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South Carolina baseball was already up big Sunday afternoon against Missouri, but when senior shortstop George Callil led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a double to left field, the fans at Founders Park roared as if it was a walk-off winner.
Callil’s double didn’t tip the balance of the outcome, a 13-4 Gamecock win. But it did provide a little catharsis for an already riled-up crowd.
In the seventh inning, Missouri shortstop Joshua Day had appeared to exchange words with some USC fans heckling him as he went into the dugout. Security, event staffers and umpires got involved, and several of the fans were briefly escorted out of their seats — only to return a few batters later.
Shortly thereafter, Gamecocks third base coach Stuart Lake acknowledged that same group of fans with a fist pump, which led to Lake exchanging words with a Missouri coach — and another incident that required the umpires to intervene.
All of those extracurricular moments came a day after reports on social media surfaced that event staff at Founders Park had moved or ejected students for heckling. That led to athletic director Ray Tanner taking the rare step Saturday of issuing a statement on Twitter saying he had discussed the situation with his staff and promising that no fans would be removed for “appropriate heckling,” while also asking them to avoid profanity.
At the same time, Tanner and other athletics department officials said there were no fan ejections at Saturday’s game, with head of new and creative media Justin King saying that the incident in question involved fans sitting in seats that were blocked off and were subsequently asked to move.
This weekend hasn’t been the only time that South Carolina’s fans have gotten into with players on the field. Two weeks ago, when the Gamecocks faced Florida at home, Gators player Nate Hickey hit a home run in the 14th inning and appeared to make a lewd gesture toward South Carolina fans while rounding the bases.
But all in all, USC coach Mark Kingston said Sunday that he likes the energy the fans bring to the game, saying his team benefits from it.
“Obviously everybody wants a home field advantage, and as many fans as they’ll let in here, I hope that that many come because our guys feed off it, there’s no question about it,” Kingston said. “And they’ve all seen the videos from a while ago when this place when it was packed full pre-pandemic. They’ve seen how emotional and great it can get and how exciting it is and they love that and hopefully we keep playing well and hopefully they keep letting more fans in because it could be a really fun ride.
“We love the fans, we love the emotion. Obviously we don’t want anybody to cross the line but home field advantage is key. In this league, home field advantage is huge.”
As Kingston noted, the crowds at Founders Park this season have been limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Capacity is currently capped at 2,100, around 25% of the stadium’s full capacity. And in smaller crowds, individual voices may stick out more to players.
While South Carolina has already said it does not anticipate allowing any more fans at games this spring, it has not stopped supporters from campaigning for capacity to be increased. SEC rival Ole Miss has already done so, allowing more than 11,000 fans to pack into Swayze Field.
Kingston stayed diplomatic Sunday when asked about the possibility of bigger crowds.
“I don’t know how I’m allowed to answer that. I don’t know, I don’t want to get coach Tanner upset with any of my answers,” he said, “so all I can tell you is that as many fans as they’ll let in, I hope come. And whatever the powers that be say can come here, I hope we sell every ticket, because this is a fun team to watch and I know our fans love it and I know we have a lot of great baseball fans.”
“So it’s not my job to decide how many or when or where, that’s not in my job description. But all I can tell the powers that be is we do love having the fans here, we love when they’re allowed to be emotional, and just to echo coach Tanner’s sentiments last night on Twitter, I think it makes an impact no question about it, so I know our team loves it.”