Friday, February 19, 2021

There is no joy in Greenville

The view of Furman's Latham Baseball Stadium on what
woud've been opening day of the 2021 season Friday.

I went to Furman's Latham Baseball Stadium today. I didn't know what else to do. It's what I've done seemingly every second or third Friday in February for about the past 25 years. While opening day was celebrated as college baseball made it's long-awaited return to Division I venues throughout the country Friday, there was no excitement at Furman.

On a beautiful mostly sunny late afternoon at Latham, there were no Paladins. No sign of Middle Tennessee State, the scheduled opponent for the 2021 opener. There was no smell of freshly cut grass or of hot dogs and popcorn from the concession stand. There were no pings off metal bats. There was not one instance of the sweetest sound in all of sports - a fastball popping a catcher's mitt. Just a baseball stadium of nothingness.

There is no joy in Greenville, Furman baseball is out.

I visited Friday in hopes of moving on, which is also why I'm blogging about it. Some say writing is therapeutic. I hope they're right, because Furman baseball is dead and I am not okay. This must be how baseball fans in Brooklyn and Manhattan felt on Major League Baseball's opening day in 1958.

Furman pulled the plug on baseball on May 18, killing a program that had its first game on March 24, 1896 - a 20-13 win at Clemson. I know many have lost much more than I have due to COVID-19, but losing Furman baseball six weeks after the death of John Prine were two gut punches. Prine's last recorded single was the beautiful "I Remember Everything," and I'll be talking about my memories of Furman baseball here. But first a line from my favorite Prine song that has kind of haunted me since the Paladins' last baseball game.

"Summer's end came faster than we wanted."

On March 8, Furman centerfielder Jordan Starkes landed the No. 2 play on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 with a leaping catch over the eight-foot fence to rob Campbell of a home run. That helped preserve an 8-2 win for the Paladins as they claimed the series victory in what evidently was the program's final series. Things went downhill fast after that.

Two days later, the program's final game - an 8-2 loss to Quinnipiac. Two days later, that weekend's scheduled home series against Coach Brett Harker's alma mater, the College of Charleston, is cancelled. Five days later, Southern Conference baseball and every other spring sports season is cancelled. Two months and one day later, Furman baseball and men's lacrosse are permanently cancelled.

The sign for the next game that never came.

Coaches and players learned the fate of their sport via Zoom call thanks to the damn pandemic, with no chance to plead their case.

"I'm really not trying to exaggerate, but it's like losing a family member. You're so involved in 35 people's lives and four coaches' lives and after one phone call, it's gone," Harker said. "I'm very thankful that basically all my kids that were willing to transfer out wanting to play elsewhere this year had places to go. Others are taking a year off and will try to land somewhere after this summer. That's helped ease the pain.

"We weren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but this program had something really special going that went far beyond baseball. Baseball was maybe a third or fourth of it. By the end of my career, I could be the head coach at Georgia but it's not going to be the same. We had an awesome thing going. As much as it hurts, it's going to be okay. We're just going into a different chapter of our lives."

At the time, there were many saying that Furman would be the first of many programs to cut baseball due to financial concerns brought by the pandemic.

It wasn't.

Only Chicago State followed. Bowling Green cut its program before Furman did, but reinstated it just two weeks later. With apologies to Chicago State, Illinois isn't exactly in the same ballpark as South Carolina when it comes to college baseball. Since 1990, only California (10) and Texas (6) has had as many different schools reach the College World Series as South Carolina's four (The Citadel, Clemson, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina).

I doubt that Chicago State's logo was emblazoned atop a professional dugout like Furman's was at the Greenville Drive's Fluor Field. That relationship helped Greenville's crown jewel of a stadium get displayed each year at the Southern Conference Tournament.

Somehow I doubt that was all thrown out the window in two months simply because of the virus. It's not like Furman's baseball program wasn't treated like a black sheep at the school for many years.

But I don't want to go down that road with this story. I've been filled with anger over the past year for many reasons and quite frankly, it's exhausting. Instead, I want to think about the good times.

"I remember everything. Things I can't forget."

Before I started covering and later working for Furman baseball in the press box, I was a season ticket holder along with my friends Hugh and Kathy Hughes. My wife found season tickets to be a perfect early Valentine's or birthday present each year during our courting days.

On one of those courting days I saw Asheville's historic McCormick Field for the first time. On a cold April night in 2009, we watched a 5-26 UNC-Asheville team beat Furman, 4-1. Do you know how hard it is to get someone interested in baseball when the team you're there to see has a total of two singles and three errors? Luckily the game lasted a little over two hours and the tradeoff was a night at The Grove Park Inn, so she really didn't mind.

On to better memories. The biggest would have to be Furman's unbelievable run to its last trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2005. The Paladins entered the final weekend of the regular season needing a three-game sweep at Davidson to even qualify for the SoCon Tournament. Furman's postseason hopes appeared to be toast in the opening game of that series before Joe Daysch's ninth-inning grand slam propelled Furman to the start of a seven-game winning streak.

