STEVE BENJAMIN IS a sports fan. He loves college football and attends most South Carolina home games. He also has an affection for professional sports, particularly baseball.
So it stands to reason that the mayor-elect believes Columbia needs minor-league baseball. All you have to do is toss a softball to Benjamin regarding the subject and let him swing away.
"The demographics exist to support a team, so I know we can do it. I believe we can sustain it," Benjamin says. "But if we want to do it, we've got to get really aggressive.
"If we don't have the resources or the current community support to build a new stadium, then we need to really start working this town-and-gown relationship if it is a possibility over at USC. ... We just really need to aggressively pursue it.
"We certainly should have a minor-league team here."
Columbia remains one of the largest cities in the country without a professional sports franchise since the Inferno of the East Coast Hockey League suspended operations following the 2007-08 season.
Minor-league baseball left town after the 2004 season when the Capital City Bombers of the Class A South Atlantic League moved to Greenville. That city realized the benefits of a new stadium, and its downtown area has undergone a vast revitalization ever since.
Columbia did not have the same foresight. Instead, it jumped in bed with USC, which built its own baseball stadium. The majority of the tickets are sold to Gamecock Club members. As a result, the city is left with USC women's basketball as its only affordable family sports outlet.
Benjamin believes that can change. A year ago, as he was preparing his campaign for mayor, Benjamin contacted a pair of owners of a minor-league baseball team simply to gather information. Earlier this week, he also talked to a prominent baseball fan in the Columbia area about the prospects of pro ball returning.
What he heard was not encouraging. In these economic times, there is little or no chance of Columbia financing the construction of a new stadium. So, Benjamin says, Columbia should explore other options.
One possibility would be to field a Rookie League, or short-season league, franchise. The Appalachian League, for example, begins play in June following the annual major-league draft and runs through the end of August.
Since no Class A team is likely to return to Capital City Stadium, a Rookie League club makes more sense. While it is only a 70-game season, Rookie League ball at least provides a professional sports option for the city.
A short-season schedule also could fit into Carolina Stadium, since the USC season concludes by June. Give USC a few more seasons at the new stadium, and it might be willing to take on a short-season pro team to help make annual bond payments.
Of course, the pipe-dream option for pro ball is a new downtown stadium. Charleston and Greenville serve as the best examples of what a new ball park can do for a city's civic pride, as well as for its ability to grow the local economy.
Benjamin witnessed that on a much larger scale growing up in Queens, N.Y. While he attended games at nearby Shea Stadium, Benjamin's allegiance was to the New York Yankees. He recalls fondly the days of Thurman Munson, the "colorfulness" of Billy Martin, and the "enforced arrogance" of Reggie Jackson.
When he moved south in 1987 to attend USC, Benjamin naturally took a liking to college football and frequently attended baseball games at USC and at Capital City Stadium. There also were occasional trips to Atlanta to watch the Braves.
Later, as a young assistant in the McNair Law firm, Benjamin scored tickets to Game 6 of the 1995 World Series in Atlanta. He can recite details of Dave Justice hitting a home run to lead off the sixth inning as Atlanta defeated Cleveland 1-0 and clinched the World Series.
On a smaller scale, Benjamin believes such baseball moments should be available in Columbia every summer.
"We need to (get minor-league baseball), and we need to focus on development opportunities," Benjamin said. "I would love to start exploring what the possibilities are for getting a team."
Having a new mayor thinking in those terms is a step in the right direction.