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January 31, 2014

USC baseball honors its pros

In the end, it's always about home.

At a luncheon ceremony to recognize and honor former South Carolina baseball players competing professionally and getting ready to leave for their respective spring training destinations, about 20 former players and coaches gathered at Carolina Stadium to swap stories, encourage each other and reminisce.

Leading the way were big leaguers Jackie Bradley Jr. (Boston Red Sox) and Justin Smoak (Seattle Mariners). Other players (with their professional organization affiliations in parentheses) attending were Michael Roth (Los Angles Angels), Matt Price (Baltimore Orioles), Christian Walker (Baltimore Orioles), Reese Havens (New York Mets), Mike Cisco (Los Angeles Angels), Evan Marzilli (Arizona Diamondbacks), Whit Merrifield (Kansas City Royals), Steven Tolleson (Chicago White Sox), Tyler Webb (New York Yankees), Adam Westmoreland (Miami Marlins), Scott Wingo (Los Angeles Dodgers).

Invited but unable to make it were Brian Roberts (Baltimore Orioles), Sam Dyson (Miami Marlins), Steve Pearce (Baltimore Orioles), Billy Bucker (Los Angeles Angels), Blake Cooper (Arizona Diamondbacks), LB Dantzler (Toronto Blue Jays), Bobby Haney (San Francisco Giants), Bryan Harper (Washington Senators), Colby Holmes (Atlanta Braves), Adam Matthews (Cincinnati Reds), Peter Mooney (Toronto Blue Jays), Steven Neff (San Francisco Giants) and Dante Rosenberg (St. Louis Cardinals).

After a brief meet-and-greet with the press in the media room, the players adjourned to a luncheon in a suite on the second-story concourse. After lunch, emcee and former USC baseball player and radio color commentator Tommy Moody recognized each player present with a brief recap of their Gamecock career highlights before former coach and current athletics director Ray Tanner and head coach Chad Holbrook spoke.

For Tanner, the chance to thank his former players for what they put in place was invaluable.

"What you guys have done, and many of you were serious about the foundation, was you changed the mindset," Tanner said. "You changed the culture in this baseball program, and it lives in a big way. No matter how old you are now or where you've been, you helped shape that and form that. That's the way you left a mark on this program that's indelible.

"That's the players in this program today are enjoying. They have an edge. They have an advantage. They're good players, too, but they have something that you left on the program, and that's the culture and the mindset of the winning tradition."

Doing spot-on Tanner impersonations and telling stories, Holbrook said what he'll never forget the 2010 national championship run.

"For Whit and Rother and Jackie and Marzilli and Price, guys that I was lucky to be in the same dugout with, I can't tell you, not a day goes by when I don't think every single say of that feeling I got when Wingo got to third base in Omaha (in 2010)," Holbrook said. "Wingo looked at me and said, 'We're getting ready to win this sucker, coach.'

"And I got coach Tanner in the dugout yelling at me, 'No matter what, send him!, No matter what, send him!' We've got Merrifield at the plate who hits flare after flare to second base, and I'm thinking I'm going to make a read end of myself trying to win a national championship because Merrifield's going to hit a flare to second.

"But Whit stayed on top of that sucker. The things that have happened in this baseball program that I've been able to experience because of you guys, I have lifelong gratitude. I can't thank you enough. From Walker hitting a home run against Coastal Carolina, a home run against UConn, to Roth just out-pitching first-rounder after first-rounder to Jackie being Jackie both offensively and defensively, the game-tying hit against Oklahoma the very minute Baylor Teal passed away. So many incredible moments have taken place."

For the stories told and laughs shared, what meant the most to the players was simply the chance to come home and revisit where each of them began their professional careers.

"Of course, I didn't play here (at Carolina Stadium) but I did get to see it a lot, the construction," said Smoak, who .238 with 20 home runs and 50 RBI this past season with the Mariners. "It's good ot be back. The people around here treat you like family and I feel like family.

"It's good to be back, have lunch with these guys and shoot the bull. I've sen a few of them now, played against them, and it's cool."

"My experience here helped a lot. Coach Tanner kind of set this thing up like a big league practice and a big league workout very day."

"This is, I think, the best program in the country, and when you get to play day-in, day-out for a program like this, it teaches you a lot and helps you in the future."

While Smoak has been in the majors since 2010 and unable to come back to many games, fellow major leaguer Jackie Bradley Jr. has been more of a familiar face, popping by the stadium whenever he's in town to catch a practice or scrimmage. He said the chance to re-connect today with so many other former players was too good to pass up.

"It's exiting," said Bradley Jr., who hit .189 in 37 games with the World Champion Red Sox in 2013. "I'm glad to be here. Its fun getting to see the guys I played with. This is definitely like a second home to me. Every time I come back, everything seems so right.

"It's great (in the majors). I got to speak to Justin Smoak, Steve Pearce, Brian Roberts and all those guys like that. It's great to see the talent that South Carolina is able to produce and make it to the big leagues.

"That connection that you have, it's a very unique bond. I love being able to hang out with these guys. These guys are like brothers to me."

Holbrook said the best part of the legacy the former players leave is that it stands as an example to current and future teams. Those teams and players will always be a part of Gamecock baseball, he said.

"We give examples daily of the fortitude they displayed, the will that they displayed, the selflessness they displayed. " Holbrook said. "It's because they just wanted to win and represent the University of South Carolina. As you know, this is your program, and you're always welcome back."



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