The Final Series: So Long to "The Sarge"

As the college baseball season winds to a close with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, University of South Carolina fans are also counting down the final games at Sarge Fry Field. Here are some memories of USC's home baseball field for over three decades. Read, and then please - add yours.

My memories begin with the spring of 1980 several weeks before the facility officially became "Sarge Frye Field" in honor of the Army veteran and longtime South Carolina groundskeeper. It was my freshman year at USC, and I quickly learned about mild spring evenings watching baseball - and girls. They were more interested in watching the players. Jim Curl was the home-run-hitting first baseman who made some nice plays in the field. Outfielder Etienne Farquharson was as colorful a character as his name and a good baseball player too. Coach June Raine's squad was three years removed from a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, but would go back the next two seasons.

There has always been something about a night baseball game for me, with the lights pushing back the darkness to allow the young to keep playing after dark and the young at heart to watch. It's as if time stands still, ala' a "Field of Dreams" moment. Lots of things that happened on the field are memorable, but the sights, sounds, smells, and conversations during baseball games - and the people watching – etched into our minds endure.

Close your eyes and listen for the hum of the lights against an almost quiet ballpark after a game. Time was standing still. Feel the heat under the Carolina sun during an NCAA Regional or Super Regional games. Remember scrambling to get out of work early on a Friday afternoon in June to watch the first game of the NCAA Regional between two of the "other" teams? We got to enjoy a baseball game with a few hundred fans, knowing that a future major leaguer could be on the field. They played these games at Sarge Frye Field.

Some memories triggered by "The Sarge" came back easily. Like the time I left school at the end of the spring semester in the old family 1976 Buick Centurion, a four–barrell 455 engine that sputtered as I got on the Interstate just outside Columbia on the journey home to New Jersey with a passenger. We had to stop and go back. The car just needed a tune up, but the additional night in Columbia allowed me to see one more Carolina-Clemson baseball game, a 4-1 triumph, at the end of the 1982 season as the Gamecocks marched to the College World Series for the second straight year.

That season and the next I broadcast some of the early-season weekday afternoon games on campus radio station WUSC. That's where I first saw the late Tom Price in action and in his glory, in the baseball press box. The second tier that now includes radio was not added until 1987. For 2 or 3 games in 1982 and 1983 I sat just a few feet away on press row and heard him explain out loud why a play was scored a hit or an error, a passed ball or a wild pitch. He talked just loud enough that the listeners could hear too if we were silent. Sometimes it was chilly in the February shade but there was baseball being played outside on the field. You wanted to be there. Just a few years later I wandered into the upper tier to sit in with my then-colleagues with the Gamecock Sports Network broadcast crew for the 1987 Metro Conference Tournament. It was one of the most disappointing USC losses I can ever remember at "the Sarge." But first, the great memories.

The biggest dog pile in Gamecock baseball history had to be after the miracle comeback against Miami on June 9, 2002, when the Gamecocks scored five runs in the top of the ninth for a 6-4 win in the third game of the Super Regional. USC was the "visiting team" while at home and got three outs to send Coach Ray Tanner to Omaha for the first time where Carolina beat Clemson twice before losing in the title round to Texas. It probably took all off-season for the dents in the infield to disappear but Sarge Frye probably didn't care. USC had to beat North Carolina two out of three over two days to win its NCAA Regional at "the Sarge" the weekend before. The next season Carolina beat North Carolina two straight in the Super Regional at "the Sarge" to again advance to the College World Series. Even before those magical moments, the fans were part of the charm that made home games memorable.

The "World Famous Third Base Hecklers" came into being around the time I first began going to Sarge Frye Field, and they were awesome in their time. Will anyone ever forget the famous sounds of "whoooooop" followed by "whewwwww" every time an opposing relief pitcher threw a warm up toss and then the catcher threw it back to the mound? How about the "Leave him in!" "Take Him Out" cheer every time an opposing coach went to the mound to talk to a pitcher. Over the years some said some nasty things, almost all without permission of the "regulars," and as time went by some people had to be asked to calm down. But on the whole, they added a colorful side show that even most of the other teams got a kick out of. I can remember only two coaches reacted negatively to the "World Famous Third Base Hecklers" - Mike Martin of Florida State during Metro Conference play and Coach Mike Roberts of North Carolina, Brian's Dad, who only visited during NCAA Tournament action. Each had some things to say during some of their games at the Sarge. Funny how life is, Roberts later saw his son Brian complete his career in the same stadium after the coach was let go by North Carolina.

The Sarge was a place where for weekday night games one could finish up the early evening activities and stroll into the Sarge to watch the last 2-3 innings of the game and usually cheer for a Gamecock victory. The concessions stands have gotten better over the years, the crowds bigger and louder, and the baseball fan base has grown greatly under Coach Ray Tanner. But the smells wafting over the field and the green grass are the same. There is no doubt a new stadium is needed to hold the bigger crowds and give some luxury box seating for those who can afford it. But Sarge Frye Field will be hard to beat for students who could take a break from studies and walk down to "the Sarge" for an hour or two - or three if it was a close game - of baseball and people watching.

