If it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon give short shrift to the game itself. The contest began well enough---Clemson sent eight batters to the plate without achieving the Tigers’ first hit, while the initial six Country Gentlemen to stand in failed to reach base---and it had a certain symmetry: Georgia scored one run in the first inning and three runs in the third. Unfortunately, the Fort Hill Felines scored three in the third, four in the fourth, and five in the fifth. Had that trend continued, the Orange and Purple would have scored a whopping 33 runs; as it is, the Red and Black have been outscored 44-16 in their last three outings. The less said about the outing itself, the better.
The trip, though, made up what the game lacked. Traveling up I-85 from Georgia to South Carolina involves a shift less subtle than the transition from pine to palmetto; traversing the Seneca River is no analogue for crossing the Rubicon, and even the universal demarcation of passage over the Georgia border at any point---namely, a garish blocky red building housing a fireworks emporium---is not the surest sign of moving from one’s homeland into enemy territory. Rather, the clearest indicator of having become a stranger in a strange land is the change from nearby cars bearing oval "G" window decals to neighboring vehicles emblazoned with tiger paws. I spotted the first Clemson sticker near Toccoa, and I shortly thereafter thought, We aren’t in Bulldog Nation anymore, Toto.
My seven-year-old son, Thomas, and I parked at the Banks McFadden Building at 5:00, an hour and a half before game time, and made our way to the will call window to pick up our tickets. Thomas had been skeptical when I told him the tickets were waiting for us there; he has been to enough sporting events with his father to know that I always have ducats in hand, and I check repeatedly to ensure that I have not misplaced them. The boy had asked me beforehand, "Dad, are we going to have to stand outside the stadium and hold up a peace sign?"
The tickets were waiting for us when we arrived, reserving us two seats in Row B of Section Q of Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Our location was in the new grandstand in left field, a recently added structure supported by brick pillars engraved with palmetto trees near the bottom and tiger paws near the top.
Because we had time before the game, we turned away from the will call window and nearly ran smack-dab into David Perno, who was on his way into the stadium. I said hello, and he said hello back without breaking stride (it was 90 minutes before the first pitch, after all), and Thomas and I stood there and watched as the players disembarked from the charter buses that carried them there and filed into the stadium behind their coach.
Thomas and I walked over to Memorial Stadium so I could show him the venue to which I will be taking him in 2013. Some football players were in the area, and there was an open tunnel through which the field was visible. Though there were people in the area, there was no one who looked like security; it appeared as though we could have walked straight out onto the football field, but, being clad in a red shirt and the Chance Veazey cap I purchased on my last trip to Foley Field, I decided not to risk it.
We returned to Kingsmore Stadium and found our seats. The teams were warming up on the field and a couple of Clemson players were sitting in the row in front of us, chatting with fans with a little over an hour to go before the game. I asked one of them---Thomas later said he thought the player was wearing the number 23, which would have made him Justin Sarratt, but I cannot say for sure---if they were going to clobber us as badly as they had the night before. He smiled and said, "I hope so."
Thomas and I had our share of ballpark food---I had a hot dog and he had a corn dog; I had a Coke and he had a Powerade; we split a bag of peanuts and an order of nachos---but, because my wife, Susan, is trying to get me to eat better now that I am on the far side of 40, I denied my son’s request that we purchase an order of bacon cheese fries. I thought about getting them, though . . . a lot, in fact.
The Tiger faithful were well represented, but there were more than a few Georgia fans in attendance. It is somewhat telling, I think, that almost every Bulldog booster I saw clearly was there with a Clemson friend. I have heard my whole life how our rivalry with Auburn is fraternal yet our rivalry with Clemson is bitter, but I believe the folks who say so are getting their Tigers mixed up with one another. My experience, almost uniformly, has been exactly the opposite: I can count on the fingers of my two hands all the Auburn fans I have ever encountered who have given me reason to regard them with less than utter and absolute disdain, but I have always gotten along famously with Clemson backers. My visits to the Fort Hill campus have never been anything other than entirely pleasant, from my first trip there in 1995 to see the Bulldogs play the Tigers in football to my latest trip there in 2010 to see the Bulldogs play the Tigers in baseball.
It was a nice night, warm without being muggy, and I cannot recall the last time I have spent that much time outdoors in April without my sinuses going absolutely haywire. (The worst sniffling I experienced all evening came after eating the jalapenos on our nachos.) When Thomas and I left at the midpoint of the eighth inning, I told one of the Clemson fans with whom we had been speaking during the game, "We’ll be pulling for y’all in Omaha."
On the way back to the car, Thomas and I talked about trying to make it to both games next spring, planning ahead to be at Foley Field and in Kingsmore Stadium to take in each series meeting in April 2011. While it was a bummer seeing our team lose, that was the lone drawback of the experience. Susan was worried about us driving back so late, so she reserved Thomas and me a room at the Courtyard Marriott in Clemson. As we made our way there, two thoughts occurred to me in succession . . . first the snarky one (I would have told you a decade ago that any combination of "Clemson" and "Marriott" was an oxymoron), then the sincere one: This is why sports matter, this is what rivalry should be, and this is why I did this.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you even lose 14-6, but, even then, still it’s great to be a Georgia Bulldog.