With his team an out away from victory, John Katz kept working.
Clad in the fluorescent yellow shirt that matched the attire of every ticket-taker and drink server, walkie-talkie pressed firmly to his ear, Katz looked like any other staff member as the Columbia Fireflies played their inaugural home opener on Thursday night.
He sounded, though, like the proud team president he is.
“It’s crazy. I had all sorts of visions in my head. I’m not sure any of them were this awesome,” Katz said as relief pitcher Johnny Magliozzi got the groundout that produced his second save and a 4-1 Fireflies win against the Greenville Drive. “Lots of things surprised me – good, bad and indifferent. One thing that doesn’t surprise me is how well the community came out to support this team.”
An announced crowd of 9,077 – standing room only at $37 million, 8,500-seat Spirit Communications Park – turned out to welcome minor league baseball back to the Midlands. In a scheduling quirk, the Fireflies, the relocated Savannah Sand Gnats, took on the Greenville Drive, the relocated Capital City Bombers.
The Bombers moved from Columbia to Greenville after the 2004 season, leaving the Capital City without a baseball team until the May 2015 announcement that the Sand Gnats, a Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Mets, would be coming to Columbia.
Baseball’s return came not a moment too soon for Cindy Bassard.
“It feels so good to have professional baseball back,” Bassard told a customer as she rang up his purchases in the team store, The Mason Jar. “I have been going through withdrawals for years.”
Bassard worked as a waitress at Bombers games from 1993 to 1997. She kept right on working when she was pregnant with the daughter who practically grew up at Capital City Stadium, meeting future major leaguers and learning to love the game as much as her mother.
“I grew up watching it on my granddad’s TV,” Bassard said. “He always had it on the Mets or the Braves.”
Bassard’s loyalties are not in question: “Mets.”
Tom Moyer can relate. He and his wife Michele stood against the stadium gates before they opened, Tom decked out head-to-knee in a Mets cap, jersey and shorts.
“I’m a huge Mets fan, but I love baseball,” Tom said.
So much so, Michele said, that the game played a role in deciding which city her husband picked to live in when his company transferred him from Louisiana a year ago. Jacksonville, Fla., and Omaha, Neb., were contenders, but “he picked here because he knew this was being built for the Mets,” Michele said.
The pool at their Lexington home was also a factor, Tom said.
Fans on Thursday drank in the sights and sounds of the game. After the game ball arrived via parachute and the Fort Jackson color guard and band played the national anthem, the first pitch was thrown at 7:10 p.m.
Vendors hawked cheesesteaks and beer. Kids lounged on blankets imprinted with Gamecocks and Tiger paws on the Bojangles Berm. The Fireflies put up all the offense they would need in the first inning on a leadoff double, a triple, and a sacrifice fly. Everyone – except perhaps the teenage girl walking around in an oversized Drive jersey – went home happy.
“It’s exciting,” Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin said in between posing for pictures. “It’s a good start to what I think will be a great story.”