It was a late May evening in Columbia, South Carolina when I pulled up to Capital City Stadium for an amateur baseball contest. Capital City Stadium is an old deteriorating park that few people come to anymore. But when I pulled in towards the parking lot on Assembly Street more than 30 minutes before game time, hundreds of cars were pointing in from over a block down the street. I was usually there before anybody else, and this sight panicked me. I knew that the amateur team that played there, the Columbia Blowfish, often does a reading program with local schools that awards students at all participating elementary schools locally free Blowfish tickets. The Blowfish had done this program on its opening night the day before with modest success. But this night had seemingly hundreds more students there. The traffic going into the stadium was a mess, and fortunately team owner Bill Shanahan was there helping direct traffic and collect the three dollar parking fee (yes, three dollar parking for a low level amateur baseball game). I was able to grab a spot before entering the main lot as a result, and quickly gave my three dollars to Shanahan as I parked. I mentioned to Shanahan how many people were already there, and he mentioned as I suspected the summer reading program (participants can get to the stadium 30 minutes before first pitch for a pre-game parade, hence the unusually early traffic). I then mentioned that this was a lot more of a crowd than the night before. Shanahan said he thought this was a good crowd, but there was still a good crowd the night before. What Shanahan probably did not understand was that I was not complaining about the previous night's attendance.
No, I was complaining about this attendance for this night.
You see, a big reason I have enjoyed attending Blowfish games is that it is no frills baseball at a reasonable price. There are no huge crowds most games, very little reserved seating, the friendliest ushers around, and decent but unpretentious baseball. The Columbia Blowfish play in the Coastal Plain League, an amateur league that draws from college players who need to keep playing after the college season ends and get more summer playing time. There are three types of players in the Coastal Plain League. The first type is bench warmers at schools above the Red Line. The second type of CPL players is quality contributors at mid-major schools, but who usually are not yet at the level of being all-conference. And the third type of Coastal Plain players are star baseball players from teams below the Black Line. It is not great baseball, but for people who like mid-major basketball it is baseball that is perfectly good enough. It is fun to get familiar with these players over the summer, some of whom occasionally reach success later in their career. The CPL in every press release by every team mentions that Justin Verlander pitched in the league ten years ago. It is good baseball where you can have a cheap night and have little distractions in wandering around a mostly empty 6,000 seat stadium and see future mid-major baseball stars. I have been at games where little kids dominate the crowd, and unless you are one of them or with them you feel out of place. And it is not fun to be out of place at the baseball stadium I visit the most in the summer. The announced attendance for this game was 2,613. Most weekend games for the Columbia Blowfish only get half that amount, and this was not a weekend game. Many mid-week games without a special promotion struggle to get 500 fans to a game. That is the simple sports experience I enjoy at Capital City Stadium.
But Shanahan needs these kids to increase attendance. He needs the summer reading program to contribute to the Columbia community and let the area know how much the Blowfish are worth to the area. Because the sad truth lately is that Columbia is dominated by big time and not very simple sports at the University of South Carolina. Whenever Columbia can afford a new stadium, USC is the priority for it. Few teams outside USC have been successful operating in Columbia, a metro area with over 600,000 people. A minor league hockey team played several years at the Carolina Coliseum (South Carolina's old hoops facility) before an unfavorable contract with USC caused the team to fold. Capital City Stadium's previous tenant was the Class A Capital City Bombers. The Bombers were pressured by MLB organizations to find a better stadium, and it appeared that Columbia would give them it. The only problem was that South Carolina also wanted a new Gamecock baseball stadium, and would not share it with a professional team. The Gamecocks got their wish and the Bombers left for Greenville which had recently lost its Class AA team. Shanahan, a former owner of the Bombers, felt the need for Columbia to have some summer baseball team with nothing going on in the city when USC is out of session. Despite still owning multiple minor league teams elsewhere, Shanhan made it a priority to give his home city a team. That team would be the Blowfish, marketed as a replacement for the Bombers despite the fact that the Blowfish are an amateur team of a far lower quality than Gamecock baseball in the spring. And the Blowfish have been moderately successful since they play in the second largest market out of 14 in the league (with the largest market in the league being shared with a AAA professional team). Most markets similar to Columbia are not in the league since they have a professional team. The Blowfish succeed in giving Columbia simple hometown sports at a moderate quality not directly connected with any one school.
