Take me to church

It’s my fault. I’m sorry. I should have known better.

My remarkable streak of bringing bad luck to my alma mater and main sports team, the South Carolina Gamecocks, continued last night, when I watched the baseball team squander a 4-0 first-inning lead in a 5-4 loss to Rhode Island in the first game of an NCAA regional at Founders Park.

But I must confess: I don’t feel that bad.

To begin with, the underdog winning the first game of a regional is not a rare phenomenon. Smaller schools have less depth than bigger (two-time national champion, maybe) ones, but No. 1 starters are good everywhere, and URI freshman ace Tyler Wilson is no exception.

Wilson, a 6-foot-4 left-hander, went 6-2 with a 1.75 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings pitched in his first collegiate regular season to earn Atlantic 10 rookie and pitcher of the year honors. The Gamecocks got to him early on Friday, with two home runs contributing to the early advantage.

To say Wilson settled down after that is something of an understatement. His next six innings yielded zip – no runs, and precious few hits, as he consistently got ahead of hitters by catching the outside corner of the plate and turning balls that had left the park into harmless popups. The Gamecocks helped, to be sure, stranding runners in crucial situations as USC starter Clarke Schmidt began getting hit – hard – culminating a three-run fifth inning that put the Rams on top for good.

Gamecock outfielder T.J. Hopkins warms up before Friday's game.

Gamecock outfielder T.J. Hopkins warms up before Friday's game.

 I watched all this unfold from my front-row seat down the right-field line, found online a few days earlier. (There are advantages to only needing a single ticket.) It had taken quite a while to get to that seat, as thunder and lightning delayed the first pitch by an hour and left fans, including me, waiting in the sweltering sun that followed for the gates to open. I’d arrived straight from work, around 5:15 p.m., having never been to the “new” park (which opened in 2009) and unfamiliar with parking logistics. Roughly two hours later, I was finally inside the stadium.

I’d heard its praises sung by friends, and it was beautiful, even with its green outfield grass still partially covered by a tarp. I made an initial circuit, noting the presence of Big Spur, the rooster touted as college sports’ most engaged mascot (I wondered about those metrics), the red-white-and-blue bunting draping the garnet railings, and the handful of fans dutifully copying the starting lineups, posted on a large whiteboard hung on the brick wall, into their scorebooks.

Before the game, fans copy the lineups into their scorebooks.

Before the game, fans copy the lineups into their scorebooks.

Big Spur surveys his territory.

Big Spur surveys his territory.

I quickly consumed a jumbo hot dog and a Diet Coke, then sought relief from the sun, taking its sweet, sultry time setting, with a watermelon Italian ice. At minor league games, my first in-park purchase is usually a craft beer, but I didn’t mind the change.

The game got off to the aforementioned great start. As things took a turn, I yelled and fretted and groaned as runners were left in scoring position, but I also took frequent looks around me, taking in the clouds streaked with yellow and pink brushstrokes, the top-of-the-dugout antics of Cocky, the hunched-over figures in the press box. I noted with a personal and professional pang that I could see no women among them, but I also knew one was an old friend I hadn’t seen in a very long time. We tweeted back and forth – ah, technology - about the game and possible lunch plans. That eased the sting of back-to-back Rhode Island homers.

Cocky had plenty of reason for concern on Friday as South Carolina lost to Rhode Island.

Cocky had plenty of reason for concern on Friday as South Carolina lost to Rhode Island.

I chatted with two friendly seatmates, laughing in understanding when, with runners on, a Rams batter hit a grounder foul and one screamed, “Get two!” As she shook her head at herself, I commiserated. “It had potential off the bat,” I agreed. I absorbed bits and pieces of surrounding conversations, learning about imminent grandbabies and weekend plans.

I vacated my seat for the ninth inning in one of the acts of sports-related superstition my husband chides me for. No, I didn’t really think my relocation to the grassy berm above right field would change anything. But it might.

It didn’t, as the Gamecocks couldn’t figure out a way to capitalize on a leadoff walk. I walked back to my car as the clock crept toward midnight, disappointed but buoyed by something I wiggled around my brain trying to name.

sky and players.jpg

I was glad, I supposed, that I hadn’t gone straight home after work, as has become my habit too often in my still-new life. I was happy to have finally seen Founders Park, and to have shared for a moment the communal worship at the college version of the church of baseball. Thinking about seeing my friend produced an inward smile. The slightly obnoxious pack of celebrating URI students didn’t really even bother me, because their team had played a great game.

The Columbia skyline stretched across the night sky, with the promise of another game, another chance, tomorrow. Maybe the pitching would hold up and the bats would come alive and the Gamecocks would win, and keep winning, out of the loser’s bracket and onto the Super Regionals.

Maybe , at least for a night, seemed to be something I could live with.