. The old field will still have the nostalgia.

“I’m ambivalent about it,” Fulton said of the move. “There’s so many fine memories here, but you can’t live on memories. This is a place I will miss. I have so many memories of some great teams here. But I’m excited about the new park too.”

For those whose job it was to work on the field, the sentiment was there —- but it had its limits.

Turf manager Clark Cox said he appreciated the history and tradition of the field, and will miss the park as a fan.

“But as a turf manager, I’m not gonna miss it one bit,” Cox said.

When it rained, the field never drained well, especially the outfield. Cox pointed to long delays during the 2004 Super Regionals and last year’s regional.

The new park will feature a better soil and drainage system, one of the many amenities which will be an improvement.

Head groundskeeper Donnie Lindner arrived five years ago, when Sarge Frye himself was still around. He called this field “his first baby,” a reason he’ll miss it, but was also ready to move on.

Lindner also has not had much time to savor the last moments of the Sarge —- mainly because to him, these weren’t the last moments. He and his staff will keep maintaining the field, which the program will still use until the new stadium is ready.

One question lingered: What would Frye think about this transition?

“I think he’d be for it. I mean you can’t stop progress,” Lindner said. “You’ve gotta keep up with the other universities. The big thing is recruiting. These guys come in and they wanna play in a nice facility. That’s it. In its day, this was probably the best facility out there.”

The key phrase being, “in its day.” And now its day as USC’s baseball home finally appears over.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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