But that has been threatened. Capital City Stadium is owned by the City of Columbia, and like many public institutions the city is losing money. And despite their best marketing tries, the Blowfish have a hard time selling themselves as a replacement for minor league ball when the quality of play is no better than Big South baseball. The stadium was originally built in the early 1920s with the grandstand cheaply replaced 20 years ago. But despite this historic significance, the City of Columbia has tried to sell the stadium. The Blowfish as well as Division II Benedict in the spring do not generate revenue that the city feels that the ballpark is worth keeping. The city signed an agreement with a developer
who planned to build a shopping plaza featuring yet another Wal-Mart in the stadium's place. Shanahan now has the duty of trying to keep community support high enough to warrant the team's continued existence, and spent the rest of the season trying to pitch stadium proposals to various suburbs of Columbia.
And that is the problem we face in society. We have many options in our communities to enjoy simple things and have a pleasant enough time. But unless you can get a promotion going like the summer reading programs, too many people stay at home in their free time. And that allows the Sports Bubble to take over. Big time sports can dominate through television contracts and increased exposure, while simpler community sports begin to die. Most of the time, these organizations try to re-invent themselves to keep afloat. And in doing so, they lose sight of what made their events enjoyable in the first place. I mentioned in a recent recap
the frequency of minor league teams in baseball doing special promotions that take the emphasis of their product off the sport being played. Baseball has a particularly hard time apparently selling their sport based on what I have seen in most of Minor League Baseball. So back in July 2009 when I had made decent money from part-time jobs that spring, I decided to travel to Florida baseball. Not that Florida is a particularly good vacation site, especially in the summer. You have searing heat every afternoon followed by severe thunderstorms in the evening. But when you can get a break from it, you can find the best in simple professional baseball. The Class A teams of the Florida State League while playing in Spring Training get crowds stadiums about comparable to Coastal Plain League teams like the Blowfish, but yet with players only three promotions away from reaching MLB. And then in the afternoon you have the most unique pro baseball league, the Gulf Coast League. The GCL is a rookie league with players either just signed professionally or teenagers from Latin America getting their first experience in U.S. professional baseball. The Gulf Coast League is very unpretentious baseball, with all games with free admission to watch pro baseball players play real Minor League Baseball games on practice fields at Spring Training complexes. There is no better deal in baseball than this.
But the Gulf Coast League is in Florida. What simple sports are there that exist in every town? This is the reason I follow high school sports. Not every community is large and/or wealthy enough for professional sports. Not every community has the political connections or key foundations to have a college, and thus no college sports. But if your town is big enough to have teenagers, then you have to have a high school and thus high school sports. This is why you can have the small town phenomenon captured in Friday Night Lights
where thousands of fans can come out and support teenage athletes. If you want to see a fervor not matched in Hoops Nation, head out to a small town on a Friday night and see a football or basketball game. It is simpler but yet a more passionate experience than what you will see in college sports from both the players and the fans alike. And the great thing about high school sports is that you don't need a roster to know where the players are from. If you know where the school is, you know where each player is from. That is something special that college and pro sports cannot match.
But at this time of year, you have multi-team events at the high school level during the holidays. This past weekend, I attended the Chick-Fil-A Classic held near Columbia. And what I saw often threatened the reason why high school sports can be enjoyable. In addition to your standard public high schools, nearly half the field came from private prep schools that mostly exist to serve as basketball factories. The teams at these schools are there to help facilitate players becoming marketable for the Sports Bubble. College coaches and scouts like these tournaments as they can easily see multiple star players at one site. It is why AAU basketball has become big, and high school sports have become less about small town glory and more about trying out for college (and possibly pro sports as well). The team that went on to win the tournament was a Catholic school from near Los Angeles that somehow could afford to travel to South Carolina. Tickets for the tournament cost $10 each day. And while that seems high for high school, next week's Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach will cost $12 each day along with parking fees (yes, paying to park for high school basketball) and with $10 programs (not only do you not see $10 programs in Our Game, you don't see them above the Red Line either). At least it was satisfying to see multiple wins by public schools over the prep schools. The most satisfying public school win was by a local school in A.C. Flora beating a North Carolina prep school with a similar name (Flora Macdonald Academy). Flora Macdonald was kicked out of the North Carolina private school playoffs for recruiting players who lived with their coach (the latter being the actual violation). Yet regular public school A.C. Flora was able to win with its best player being Penn recruit Matt Howard. And it was funny the next day when Wesleyan Christian (a private school not known for basketball when I was at HPU only a mile away) and Christ School were forced into a backup gym due to a power outage. We had a game played in a gym normally used for high school intramurals and P.E. using a few isolated emergency generator lights above the gym alongside sunlight coming in through a corner window. The time was kept by the officials on the court, and the scoreboard was a set of flash cards on the scorers' table (that blows away the technical problems USC Upstate had
less than two weeks prior). And yet we also had the #7
high school senior in the country in Theo Pinson playing in this game. This was an unusually simple game in a tournament that mostly abandoned the simplicity of high school sports.
