Josh Kendall

USC fans feel the sting of no baseball in June

At South Carolina, baseball is still the only men’s program with a national title
At South Carolina, baseball is still the only men’s program with a national title mbergen@thestate.com

Florida clinched its second straight Super Regional appearance with a 2-1 win over Florida Atlantic on Sunday.

The Gators are the No. 4 national seed and will be making their fourth Super Regional appearance in the last six years. And 2,053 people attended the game. Officially. A photo of the stands floating around the Internet at first pitch suggested it was actually many fewer than that.

By South Carolina standards, that’s an embarrassing attendance figure. Of course, not as embarrassing as the fact that there were zero people at Carolina Stadium last week after the Gamecocks failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

“We are accustomed to having baseball this time of year,” athletics director and former baseball coach Ray Tanner said.

Florida fans don’t care about baseball. They like being good at baseball. There’s a difference. Everybody likes being good at stuff. The true measurement of sentiment is, “How bad does it hurt not being good at it?”

Most of those 2,000 fans who showed up for Florida’s baseball game against Florida Atlantic would have found something else to do that weekend and not thought another thing about it if the Gators hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament.

Georgia, currently, is bad at baseball. The Bulldogs would like it if they were good again, but you’d go through several pairs of shoes walking around downtown Athens, Ga., before you found someone who was really irked Georgia didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. You could say the same at Auburn and Alabama and Missouri and in almost every SEC town.

But you can’t say it in South Carolina.

Even this week in Columbia, when the humidity level has been listed officially as Bisque, you wouldn’t break a sweat on a walk before you found someone who is upset about the baseball team and more than happy to tell you what Chad Holbrook ought to do about it.

Tanner hears from those people often.

“I said this to the players when I coached, ‘This is where we want to be. You have expectations as players, we have them as coaches, we want our fans to have them, too,’ ” Tanner said. “We don’t want an apathetic fan base. We want the fan base that we have, that cares, that wants to win. Are they happy when they don’t win? No. None of us are. The mail and the phone calls, I could pass on that, but I understand it.

“It’s a compliment.”

Greg McGarity at Georgia probably is not getting any mail this week about the baseball team unless it is to ask the stadium be razed to make more room for the upcoming and adjacent indoor practice facility for football. Jay Jacobs at Auburn could cut his entire baseball program and turn the stadium into a theater where a 15-second loop of the Kick Six played on continuous repeat and he’d be given a lifetime contract.

They don’t understand what South Carolina’s fan base is going through this summer. Only LSU, Mississippi State and maybe Arkansas fans can truly understand. Those are the only other places in the league where baseball really matters, where fans feel the sting of disappointing seasons all the way until the first snap of preseason practice in football.

At South Carolina, baseball was the fans’ first real champion (with appropriate apologies to the women’s track team). It’s still the only men’s program with a national title, and it won two of them back-to-back. For a fan base that always has struggled to find its place in the SEC landscape, no greater bond could be forged.

Most seasons, that’s a good thing. Tanner can remember taking a tape measure and personally measuring the distance from the foul lines to the first row of seats at Sarge Frye Field and transferring those numbers straight to the blueprint for Carolina Stadium.

“I was trying to get our fans back in the same position,” he said.

Tanner’s teams were beginning to stack great seasons together just as Sarge Frye Field was nearing the end of its life, and Tanner wanted to make sure he did not leave any of that momentum behind when the team moved.

“I can remember standing in the dugout, thinking, ‘I don’t think we can lose today’ because our fans were not going to let us lose,” Tanner said. “We are going to play well enough but the part that we don’t do on the field, our fans are going to take care of the rest. When we were in the midst of moving to Carolina Stadium, I was concerned that we would get that back.”

They never lost it thanks to a fan base that would not let them. Those fans have nowhere to go this postseason, though, and that’ll sting for a while.

Florida will play Florida State for the right to go to Omaha this weekend. It’s the kind of inter-conference, intra-state Super Regional that Gamecocks and Clemson fans have dreamed about but never received.

Wonder how many folks will show up?

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