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Massive ballpark kills atmosphere in Legion tourney

By J. Scott Sewell
jscott@theitem.com
Posted 8/2/19

Atmosphere can be everything in sports.

I witnessed the best and worst versions of that this week while covering the Sumter P-15's in the American Legion baseball state tournament. The best version was in Riley Park on Monday night, and the worst …

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Massive ballpark kills atmosphere in Legion tourney

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Atmosphere can be everything in sports.

I witnessed the best and worst versions of that this week while covering the Sumter P-15's in the American Legion baseball state tournament. The best version was in Riley Park on Monday night, and the worst was at Segra Park in Columbia on Wednesday afternoon.

I have spent this summer being reminded of how fun the game of baseball can be when played in the proper atmosphere. I've attended literally hundreds of Major League Baseball games in over a dozen different stadiums. I've been to historical ballparks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and modern day palaces like Oracle Park, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. As awe-inspiring as some of those ballparks can be, their atmosphere generally doesn't compare with Riley Park when the stands are packed with local fans like it was on Monday.

It was baseball in its purest form. The sons, brothers, cousins, and nephews of Sumter-area families all proudly wore the Sumter name on their chests as they played for the reputation of their city and the P-15's program. They played in front of their family, friends, classmates, church members and the wider Sumter community. Many Florence fans travelled nearly an hour to cheer on their own sons, brothers, cousins, and nephews and to try to reclaim their own city and program pride after Sumter knocked them out of the state tournament the previous year. It's this same community-focused spirit that formed the roots of baseball in the 19th century when towns would gather their best players to play against a neighboring town's best players.

In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Sumter side of the crowd erupted in cheers when Trent Frye lined a shot to left field that looked like it was going to bring in two runs for a walk-off victory. Then a split-second later the Florence side cheered even louder when leftfielder Gage Weatherford made a perfect read of the ball and made the catch for the final out.

That's what sports are about; those moments.

Sure, that same scenario has played itself out in countless MLB parks, but it's the deeply personal attachment to the players, the history and the cities that make the American Legion games so special.

Visit a place like Yankee Stadium for a random game in the middle of July, and you'll see 44,000 people passively watching a baseball game in between taking selfies to post on Instagram or playing games of Candy Crush on their phones. Cheers are prompted by the 100-foot video scoreboard, and in between pitches you'll be told you can visit the team store to purchase a Yankee cologne gift set. You have to really love the game of baseball to truly enjoy spending four hours in that type of atmosphere while baking in the sun on a hot summer day.

It's only at these small, intimate ballparks like Riley Park, Thomas Sumter Academy's General Field in Dalzell and Monarch Field in Manning where the stakes are quite so personal.

Contrast those environments with Segra Park, the site of the final games of the state tournament. Segra Park can hold over 9,000 people and is filled with comfortable seating, a video board, batting cages, a club lounge, conference rooms, plenty of food options and luxury suites.

It has all the amenities, but it's missing a soul.

I get it though. I understand what the folks with the state American Legion baseball committee were thinking when they moved the tournament to Columbia. It's a great experience for the kids to be able to play at such a nice facility. It's a centrally located, neutral park with a perfectly maintained field. Is all that really worth compromising the spirit of what makes American Legion baseball so great though? I'd rather watch a game at literally any other American Legion park in the state.

While Segra Park can hold 9,000, there were maybe 150 in attendance for Sumter's game against Fort Mill on Wednesday. Entire sections of seats were completely empty. The game was played at 4 p.m. on a weekday between two teams whose fans all lived at least an hour away. The game itself was a tightly-contested pitchers duel and both teams remained scoreless until the final inning. It was also an elimination game between two of the best teams in the state, but it might as well have been an exhibition game with the amount of energy in the stadium. When the final out was recorded, the ballpark staff unceremoniously went to work to prepare the park for the next game.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Sometimes newness simply isn't enough. It definitely wasn't enough on Wednesday, and it wasn't enough last year either. Choosing a location for an event like this isn't easy and it made sense to give Segra Park a try. Next year's tournament is slated to be in Segra Park again, which more than likely means it will be another year of sparsely attended games in a neutral location that both pleases and offends very few people.

It's the path of least resistance, but it's also the path of least fulfillment.