Monday, March 21, 2011

'Gamecock Glory' far more than a baseball book

It took less than a minute for the first lump-in-the-throat moment.  I knew what 'Gamecock Glory' was about.  The author is a friend, the team is one I followed, the story one I knew - or so I thought.  Just a few pages in I realized this wasn't going to be a book about a baseball team winning some big games one year.  It was a lot bigger than that.

'Gamecock Glory' is a chronicle of the 2010 University of South Carolina baseball team and it's journey toward a College World Series title.  What becomes significant almost instantly is just how long before the season began that the journey itself actually began.

The development of Blake Cooper, the recruitment of Christian Walker, Adrian Morales and Jackie Bradley, Jr. and the creation of a "spirit stick" are just a few of the stories author Travis Haney weaves into the book.  Those and others, like the dogged determination of Head Coach Ray Tanner, the perspective of assistant coach Chad Holbrook and the perseverance of pitching coach Mark Calvi, help define just what the team was made of.  None, however, compare to the story of Bayler Teal and his direct influence on the Gamecocks.

By now across the state of South Carolina, the name Bayler Teal is as much a part of Carolina's run to the title as Matt Price, Michael Roth or Whit Merrifield.  Bayler was a young fan from Bishopville, SC who was stricken with an aggressive childhood cancer.  Nearly two years before their triumph in Omaha, the baseball team had "adopted" Bayler as one of their own.  Travis does a masterful job of just how entwined the team and the Teal family became through their respective journeys toward a better place.

I'm not one for spoilers, but let me simply say that the moment that clearly becomes the book's tipping point left me in tears.  I literally had to stop for a minute before continuing on.  I was overcome with the power of such a brief moment.  That convergence of events - that tipping point - was no coincidence.  No matter your beliefs you'll feel it too, and Travis is to be commended for writing in such a way as to illustrate that so simply and so strongly at the same time.

There's plenty of great baseball stuff in 'Gamecock Glory' too, and Travis includes box scores from some of the bigger late season games to give you a sense of how the team played, but for the most part this is a book about people.  The coaches, the players, the fans, the (sometimes mystified) opponents and a unique little boy with a genuine spirit and the family who taught him to be a Gamecock, a great big brother and an inspiration to thousands of people he never met but who all knew him well.

Read 'Gamecock Glory.'  Whether you're a Carolina fan or not, you'll come away with far more than you expect when you start, and it won't take long to understand why.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Some (nearly) final thoughts on 'BatGate'

From the second it happened on Sunday afternoon I didn't like it.  Jack Leggett, who for years has been to Ray Tanner what the Bears are to the Packers, had, in my opinion, crossed the line.  I'll tell you why I feel that way shortly, but first, a little background.

After Tuesday's 5-4 loss to South Carolina, Leggett's all-time record against his top rival is 33-34.  Considering the relative strength of the two nationally prominent programs, splitting the overall series is a fine record.  The rub is that the Gamecocks have now won 14 of the last 20 games played.

In the last 5 or so seasons Jack Leggett's winning percentage against USC is a mere .300.  Included in there are the two crushing defeats at the 2010 College World Series, where for the second time in his career Leggett led a Tigers squad out of the winner's bracket and into matches with South Carolina, only to lose each game played.  The fact that the Gamecocks went on to claim the final National Championship to be earned at Rosenblatt Stadium no doubt further dampens Leggett's mood.

To open the series in 2011, South Carolina got three home runs, two big double plays and a Matt Price save en route to a 6-3 win in Columbia.  Clemson actually jumped out to an early 3-0 lead thanks to an error and some timely hits in the top of the second, but it was the only inning in which they scored.  Saturday's rain forced postponement of the neutral site game in Greenville, so game 2 was now at Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson.  It didn't start well for Leggett.

Gamecock All-American Jackie Bradley, Jr., a young man with a sterling local and national reputation, hit a wind-aided, opposite field homer to put Carolina up 1-0 in the first inning.  In what now, based on some of Leggett's cryptic comments, seems to have been a premeditated move, the Clemson head coach had the umpiring crew inspect Bradley's bat.  For what we're still not completely sure, but it seems he may have been "concerned" with the literal warmth of the bat itself.  More on that in a minute.

More important is what Leggett's ultimate goal was.  His team needed a spark, and if the Gamecocks struck early he was going to provide it.  Get under their skin.  Play mind games.  Coaches have attempted to do those things to one another since man invented team sports.  Leggett is good at it, so good that two of his former assistants, Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin and Florida's Kevin O'Sullivan, have earned reputations as virtual carbon copies of their former boss during their own rise to national prominence.

This time though, March 6, 2011, Jack Leggett decided that the way to play mind games with South Carolina and Ray Tanner and Jackie Bradley, Jr. was to very publicly question whether or not they were doing something the rules prevented, even though a quick, private check with an umpire or perusal of the rule book before the game would have answered the question.  Instead, even though there was no basis for it, Leggett embarrassed Bradley and Tanner in front of thousands of Tiger fans and started a controversy that he - and he alone - is responsible for.

There are no rules precluding any school from keeping it's bats warm.  In fact I'm sure Pedro Cerrano would encourage it.  That said, the warmth simply lessens vibration on the hands and in no way makes the bat perform better.  By the way, the only heater Carolina used on its bats Sunday was the sun.  They were out hit 15-5 and lost 10-5.  Advantage Carolina?  No.

I'm all for mind games.  Coach Tanner employs his own methods from time to time.  Bobby Cox, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver got tossed a lot.  Mind games can work for your guys one day and against your opponent another.  With this specific case, Leggett played games with a subject that isn't funny.  He seems to genuinely believe that it was acceptable to question whether or not South Carolina was playing by the rules as a means of getting into Carolina's head and/or motivating his own squad.  Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't.  The Gamecocks won the series 2-1, so the impact on the game itself was minimal at best.

The lasting impact, and potential damage to the coaches' relationship, may be greater.  Tanner was very upset after the series concluded, and admitted that the feelings he had toward Leggett had been altered to some degree.  I believe Tanner was genuinely caught off guard and stung by the particular charge, adding that he felt it had no place in this rivalry.  I agree with him.

Some friends in the media believe Tanner would like Leggett to apologize in as public a way as he called the Gamecocks out a few days ago.  I don't see that happening, but I do believe it should.

Jack Leggett is a super coach and excellent recruiter.  He'll keep winning.  However, in this case, he screwed up.  Badly.  If he agrees he should say so.  If he doesn't, I'm certain it will change what people say about him.