Clinton, S.C., Saturday, May 25, 1:42 p.m.
Why did I have such a good time at the Southern Conference Baseball Tournament? Furman won its opener over Elon, 10-1, lost in excruciating fashion, 3-2, in its second game vs. Georgia Southern, and fell, 8-1, to Elon Friday night.
I didn’t go to bed earlier than 1:30 a.m. three nights in a row, which leaves me feeling at the moment as if I just got back from California. I’m non-jet-lagged in a jet-lagged sort of way.
It was the fellowship.
I watched game one with an old friend, David Hibbard, who is an Elon graduate. I spent games two and three, the Furman losses, with old pals Steve Grant and Bill Butler, both of whom once played baseball for the Paladins, along with Bill’s son Sean, who just finished his sophomore year.
What “Pa” (Grant), “Butts” and I have in common is our senses of humor. We can all be rather sarcastic and outrageous. Together we’re downright raucous.
While watching the games, we shared colorful times from our college years. Some were rather off-color — or, maybe, bright purple, come to think of it — which I think may have had something to do with the tendency of some more proper Furman fans to move to a seating location a bit more distant from us.
We talked and joked about people I hadn’t even thought of in 20 years. We recalled practical jokes and a wide variety of long-ago escapades and sordid episodes. I’ve been away, as a practical matter, for 20 years, and I’m sort of rediscovering my college roots. In my last year writing about NASCAR for a living, I didn’t get to go to a single Paladin football game. I saw the basketball team play here in Clinton against Presbyterian. Of all the uncertain aspects of my future, one bright spot is that I should be able to get up to Furman a lot more often. Lots of graduates of smaller schools don’t keep coming back, and many of them morph into fans of larger schools. I’m not that way. First and foremost, in college athletics, I am a fan of my alma mater. I would 10 times rather be at a Furman game than, say, a Clemson or South Carolina game, or, even, the Clemson-Carolina game. I have relatively little rooting interest in any other school. I like Vanderbilt because some Furman friends used to coach there. I like the University of Texas because it’s in Austin, a city I love, and I have some family connections.
But if Vanderbilt were playing Texas, I still would rather watch Furman play, oh, anyone.
One of the reasons is the presence of friends like Steve Grant and Bill Butler. The baseball coach, Ron Smith, was also in school with us. The head football coach, Bruce Fowler, is an old friend. It’s my school. I want it to win. If it loses, it diminishes my mood but not my loyalty.
I even enjoyed the bantering interaction with fans of The Citadel, which, now that top seed Western Carolina has been eliminated, appears likely to win it all. Word just arrived that the Bulldogs eliminated Appalachian State, 8-6. I have a grudging respect for The Citadel, but I would not pull for the Bulldogs against any team in America and quite likely a good many from throughout the world. The way we Furman fans feel about The Citadel is precisely reflected in the way fans of the Bulldogs feel about us. We can interact, though, in the same way the famed American general interacted with the Russian general in the movie “Patton.”
All right. Enough of the niceties. In conversation and thought, I still think of the Bulldogs as Bellhops. We mix like Athens (liberal arts) and Sparta (military). It’s a wonderful rivalry, in part, for those reasons. The schools love to hate each other.
It was a good time. Friday night was much better because the loss was painless. The score was 1-0 until the Phoenix broke it open in the seventh. By the time it ended, Steve, Bill and I were washing down chicken wings with beer at the watering hole behind Fluor Field’s Green Monster in left.
Thursday’s loss to Georgia Southern (a.) ended at close to 1 a.m. (so it was actually Friday’s loss, too), and the Paladins went to the ninth inning leading 2-1. In fact, they still led 2-1 with two outs and no one on base. What followed was a heart-breaking series of bad breaks and self-imposed wounds. Then Furman (b.) had a chance in the bottom of the ninth but squandered it. I drove home with my stomach in knots.
But … the bantering with my buddies was great. The night didn’t go bad until the end.
If our conversations had been taped, we’d all have some explaining to do.