So yet we come back to mid-major basketball in trying to get a simple fix. On the British soccer groundhopping website
I previously mentioned, some groundhoppers complain about the top steps in non-league football being too similar to that of the Football League and the Premier League teams they dislike. And I often see that here with our mid-major teams as well emulating those above the Red Line. The top mid-majors are also trying to stay competitive with the majors in conference realignment, hence the Atlantic 10's recent shuffling. And that will only continue with the basketball schools in the Big East splitting from the football schools. There is a good chance that certain select top mid-major teams will be joining the "Catholic Seven". The basketball schools are also looking for television contracts, they are trying to keep pace with the big boys in the Sports Bubble world. In seeing mid-major basketball in the Carolinas, I see a lot of differences. College of Charleston and Charlotte act often times like major teams in mid-major conferences, while you can still find a simple basketball experience at Presbyterian and Charleston Southern. Sometimes I wonder if I would be better off following teams below the Black Line. Aside from USC Aiken, no Division II team in South Carolina plays in a modern facility. Some play in gyms that make high school gyms look not too bad. And the prices are not too bad either. Division II basketball often reminds me of what mid-major basketball used to be like, just like mid-major basketball is what high-major basketball used to be like as well. Yet Division II basketball is not what we strive for either. You can much more easily feel like an outsider below the Black Line, as was the case for me at Newberry once in football.
And I like the idea of theoretically knocking off the big boys. You can't do that meaningfully below the Black Line. And many schools below the Black Line like the Columbia Blowfish baseball team are struggling to get by.
Take my hometown school for example in USC Sumter. I was excited when the school five years ago began sponsoring junior college sports. Sumter has very little sports opportunities, and USC Sumter provides sports beyond the high school level which has often been deficient in Sumter. When I began my internship there in August 2011, I was excited to work with the soccer teams in the fall in producing publicity on social media websites of the school. But my supervisors at the school were not excited when I first asked them about it. As it turns out, USC Sumter soccer was struggling to stay afloat. The coach at USCS was fired just before the season started for only having two players on the women's team and eight on the men's team. The new coach, a local club soccer coach who had also assisted as well with local high schools, took any student at the school who was interested in playing college soccer. Eventually he got 13 men on the team, barely enough to field a starting squad of 11. The women's team had to be disbanded. One woman on the team took a redshirt year, while the other leftover from the women's team was able to make the starting lineup for the fledgling men's team! The result was this picture I took, my all-time favorite picture of a college sporting event.
It was an interesting experience I had when doing my internship. I felt rewarded to see the players and their families share my pictures and status updates on the team's progress. For these players, this was the best experience they ever had playing sports and I was able to help capture it for them. It was college sports at its purest, 15 players thrown together and doing their best in front of fewer than 100 fans per game on a meager playing field. I have never seen anything in sports as simple as that. Unfortunately, that also led to the results you would expect. In 14 games, the USC Sumter soccer team only scored six goals (one of which was on the road by the player from the women's team pictured above). The team also allowed an average of close to eight goals by their opponents per game. No game was decided by a margin closer than four goals. Among goalkeepers who allowed the most goals in junior college soccer, two of the top six were from USC Sumter (most soccer teams only have one goalkeeper who plays on a routine basis). One game at Louisburg (a JUCO with a highly active sports program) got so bad that the USCS coach offered to pull his team off the field with 70 of 90 minutes played. The Louisburg coach refused as his team kept pouring in goals for a final score of 25-0. And this is soccer, where scoring more than four goals in a game by one team is very rare. The coach actively recruited to make sure no season would ever end up like this season again. Unfortunately, with budget cuts the University of South Carolina decided that it wasn't worth sponsoring such a soccer team at one of its regional campuses. And despite the struggles of this team, I miss seeing them play, because they represented the purest of college sports.
After that fall, I would next work with the brand new USC Sumter basketball team. I had always wanted to see USC Sumter basketball, and now I would finally get to see it. The USC Sumter athletic director had never pushed for basketball due to the poor nature of its facility Nettles Gym. Nettles Gym is about half the size of Hoops Nation's smallest gyms in USC Upstate's Hodge Center and the CSU Field House of Charleston Southern. But that also makes it about the size of Coker, a competitive Division II school. The problem with Nettles Gym however was the lack of a hardwood floor. The small private high school and AAU teams that played on here before had to deal with a concrete floor of a similar surface of most hallways in schools rather than your standard basketball gym. And now junior college basketball would be played on this surface as well at the urging of USC Sumter's now retired campus dean, who requested a basketball team based on feedback from student surveys. Yet the basketball team started much more smoothly than the soccer team did. The coach started his program by recruiting mostly sophomores who had slipped away from other schools and still had a year of JUCO eligibility left. And in the men's team's first ever home game, USC Sumter won on a put-back dunk at the buzzer against a postgraduate team from Orangeburg. My picture of the game winning dunk was by far my most popular picture I took during my internship.