The Paladins became the first eight seed to ever win the SoCon Tournament after beating top-seeded - and 20th-ranked - College of Charleston, fourth-seeded Elon and back-to-back wins against No. 2 seed Georgia Southern.

A couple of years prior to that run, there were plenty of memories of Tom Mastny mowing down the competition. Furman's career leader in innings pitched (405), Mastny also holds the single-season ERA record of 1.09. That figure was tops in the country in 2003. While he was in the opposing dugout at the time, Harker remembers Mastny too.

"From an opponent's standpoint you weren't all that worried about rolling into Greenville, but you knew on Friday night if you gave up two runs you lost," Harker said. "Because Mastny wasn't giving up more than one. That guy was the real deal."

Mastny went on to become the only Indonesian-born Major Leaguer, spending most of his career as a reliever for my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians. That led to another favorite memory. After surviving a case of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2006, I "lived like I was dying" in the summer of 2007. While maxing out a couple of credit cards along the way, I saw major league baseball outside of Georgia or Ohio for the first time in my life. Trips to Wrigley Field, old Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown were crossed off my bucket list. The only place I saw the Indians though was a three-game series at the Marlins.

Seeing a Marlins game in the vast Joe Robbie Stadium - or whatever one of the numerous titles the Miami Dolphins' stadium had back then - was kind of like watching a Braves game at Fulton County Stadium in the 80s. You could pretty much roam around wherever you wanted. So during a rain delay (because, Florida), I meandered my way to the closest section to but still high above the Indians bullpen. I yelled down "Hey Mastny, go Paladins!" He sharply turned his head and gave a thumbs up. There was also a quizzical look as he no doubt wondered what some weirdo with Furman ties was doing in Miami watching the Indians and Marlins with about 500 other people on a Wednesday night.

After the Mastny era and the SoCon championship, it was the Jay Jackson era of dominating the competition both on the mound and at the plate. It was a treat to see the former Christ Church standout's wonderful family at every Furman game. After leading the SoCon in ERA in 2008, he was drafted by the Cubs. He battled his way through a minor league pitching career before making his MLB debut with the Padres in 2015 and then helped the Brewers reach the playoffs in 2019.

I began covering Furman sports for The Greenville News in the fall of 2012. That finally got me in the press box, where I always wanted to be. There were some fun off-the-record, postgame reviews of umpires and players with just me and a pair of Furman legends, SID Hunter Reid and former coach Ron Smith, back then.

After being laid off by The News in the fall of 2016, I wanted some way of continuing to cover Furman sports. Inspired by my friend Rudy Jones' incredible state college baseball blog (http://palmettostatebaseball.blogspot.com), I created the Furman Baseball Blog. That served as a blueprint for what became the Furman Sports Report.

I sure picked a good year to do it in 2017. The first event I covered for the blog was Harker - in his first season as head coach - introducing legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone as a special advisor to the program. After the press conference we sat in the rocking chairs along right field porch at Latham Stadium for an hour listening to Mazzone tell stories.

After a stretch of going 3-17 in the middle of that season, Furman won 14 of its next 15 games. The Paladins won each of their final six series that year and made a run to the SoCon Tournament championship.

After starting the 2016 SoCon Tournament's 9 a.m. game with a 3-0 complete game shutout of ETSU in two hours, eight minutes, Furman's Will Gaddis started the 2017 Tournament's 9 a.m. game which lasted one hour and 58 minutes. That's how long it took for the Paladins to "run-rule" Wofford 13-3 in seven innings. That game was highlighted by Cameron Whitehead's three-run home run that landed on the roof of the New York Life building beyond Fluor Field's Green Monster. The shot went an estimated 440 feet.

"That ball was blasted," Harker said. "It was just exhilarating."

The next day, Furman sophomore Grant Schuermann ran his consecutive streak of no earned runs allowed to 25 as the Paladins beat No. 1 seed Mercer, 6-1. In a winner-take-all finale three days later, the Paladins ran out of gas in its loss to UNC Greensboro. It was Furman's fourth game in a span of 30 hours.

There were two standout days earlier in that 2017 season, in which Furman matched the school record for wins with 33. At Samford, Gaddis and Schuermann became the first duo in school history to earn complete game wins in a doubleheader as each went the full nine innings. 

After his days at Furman, Gaddis returned to the mound at Fluor Field again. This time as a starter for the Asheville Tourists.

The only loss in that 14-1 stretch was a 5-0 defeat at Gardner-Webb. Facing the same starter a week later at Latham Stadium, Furman set single-game school records for home runs (seven) and hits (28) in a 27-10 win. Carter Grote had a school record six hits that night.

Speaking of Grote, a real shame of baseball's end is the end of the Carter Grote award. After coming to Furman as a walk-on with not a ton of expectations from the coaching staff, Grote simply never stopped hitting from the day he set foot on campus. He also never stopped working and was the type of player a coach dreams of guiding.

"Carter Grote summed up everything we tried to build there," Harker said. "That kid did it all and did it the right way. That's kind of the Rudy story except Rudy ends up being the best player on the team."

