Early this summer, as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox battled for bragging rights in the American League’s Eastern Division, my home was a house divided: my eldest is an avid Boston fan, my youngest bleeds Bomber blue. When the talk between them got tough, I reminded them of another recent baseball championship in which they cheered together: the 2011 College World Series, won by the University of South Carolina Gamecocks for the second consecutive year.
That the Gamecocks’ victory occurred on June 28, a date celebrated in the southern city where I live as “Carolina Day,” was eminently fitting. Carolina Day commemorates the victory of American colonists who fended off an attack by the bigger and better-equipped British fleet near Charleston, notching the patriots’ first victory of the Revolutionary War. Similarly, the Carolina baseball team battled higher-seeded opponents all the way through the College World Series. Their victory takes its place in the annals of underdog triumphs in this state.
A year ago, in the middle of a family move from Connecticut to South Carolina, we paid scant attention to the College World Series. By this summer, however, we were all full-fledged South Carolinians, defenders rather than deriders of our state’s (many) foibles. We watched with homegrown pride as this band of baseball brothers kept pulling off improbable wins, repeatedly extricating themselves from dicey circumstances: the closing pitcher, Matt Price, got himself out of bases-loaded situations three times in a semifinal game against the University of Virginia. And the team showed heart as well in its devotion to a young fan with cancer who died last year, and whose initials the players quietly sported on their caps.
In the championship series against the Florida Gators, it was more of the same: nerves of steel, hearts of gold. Christian Walker, the first baseman, played the games with a broken left wrist. Patched, splinted, and cleared to play only half an hour before the first game, he came up with four crucial hits in the series. Pitcher Michael Roth threw nearly eight innings on three days’ rest and was unfazed through difficult patches. Second baseman Scott Wingo, with his quick smile, swift feet, and deft hands, produced crucial hits at critical moments, made a game-saving defensive play in the first game, and earned the series’s outstanding-player award.
In the end, however, what was most endearing about these guys was that they were so thoroughly unremarkable. Although the roster sported plenty of talented players, there were no superstars. Their own coach acknowledged there wasn’t a single marquee player among them: no Ellsbury, A-Rod, Jeter, or Pedroia. As pitcher Roth put it, “We’re a bunch of average Joes.”
I’ve had a running discussion with my ten-year-old, the Yankee fan, since the Gamecocks won the championship. I contend that these “average Joes” are good because they believe in themselves and (more importantly) in one another. “No,” he counters, “they believe in themselves because they’re good.” To him, belief originates in things seen, or in this case, things done: winning is the prerequisite for faith.
Well, maybe, but I think success more often comes from the alchemy of average people working together in a common cause and believing in one another than from an assembly of superstars (remember the Yankees of the mid-2000s?). For the past two years this young Gamecock team was David facing a succession of higher-seeded Goliaths. Like the colonial upstarts in Charleston over two centuries ago, they managed to pull off victory not because of raw talent but because of their mutual affection and hard work. “We don’t have the best players position for position,” Roth acknowledged, “but we go out and stick together as a team. We battle.”
The sight of the South Carolina players leaping atop one another in the postvictory pile-up conveyed the joy of a job well—and jointly—done. The players pulled together, and they won together. As first baseman Christian Walker remarked of his teammates, “These guys have an unbelievable amount of love for each other.” So let the Yankees and the Red Sox do battle evermore, but may the team whose players have “the most unbelievable amount of love for each other” be the one to prevail.