While covering a USC-Clemson baseball game in 1981 for The Gamecock, the game turned in Carolina's favor in the late innings on a ground ball to second that took a strange hop and forced a botched play. USC got another base runner and an "extra out" that eventually cost Clemson the game. I hurried to the Clemson team vans outside the first base entrance near the tennis courts and tracked down the second baseman to find out what had happened to cause the ball to take a crazy hop. He was a college kid, just like me, and his name escapes me. I didn't consider it could be awkward to ask for a comment about an error that lost a game to his arch-rival until I realized I was poking my head into the second row of a van full of Clemson players. But he answered frankly and fully, not shirking any questions. These were baseball players. They were different from other athletes. So was "the Sarge," and so were games there. It had a feeling of home and comfort amidst the competition that kept you wanting to return on mild spring nights so time could seem to stand still yet again.

Does remembering some long forgotten players remind you of where you sat when you saw them play? Who you were dating when Paul and then Dave Hollins played for the Gamecocks as the late 1970's became the mid 1980's? Who knew the younger brother and third baseman from Upstate New York would be a 12 year major leaguer after right fielder Paul got so many hits for USC? Maybe you brought someone special to a game to see Randy Martz or Joe Kucharski or Mike Cook pitch. Which of your children saw Brian Williams or David Marchbanks or Matt Campbell win a game at "the Sarge?" Do you remember Bobby Kish or Gary Bell?

Disappointments? That 1987 Tournament was up there. USC hosted the 1987 Metro Conference Tournament at "The Sarge," winning its first game but then dropping the next two, including being eliminated by Cincinnati 19-4 on that May afternoon. Carolina had swept three from the Bearcats in Columbia in April.

But the biggest disappointment, aside from losses to Clemson, had to be the great 2000 team with the "Killer B's" of Scott Barber, Kip Bouknight and Peter Bauer on the mound. USC fans had an awful feeling after watching Carolina win Friday 6-3 to be one victory from Omaha for the first time since 1985, and then lose 7-1 Saturday and 3-2 Sunday to a feisty, cocky, and mouthy Louisiana -Lafayette squad. The Rajun Cajuns went to the College World Series while the Gamecocks and their 56 wins, including 25 SEC regular season triumphs and the SEC regular season championship trophy, stayed in Columbia. After USC won Friday's opener, the 6'7" Bauer just did not seem to have it in the stifling June heat on Saturday and neither did USC. Barber pitched a great game Sunday but the bats were cold on a hot afternoon.

I remember taking one special guest to an NCAA Regional game, John Bush, a S.C. Air National Guard pilot who flew dozens of missions in the first Gulf War without a scratch. He spent lots of that hot day trying to scratch an itch under his cast - he broke a leg in a water skiing mishap after returning to the States. But the Gamecocks won so it was worth the discomfort.

What was happening in your life when Trey Deyson was taking long swings and hitting timely homers from 1999-2002? Do you remember Don Gordon coming out of the bullpen in the mid-80's on his way to the major leagues? Do you recall Larry Price never really becoming a standout hitter or pitcher, even though it looked like he could do both at the next level? And Florida State winning the Metro Conference Baseball Tournament again? Did you catch third baseman Neil Geisler belting the longest key home run I have ever seen at "the Sarge," a three run homer monster that traveled almost to the train tracks behind right field in the 8th to beat Kentucky on the final SEC weekend in 2005? The monster shot helped send the Gamecocks to an above .500 conference record and the NCAA Tournament again. How about Justin Smoak's opposite field, line drive homer to left to tie the Carolina home run record of 48 just a few weeks ago against Clemson? And the Gamecocks won the game.

Was there ever a better Friday night pitcher at "the Sarge?" than Kip Bouknight? It was amazing watching Bouknight pitch from behind home plate in a Friday night SEC game, with his breaking ball dropping below the batter's knees into the dirt as another hitter swung futilely at strike 3 and walked back to the dugout. Was there ever a better prime time pitcher? Please do tell me about Randy Martz and Earl Bass and Jim Lewis and their Sarge Frye Field exploits. I will close my eyes and see it clearly while you describe it. What pitching match ups do you recall that were better than Mississippi's Stephen Head against USC's Arik Hempy in a battle of lefties with major league stuff in 2004?

Searching for memories by position? How about "Shortstop U?" Wasn't USC and Sarge Frye Field "The Shortstop Stop" for major league scouts for several years? Adam Everett (Astros) Drew Meyer (Dodgers) Brian Roberts (Orioles) all made the majors after playing there. A little further back is Kent Anderson (82-84, then the Angels), and who could forget great collegians like Jeff Grantz (73-76) or even Greg Johnson (77-80)? Did you think of them whenever Reese Havens made another difficult grounder up the middle look like an easy out for the past three seasons?

