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Fans flock to Columbia Fireflies opener at new ballpark

Columbia Fireflies home opener in the new Spirit Communications Park

Sights and sounds from the Columbia Fireflies' inaugural game in the the new Spirit Communications Park Thursday. The fans filled the seats to watch their new team play the Greenville Drive.
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Sights and sounds from the Columbia Fireflies' inaugural game in the the new Spirit Communications Park Thursday. The fans filled the seats to watch their new team play the Greenville Drive.

More than 9,000 fans jammed into the new $37 million, mostly public-funded Spirit Communications Park on Thursday evening for the Columbia Fireflies’ home opener.

Here’s a pregame and inning-by-inning view from inside the park.

 

First fans

The first person in line for the game against the Greenville Drive was 12-year-old Brett Davis from Atlanta.

He and his father, Ron, a Sumter native who works for Intel, said they are big minor league baseball fans and Gwinnett Braves season ticket holders.

Ron’s father, Ron Sr., bought season tickets and had extras, so they drove in from Atlanta on Thursday. They got in line at the park at around 4:15 p.m.

“I just wanted to be first,” Brett Davis said.

 

First pitch

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin threw out a ceremonial first pitch along with Spirit Communications President and CEO Bob Keane. They were joined by six fans who last year suggested Fireflies in the team naming contest.

Benjamin said he was very nervous. He’s used to being in front of large crowds of people, but not to throw a first pitch. He bounced his throw just in front of the catcher’s glove.

“I got it to 60 feet but not the last 6 inches,” he joked.

 

First inning

Even though the crowd turned out to be large, only about two-thirds of the seats were filled in the first inning. Many, like Zack Stoudemayer of Little Mountain, were still arriving at the end of the first.

“Traffic was really bad on Elmwood Avenue,” said Stoudemayer, who left Little Mountain at 5:30 p.m. and didn’t walk into the stadium until 7:30.

Lines inside the stadium were long at most concession stands and very long at the beer taps. Benjamin and Angie Wildt of Earlewood waited a half-hour to get a beer and didn’t take their seats until the end of the first inning.

“It’s growing pains,” Benajmin Wildt said.

SCORE (End 1st) Columbia 2, Greenville 0

 

Second inning

Lines were also long in the Mason Jar, the team merchandise store. People were lined up 15 to 20 deep at each of the two registers.

One of those fans, Saralynn Hanberry, 28, of Columbia, was attending the game with her husband, Doc, and her father, Robert Winburn. She was shopping for T-shirts because “we want to wear them when we come to the games. We’re having such a good time. We might become season ticket holders.”

SCORE (End 2nd) Columbia 2, Greenville 1

 

Third inning

Arguably the best seats in the house are in the 16 luxury suites. Most are rented by companies, and there was plenty of corporate mingling in the luxury suites as well as in the large club area on the suite level.

One of the most popular suites belonged to Bull Street developer Bob Hughes. The Greenville businessman was hosting partners involved with the ballpark and the rest of the 165-acre development.

Carol McAlister, one of the guests in Hughes’ suite, said she was struck by the fact the brand new stadium was sitting in the middle of what for decades had been a mental health institution.

“For 150 years, there was nothing but sadness on these grounds,” she said. “Now, for the next 150 years, there will be happiness here.”

SCORE (End 3rd) Columbia 2, Greenville 1

 

Fourth inning

Spirit Communications Park has 13 seating options. In addition to the more typical luxury seats, reserved seats and box seats, the stadium offers concourse suites.

Cordoned-off areas on the concourse, four in total around the ballpark, can be rented by groups. The suites feature high-top tables, a buffet and self-serve soft drink taps.

On Thursday, 30 employees and family members of Dominion Carolina Gas Transmission attended the game as guests of the company.

“We wanted to be part of opening night and a special night for Columbia,” said Kristen Beckham, a company spokeswoman. “We wanted it, especially for this night, but hope to come back very soon.”

SCORE (End 4th) Columbia 2, Greenville 1

 

Fifth inning

In the outfield concourse area is a row of plaques commemorating Columbia professional teams and players since baseball first began in the city in 1867: the Columbia Comers, Columbia Reds, Columbia Mets and the Capital City Bombers.

Proctor Williams, a letter carrier from Columbia, said the plaques are a nice way to remember Columbia’s long pro baseball history.

“They did a good job of highlighting the past,” said Williams, who was attending the game with his friends Donald Singleton and Pierre Jordan, all former Keenan High classmates.

SCORE (End 5th) Columbia 2, Greenville 1

 

Sixth inning

The cheapest seats in the house were on the grassy slopes of two outfield berms in left and right field. For $5 a ticket, patrons can oversee the outfielders and have access to a large outdoor bar and less-crowded concession stands.

Ashli Aslin of Columbia brought her two girls Langley, 5, and Frances, 2, along with her aunt and husband.

“We made it a family event, and these are great seats because the girls have a place to run and don’t have to sit in a chair,” Ashli Aslin said.

SCORE (End 6th) Columbia 2, Greenville 1

 

Seventh inning

The ballpark features a play area with two large bounce houses, two inflatable slides and two inflatable pitching cages.

On Thursday, the area was filled with children who were getting a break from sitting in their seats and watching the game.

Keyton Mills of Columbia came to the game with her fiancé, Brett Wadford, and her 4-year-old son, Owen.

“It gives us a great break and lets him get some energy out,” Mills said. “It keeps him occupied.”

SCORE (End 7th) Columbia 2, Greenville 1

 

Eighth inning

By the beginning of the eighth inning, things began to calm down at the concession stands.

Concessionaire Shomari Johnson, 23, of Columbia, even had a few minutes to talk at his Budweiser and Bud Light booth down the third base line.

The combination of opening night, a brand new stadium and the Thursday half-price beer promotion created a perfect storm of customers, he said, that was made more challenging when many concession stand cash register systems went down, not allowing debit cards to be used.

Once the systems were up and running, the lines moved more quickly.

“It’s a new stadium. You’re going to have bugs,” he said. “But once you get those ironed out, it runs real smooth.”

SCORE (End 8th) Columbia 4, Greenville 1

 

Ninth inning

Reggie Levesque, 58, sat in the first row behind the Fireflies dugout sporting a Boston Red Sox hat and shirt.

The Maine native retired from the Army as a staff sergeant, married a Carolina girl and now lives in northeast Richland County. Levesque said he has been to a dozen minor league baseball parks, and the Fireflies’ home is the best one he has seen.

“It’s easily the best minor league ballpark I’ve been in,” he said.

Levesque said he had a great time, was impressed and thinking ahead about future games.

“I’m seriously thinking about season tickets,” he said.

FINAL SCORE: Columbia 4, Greenville 1

The Columbia Fireflies had its inaugural game in the the new Spirit Communications Park Thursday. The fans filled the seats to watch their new team play the Greenville Drive.

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