The South Carolina baseball team collected plenty of cheers in Sunday’s 20-15 victory against Alabama, but none of the Gamecocks received a louder ovation than Chris Smelley.
The Alabama reserve catcher and former USC quarterback stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning to resounding applause and a standing ovation from what was left of Sunday’s 8,006 fans in attendance.
“All week long, the fans have been great saying good things to me,” Smelley said. “That meant a lot. It kind of sent chills up my spine a little bit.”
Smelley, who has 31 at-bats this season, did not play in the first two games of the series. Although he struck out looking on a 2-2 pitch from Ethan Carter, Smelley was appreciative of his former school’s fans.
“I was thinking they would show me some support, and they did,” he said.
Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard thought the gesture was meaningful to all involved.
“It showed great respect for him,” Gaspard said. “I know that meant a lot to him to get that ovation. I’m happy the fans supported him that way.”
Gaspard puts Smelley, who is hitting .161, on the 25-man travel roster in the SEC because of his experience in big-time situations. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Smelley started 15 of the 21 games from 2006-08 for coach Steve Spurrier’s USC football team, completing 270-of-479 passes for 3,210 yards with 23 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
“Obviously, having been a quarterback in the SEC, he’s been in the fire,” Gaspard said. “Chris is just a calming guy and such a solid kid with solid character.”
Smelley said he got a visit from Spurrier before Saturday’s game.
“He came down to the dugout and shook my hand and said, ‘Good luck with everything,’ “ Smelley said.
After transferring in January 2009, Smelley had to sit out the 2009 baseball season. He also was coming back to a sport that he had not played in a number of years. The redshirt junior hopes to keep plugging away.
“It’s been a battle when you don’t pick up a baseball for three years and go back to do something you did in high school,” he said. “But I’ve still got a year left to play and the rest of this year, so I’m going to give my all in everything I’m doing.”
His return to Columbia wasn’t all about baseball either. On Saturday night, he attended an engagement party that some of his friends, including a few former football teammates, threw for him and his fiance, his high school girlfriend from Alabama. They’re getting married July 10.
Smelley got a kick out of returning to his old stomping grounds.
“Being in Columbia, being in the city, driving around — brings back a lot of great memories,” he said.
He expects to return when the Alabama football team plays at Williams-Brice Stadium next fall, especially since his brother plays for Alabama. But he doesn’t second-guess his decision to leave USC.
“I’m really enjoying being home and being around family.”