The sports world got a glimpse of Grote's greatness on March 15, 2016. About an hour after Daniel Fowler lifted the Furman men's basketball team to a 58-57 win with a buzzer-beating shot against Louisiana-Monroe in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, Grote hammered a walk-off three-run home run as Furman beat No. 23 College of Charleston, 9-7. I was fortunate enough to see both happen live, then I woke up the next morning to see Fowler and Grote being interviewed live on ESPN. Two finer representatives of Furman you could not find.

"Now we'll say goodbye and go back home when the day is done."

While Furman baseball has provided many memories on the field over the years, the off field memories have been very special. I was fortunate to hear Jeff Francoeur, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine speak at the Upstate Diamond Classic annual baseball fundraisers. Under Smith's leadership, the baseball program was one of the school's first to raise money for support. Between his stellar basketball and baseball playing careers at Furman, years of service as a color commentator for radio basketball broadcasts and the tireless, underappreciated work for the baseball program for 23 years as head coach, Smith would definitely have a spot on my Mount Rushmore of Furman athletics.

For the past seven years, the entire baseball team participated in getting their heads shaved after a game at Fluor Field each season. It was done to cap off its annual fundraising efforts for the Vs. Cancer Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It was also the little things you just notice by being at the ballpark each day. It was how after every game - win or lose, the hugs Harker shared with his family were the same. Harker's children often climbed into his lap while he drove the bunker rake around the infield after games.

"One of the big things I made a promise to wife was that my attitude would not let my kids know if we won or lost the game," Harker said. "Their childhood happiness is not going to be determined on how many times an 18-22 year old touches home plate. I didn't make it mandatory to my assistants to have their families come, but I wanted them here.

"Number one, I wanted my kids and their kids to grow up and think back on Furman baseball and how they were the luckiest kids in the world to experience it. Number two, I wanted my 18-22 year olds to be able to see me be all into this game for nine innings but when it's over, family came first. That's the bottom line. I thought that was the biggest lesson I could ever teach them in their four years with me."

As this season approached, Harker was looking at his first year without baseball since he was four years old. Then he got a call to come home and serve as the pitching coach at Hillcrest High. Harker graduated from Hillcrest in 2002, 10 years after I did.

"My family is looking forward to this offseason to see what shakes out in the college world and what opportunities are there for us, but in the meantime we would love to not have to miss a year of baseball. Both so that I don't go crazy, but also to give us something to look forward to on a Friday night," Harker said. "I didn't know how to do it and wasn't sure how that was going to take place. Then I got a call from (Hillcrest head coach) Dale Nelson. He starts off by saying, 'I don't mean to insult you,' thinking there's no shot I'd want to come help out. He didn't know that it was the exact thing I needed in my life at that point.

"It's been an awesome opportunity. It's really cool to go back to where me and my wife met and my baseball career really started. ... It's been good for my heart. When I explained it to my kids, my three-year-old said, 'you remember when the purple boys would play and we would wait and you would call us and we would run out on the field. We get to do that again?' I'm sitting there realizing this is why I didn't want to take a year off. This is a big part of their life too."

I'll miss the players and coaches and the moments they create, but I'll miss the folks I sat alongside watching the Paladins with the most. In addition to writing about the team for my blog, the last couple of years I was a tiny part of the program handling social media updates during home games. The friendships made at Furman also helped me become part of the rotation of scorekeepers for the Greenville Drive. Did I mention getting paid to watch baseball is a dream job?

Harry Caray, who helped me fall in love with baseball after my parents got cable in 1985, used to say "you can't beat fun at the old ballpark," and he was so right. On a typical home game at Paladin Stadium, we had this seating arrangement: Jay Rateree on the PA, Chris Carter running the scoreboard, Reid keeping score, me writing, tweeting or editing video replays, Furman legend Ken Pettus being legendary, Dan Scott on the play-by-play radio call and Tom Van Hoy on color commentary.

Thanks to the MLB.TV, Scott and I had major league baseball in Ohio fully covered. I'd keep track of the Indians on my laptop, while Scott would monitor his beloved Reds. We'd provide updates - or razzing, usually razzing - to Reid on the Braves and to Carter on the Red Sox. Honestly, Carter and I spent just as much time talking Jerry Lawler, Lance Russell and other old Memphis pro wrestling figures as we did baseball.

When they could come up for air from their duties with other spring sports, assistant SIDs Jordan Caskey, Chandler Simpson and Julie Pare would visit. Alex Loeb, Ben Mathey, photographers Carly Rose and Jeremy Fleming, and students Forest Stulting and Maddy Craft also made the press box fun. Stulting and Craft used their experience working with the baseball program to pursue pro careers in the sport.

This baseball team meant so much to so many. Many of us who never set foot on the diamond. There's a void there now that I don't know how to fill. The biggest reason why baseball is the best sports is that there's always tomorrow. Unless it's the end of the season, then spring is right around the corner.

Until it isn't.

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