Josh Kendall

Smaller crowds, fewer wins. How USC diehards survived tough baseball season

When South Carolina’s baseball team is winning, Bobby Pelosi’s parking lot is stacked full. On Tuesday night, business wasn’t any good at all.

“When you don’t win, they don’t show up,” said Pelosi, 65, who runs the parking operations for Palmetto Tile and Columbia Printing on Huger Street. “When they were playing really well, I’d pack this place up. I had them parked all the way to the trees.”

On Tuesday, the reserved spots up front weren’t even half-full, and things weren’t any busier for Kevin Woods next door. Woods runs the USC-controlled parking lot at Vista Center. Like Pelosi, he was charging $5 per car for spots that used to command $10. Like Pelosi, he didn’t have many cars.

“Business has been down. It’s been down a good bit,” Woods said. The fans “have been a little frustrated I suppose, understandably so.”

The Gamecocks defeated USC Upstate 1-0 in Founders Park in their final home game of the season. They went on to get one road victory against No. 5 Mississippi State, which puts South Carolina in the SEC tournament and assures the team (28-27) won’t have its first losing record since 1996.

When Mark Kingston was hired to replace Chad Holbrook two years ago, he was put in charge of South Carolina’s marquee athletics program. The Gamecocks baseball team has won two national championships and has 32 NCAA Tournament appearances and long has served as a salve for the USC fan psyche when other sports gave them nothing to crow about. The Gamecocks haven’t won fewer than 33 games in a season since 1996, but Kingston’s second season will end south of that barring an unexpected run to close the year.

That’s a tough blow for what has arguably been the university’s most loyal fan base.

“Now listen to this, my daddy said this. He said, ‘Son, the hardest thing you are ever going to do in your life is be a Gamecock.’ He said, ‘Because by the time they get you up, they are going to let you down.’ He said, ‘But I love them.’ I said, ‘Well, I do, too,’” USC fan Al Fallow said.

The 72-year-old Fallow, who was in the stands Tuesday night, attended his first South Carolina sporting event in 1952 and is a season-ticket regular. He buys four baseball tickets, four football tickets, four women’s basketball tickets and two men’s basketball tickets each year.

“So help me, I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said. “I don’t know that my expectations were out of sight, but I figured we would at least have a break even or winning record in the SEC and be in a regional. Right now, those expectations are not being met. Frustrating… very.”

The Gamecocks have won only one conference series this year. They finished 8-22 in the conference, so frustration has been the feeling of the season for USC fans. South Carolina’s average attendance of 6,385 is its lowest of the decade. Founders Park has seen 54 sellouts in its 10 years, but only one this year (the Clemson game). The announced attendance for Tuesday night’s game was 5,934, but fewer than 1,000 were in their seats at first pitch. A lot fewer.

Mostly, they were the true believers. People like 86-year-old Shirley Knox and 71-year-old Carla Hutto. Knox has been a Gamecock Club member for 45 years; Hutto for 44. Hutto keeps a scorebook for every game.

“I’ll tell you my story,” Knox said. “We beat North Carolina. We beat N.C. State. We beat Clemson. That is my season, and it was a good one.”

Knox pointed to this year’s spate of injuries.

“We understand,” she said.

So does Greg Leonard, 61, who has been coming to USC baseball games for 41 years. He was one of the original members of the “Third Base Hecklers” at Sarge Frye Field.

“I had (former Clemson coach) Bill Wilhelm come into the stands after me one day,” he said with pride from his spot just behind home plate.

Like Knox, he’s not bothered by the season, and, like Hutto, he keeps a scorecard for every game.

“I could show you a dozen, 15 games where one hit here or one pitch there and our record would be much different,” Leonard said. “It’s nicer when you’re winning of course. Kingston’s first year we were within one game of going to Omaha. You can’t get much better than that. This year, half of our team is injured. He’s just doing the best he can with what he’s got. Of course, it always takes a new coach a couple years to get his program going. I support the coach 100 percent.”

When pinch runner Jacob English slid across home plate to put an end to Tuesday night’s game in the bottom of the ninth, the diehards still in the stands celebrated raucously.

“It could very easily have been an empty ballpark tonight, but they were loud,” Kingston said after the game. “They willed us to that run in the ninth. We appreciate that very much and just know this thing will get where they all want it and we want it.”

“Look forward to seeing you back here in 2020,” P.A. announcer Dave Aiken said.

Why show up at all for the last game of the 2019 season?

“Last game of the year,” Fallow said, “and I’m just a Gamecock.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC