Morris: Series format proves perfect fit for all

March 8, 2010 

TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING falling into place. Two outstanding college baseball games. Beautiful weather throughout. Overflow crowds. In the end, the new format for the South Carolina-Clemson baseball series was a smashing success.

Eric Hyman liked it. Mike deMaine, the Greenville Drive general manager, liked it. Jack Leggett liked it. Ray Tanner liked it, save for the outcome of Sunday's Clemson blowout win at Carolina Stadium.

Clemson rode a pair of grand slams and five home runs to a 19-6 victory in the finale. Regardless of which team you pull for, the important part of Sunday's game was that it provided a series winner. There was a rubber game.

"Isn't baseball meant to be played in a series, for the most part?" Tanner asked rhetorically afterward. "I like that aspect of it. It seemed to go very well. Three different sites, great crowds and you get a series winner."

In the 10 previous seasons, USC and Clemson played under a four-game format with two games played on an early weekend, then the other two played one week apart during the middle of the week. Three times in the previous decade, no winner was determined after the teams split the four games.

The early weekend games usually proved to be competitive because both teams could afford to use their top-line pitchers. The mid-week games were more dicey, since neither team wanted to use their weekend starters during the middle of conference play.

The result was a series of four games that rarely determined the best team. While the rivalry was not diminished, the format restricted some of the intensity associated with USC-Clemson rivalry.

Under the new format - which included a Friday game at Clemson, a Saturday game at Fluor Field in Greenville and Sunday's game at Carolina Stadium - both coaches set their starting pitching rotation as if they were facing a conference opponent. Both staffs were rested, and bullpen aces were used, again as if the series had conference or playoff implications.

"Everybody gets to put their best team out on the field for three games, three great venues, a packed house at our place, up in Greenville and here today," Leggett said. "We got two good teams on the field three days in row on beautiful weather in the state of South Carolina, I think it was really good for baseball in the state."

The middle game at the home of the Greenville Drive minor-league baseball team proved profitable for all parties, according to deMaine.

"It's a good deal for everybody," deMaine said. "The purpose of the game is to put the focus of the college baseball world on South Carolina. It's our intent to make that game as important in baseball as Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-Georgia on the football side."

The home teams enjoyed handsome gate receipts from the Friday and Sunday games that drew announced crowds of 6,346 at Clemson and 8,214 at USC. Sunday's attendance was a record in the brief history of Carolina Stadium.

The 7,105 who attended Saturday's game in Greenville represented the second-largest crowd in that stadium's history, short by a handful of the crowd that watched John Smoltz's rehab assignment for the Boston Red Sox during the 2009 Greenville Drive season.

The two-year contract with the Greenville Drive called for a 40-40-20 split of the net receipts - including tickets sold, concessions and merchandise - from the Saturday game. With an estimated net profit of $150,000, according to deMaine, each team will receive $60,000 and the Greenville Drive will collect $30,000.

The neutral-site game meant more to the two programs than just cash, deMaine said. Both programs used the game as a marketing tool to fans who do not normally attend their home games. And even though the game was played closer to the Clemson campus, deMaine said there was close to a 50-50 split among fans for the two schools.

Hyman said the Greenville site was attractive to him because USC needs to "do a better job of cultivating our relationships in the upper part of the state."

Tanner and Leggett discussed from the outset the possibility of rotating the neutral-site game around to different minor-league parks in South Carolina. Those possibilities include Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Fort Mill.

Of course, deMaine said he would like to see the contract extended to include Greenville "for the next 20 years or so."

At this point, it might be worth siding with deMaine. At least for now, this is a three-game series that needs no fixing.

Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV).

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