Who made better throws from centerfield Marcus McBeth or Jon Coutlangus? Who knew that each would become major league relief pitchers as we watched McBeth make leaping grabs near the wall and Coutlangus play so shallow we wanted to yell to him to get deeper? Who hit the longest home run at "the Sarge" among the many power hitting first basemen over the years - Yaron Peters, Trey Dyson, Jim Curl, Greg Morehardt, Jeff Parnell or the great Hank Small? Maybe it was Justin Smoak this season – or Joe Datin in 1985 when he hit 23 homers.

Do you remember John Sullivan playing third base for four years and then coaching there for many under June Raines? Who was the best Gamecock third baseman "the Sarge" ever saw? Rod Carroway? Brian Buscher? James Darnell?

Whose wonderful idea was it to play the Jerry Reed trucker song when one of the guys on the ground crew dragged the infield in the fifth inning with a small tractor? It was a memorable moment in every game. And whose idea was it to stop?

Was the rain delay in the 2005 Super Regional with East Carolina the longest ever in Sarge Frye Field History or did it just feel like it? People eventually went home and came back to see the rest of the game. Those ECU fans huddled in the window alcove with me and my son Sean outside the Roost as it poured down rain gave us the inside scoop on their coach Randy Maizee. They said he could coach, but he wasn't called "Crazy Maizee" for nothing. He riled up some Carolina fans with his Clemson-type remarks and the Gamecocks beat ECU two straight to advance to the College World Series for the third straight season. Two years later Maizee was gone to TCU.

Who was the best four year player in Carolina baseball history? USC Hall of Famer and center fielder Mac White (91-94)? Outfielder Michael Campbell (03-06)? Right fielder Paul Hollins (78-81) who is one of six USC players to hit .400 for a season? Catcher Chris Boyle (81-84) who hit a then-record 10 homers as a freshman, 43 overall and is still tied for first in career RBI with White at 198?? Campbell played in a school record 255 games, but White started a school record 236 consecutive games. Each spent a lot of time competing at "The Sarge." Close your eyes and you can probably see them as they were then.

Something I never saw but heard about from baseball fan extraordinaire' John Nichols will probably be my fondest thought about the days Carolina played baseball at Sarge Frye Field. I missed the miracle comeback against Miami in the 2002 Super Regional because of family obligations, but I wish even more to have been there to see Princeton leave in 2001. With a wife who graduated from the College of Charleston and loves the whole Spoleto atmosphere, sometimes I had to compromise when the NCAA Regionals or Super Regionals came to Columbia. I saw the Gamecocks beat the Citadel convincingly Friday in 2001 and lose to Central Florida in the winners' game at 3:00 p.m. I watched Princeton lose a heartbreakingly close game Friday, but rebounded to win the 11:00 a.m. losers bracket game. Then the Gamecocks slipped past Princeton 11-7 in the Saturday night game to advance to two eventual games against Central Florida Sunday. I had promised my wife a Sunday at Spoleto months before, so I missed the Sunday afternoon game; but hurried back to catch the night cap that would decide who advanced to the Super Regional. When I arrived, John told me that knowledgeable USC fans noticed the Princeton players sitting in the stands for game one Sunday afternoon waiting to head to the airport for the flight to New Jersey. These kids were baseball players who played for the love of the game - no scholarships - and therefore real baseball fans too. They competed for the fun of it and did it well, giving a gutsy performance against some of College baseball's best players and came up short twice in 24 hours to end a dream season. It was not for lack of effort and it was obvious they had honed their skills.

When the Princeton players stood up to leave behind their dreams between innings during game one, the Gamecock fans turned their attention away from the game and their team, stood up and and gave the Princeton players a standing ovation as they left Sarge Frye Field for the final time.

While packing up the equipment after broadcasting those weekday afternoon games in February 1982 and 1983, the sun would sometimes set quickly and a chill arise with the wind that seemed to forever blow at "the Sarge." Tom Price would sometimes roll down the large metal panel that closed in the press box to avoid the chill while he recalculated the statistics for the next game and waited for all the media to finish their work. Tom did not have to see the field to remember the beauty of Sarge Frye Field on the other side of the metal sheet because it was almost a part of him, just like it is a part of every Carolina baseball fan who pauses to remember and smile about a great place for anyone to be alive and to be a baseball fan.

When you take your last glance around after your final game at Sarge Frye Field, you may think you see a couple of figures in the right field corner walking out of the park and pausing for their own last look. It might look like the late Tom Price talking and pointing to a spot on the field and the late Sarge Frye nodding his head vigorously in agreement. You might catch a glimpse of them smiling before they too walk off to a better place.

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