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Spear: Memories will endure at Sarge Frye

IF THIS REALLY is the time to play Auld Lang Syne and the final curtain at last falls on Sarge Frye Field today, the University of South Carolina’s longtime baseball home marches into history with so many memories worth keeping.

Remember the old times, the poet wrote, and we should — especially here at this jewel of a park carved out of gullies and wasteland more than a half-century ago.

This is where the college game began to prosper in this state, thanks to the Gamecocks’ rivalry with Clemson. This is where Carolina clinched each of its eight College World Series berths. This is where ... oh, the list of stars and their achievements could go on forever.

Players and coaches might change, but the moments to treasure keep coming.

One inning on this diamond will be etched forever in Ray Tanner’s mind. Bill Reitmeier will never forget pitching 15Ð innings in one game. Trey Dyson remembers a ninth-inning home run, Bobby Richardson the overflow crowd with the Yankees and Mets in town, John Hinkel a power-filled tournament and June Raines his band of sluggers that averaged — averaged! — more than two home runs per game for the 1985 season.

Tanner, the current Carolina coach, speaks for all, saying, “This has been a very special place in Carolina athletics.”

Amen.

A magical inning. Weldon B. “Sarge” Frye, the Michelangelo of groundskeepers, carved the field that eventually would bear his name from an unkempt patch of real estate in the mid-1950s.

The park near the corner of Marion and Heyward streets evolved and so did the Carolina baseball program. The Gamecocks zoomed into national prominence under Richardson, the former Yankees star who coached from 1970-76.

Raines carried the torch for 20 seasons and presided over 501 of his 763 wins at home. Tanner took the ball in 1997, and his teams’ accomplishments include three consecutive trips to the College World Series.

The magical inning that secured his first trip to Omaha in 2002 is one he will always cherish.

“As a coach, at home with the players and fans, that’s one of the greatest moments to enjoy,” he says, his voice filled with emotions of the moment. “The fact that I could stand back and watch it and hear it and feel it ... a great experience for everybody.”

The visiting team that day in the decisive game of an NCAA Super Regional, the Gamecocks trailed Miami 4-1 in the top of the ninth. Suddenly, Carolina’s bats erupted. The arena that had been quieter than a church became rock-concert loud.

“Winning to get to the College World Series obviously was pretty big, and the way we did it is pretty amazing,” Tanner says. “The park was an atmosphere like no other, and I was here to be immersed in it. ... Athletics don’t get better than that.”

Moments to remember. Twenty-five years earlier, in Raines’ first season, the Gamecocks came through the losers’ bracket to win a regional and advance to the 1977 CWS.

“South Alabama came in with a strong team, and Eddie Stanky was the coach,” Hinkel says. “I can still see the tournament and feel the excitement.

“The crowd support and community support is something you never forget.”

Nor will he forget the four home runs he swatted in the five games.

Dyson’s personal moment to treasure came in a regular season game against Clemson in 2000.

“We were down by two runs in the ninth inning, and I hit a two-run homer,” he says. “The crowd was crazy.”

In the 11th inning, his RBI double tied the game again and the Gamecocks won on Marcos Rios’ hit.

Overall, “the Miami miracle was the best of all,” he says. “We had been on the cusp and lost by one run in the Super Regional for two straight years. We faced the same fate, and we came back.”

Dyson does not mention his contribution; he lined a double in the decisive rally.

Reitmeier goes back to the days of railroad ties for seats and an old-fashioned screen for a backstop in the mid-1960s.

He had pitched a no-hitter at Georgia and came close to another against Belmont Abbey.

“I had pitched 16Ð innings without allowing a hit,” he says. “Then came the North Carolina game.”

He worked the first 15Ð innings of the Gamecocks’ 6-5 win in 17 innings on April 8, 1967. He threw an estimated 217 pitches.

“You would never do that now, but when you’re young and you have the ball, you want to stay in there,” Reitmeier says. “We were always mentally and physically prepared to go nine innings, and you kept working as long as you felt OK and got people out.

“I remember that, and I also remember the field, the one Sarge manicured every single day.”

‘Most important meeting.’ Talks with former players and coaches are like that; the conversation eventually comes back to Sarge Frye

“The year we had the Yankees and Mets in here for an exhibition game, there were people everywhere, and the star of the day was Sarge and the facilities,” Richardson says. “The (major-league) players raved about the field and Tom Seaver, who had played at Southern California, said this is one of the finest facilities he had seen. That was a real honor for Sarge and the University.”

Raines knows Frye’s contributions made a difference in some of the Gamecocks’ victories.

“He took such great pride in the field and he would do anything you ask,” Raines says. “He would manicure the field to our team’s strength.”

Frye’s influence extended beyond the field, and his death in 2003 left a void.

“When I took the job here, when I came in to visit, the single most important meeting I had was with Sarge Frye,” Tanner says. “I told Dr. (Mike) McGee, ‘With all due respect, I have to talk to Sarge.’ I knew he would tell me what I needed to know.”

The influence did not end with that first talk.

“When he told you things would be OK, you knew they would,” Tanner says. “He would pop up before or after practice, and he always had the perfect answer to any situation.”

Raines echoed the thought, noting, “I hope they make his name prominent at the new park. A lot of good players have come through here, but there was only one Sarge.”

Now, the field that bears his name passes into history, but the memories made here will never grow old.

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