The men's team had a winning record midway through the season. But things slow began to unravel. The women's team during the second half of the season had only six to seven players available depending on who was healthy. The men's team also lost players, either because of academic issues or injuries. Mostly however it was because of injuries. The concrete court had taken its toll on the players, and the team began to struggle as a result. The coach moved his practices to a middle school across the street to avoid more injury problems associated from the poor surface of the court. The coach also requested that if USC could not upgrade the facility that games be played elsewhere at town, perhaps at the middle school.
But unfortunately, USC reacted the same way it did for soccer. With budget cuts an issue, they would not sponsor a basketball team at a regional campus that was in a facility crisis. The coach came in and worked hard for a season, only to lose his program after only one year. This struggles I have seen as an intern and volunteer for USC Sumter show what life is like below the Black Line. You do not know if you will be able to keep playing the next day. We keep looking for the simple things, but unfortunately it is hard to keep those things going. It is especially hard facing this in Sumter, which provides little opportunity for young people like me. Fortunately, you can still have success if you work hard enough. USC Sumter still has highly successful JUCO baseball and softball teams because the Sumter community loves baseball. I have hoped that somehow that could translate into taking in a struggling CPL team like the Blowfish, but it is doubtful that Sumter leaders would ever pursue that.
But in going back to the Columba Blowfish, we still have a promise for keeping our favorite simple things alive. Faced with losing their team, the Columbia ownership worked at putting together a successful team. The organization hired two USC interns who studied which players the Blowfish coaching staff could target in getting to play for them over the summer. This led to the first winning season in seven years of the Blowfish playing in Columbia. The Blowfish would qualify for the eight team playoffs for the first time on their own merit in finishing fourth out of 14 in the CPL (they made it one year before by virtue of hosting the entire league playoffs). During the playoffs, Shanahan reported contrary to earlier belief that the developer would not be able to start construction for another year, allowing the team the 2013 season as well in order to find a solution to staying alive. Then the Blowfish magically pulled off unlikely playoff wins, easily dispatching Wilmington in the quarterfinals and top seed Edenton in the semifinals. The Blowfish then lost at home to #2
seed Fayetteville in the championship, and it seemed to end there unless they could win two elimination games on the road. But then they did. And after a poor history in terms of on-field quality and a tumultuous year for the organization, the Columbia Blowfish came through and won their first ever league title. The future remains up in the air, but Wal-Mart has backed off
being included in the developer's plans for the Capital City Stadium site. This along with the championship momentum could keep the Columbia Blowfish alive if the developer's plans continue to fall through. And that is how you fight to stay alive. Hopefully Columbia will continue to have simple sports for everyone to enjoy in the shadow of its SEC school.
The way we keep simple things alive is by loving them and not neglecting them. When you have the opportunity, get out of the house and show the simple things in life love. This is the only way we can fight the Sports Bubble. We have to care more about our community and our sports and what makes them great so they can stay alive. In this challenge essay, I have told stories of both success and failure for small time sports. And this is what the Holidays are about: enjoying the little things in life that makes us happy. For me, this usually revolves around local sports options that are affordable and accessible. But this evening, I have also seen that there are simple things that go beyond sports this time of year we can cherish that make us happy. Currently I am in Marion, Illinois, 20 miles east of Carbondale where the Southern Illinois University campus is. It is expected to snow very soon. My 11 year old cousin Jackson from Alabama saw a local weather update on the television screen, and was trying to figure it out. I explained that what the screen showed was that we are in a Blizzard Warning. Jackson got delighted and ran across the house gleefully shouting "Blizzard Warning! Blizzard Warning!" Another cousin of mine, 12-year old Connor who lives in the area, said back "a Blizzard Warning is not good". And I know other relatives who have to go home for work soon, and I also want to leave in a couple days to see High Point play in the Dr. Pepper Classic in Chattanooga. But I hope Jackson gets his wish, as I can identify with a being a child from the South who is delighted by being in a blizzard. My hope is to spend tomorrow afternoon watching Jackson and his older sister play in the snow, and take family pictures more meaningful than any conventional sports picture I have ever taken. It is a simple thing to enjoy, and that is what this time of year is about.