Much of what happened in Macon between the Diamond Dogs and their hosts on Tuesday night was straightforward and by the numbers: Mercer hurlers faced 43 batters, surrendering 14 hits and eight runs, while Georgia pitchers crossed paths with 42 batters, allowing 12 hits and six earned runs. The Bears had two home runs, including one in the "spicy sixth" to earn every fan who stayed through the close of the contest a coupon for a free Chick-fil-A sandwich from the fellow in the cow suit who was on hand for the occasion, while the Bulldogs had six doubles.
Both squads stranded seven baserunners, but the Red and Black stole two bases, while the Baptists struck out 13 times to the visitors’ six strikeouts. Ben Cornwell got off to a shaky start, giving up a leadoff home run and a long flyout to begin the first frame, and the bullpen likewise struggled at the outset, with John Herman plunking the first batter he faced and conceding an RBI single, a two-run shot to center field, and a base hit to the next three Bears he faced in the sixth stanza. Otherwise, the Athenians held their hosts to one run in the remaining seven innings.
It was a good win for a Georgia baseball team that played better against the Florida St. Seminoles and needed to have something positive happen after Johnathan Taylor’s injury, and the victory came against a better opponent than you may think: Mercer came into the game with an 11-3 record that tied it for the third-highest victory total in the country this season. The Maconites averaged nearly ten runs per outing prior to the Bulldogs’ arrival in their environs, putting them in the top ten nationally in scoring.
Thanks to Macon’s central location in the state, I was at Claude Smith Field to see Georgia play at Mercer for the first time since 2007. My seven-year-old son, who has accompanied me to Bulldog sporting events at Mercer and Red and Black baseball road games before, came with me to the game, where we met my father and my first cousin. The King men occupied the second row of the grandstand behind home plate, which ultimately filled up but which probably was never more heavily peopled than the outfield, which was Kudzu Hill without the kudzu.
I had walked by, but never before been in, Smith Field, so it took a few minutes for us to figure out that the concession stand was behind the visitors’ dugout and the bathrooms were behind the home team’s dugout. Dad has always told me that Macon is "a big small town," and the event definitely had the feel of a community happening. A local bank officer who also happened to be a former Mercer student-athlete threw out the first pitch; a Mercer alumna and local musical artist sang the national anthem, then walked by our seats afterward, receiving compliments from the crowd; a Bears volleyball player who is new to the Peach State sat behind us, where she was oriented with her new surroundings by a Georgia booster; Thomas, whose fundamental frame of reference for an athletics venue was formed in Sanford Stadium, was impressed that the vendors allowed you to keep the caps to your Powerade and Coke bottles.
After visiting the University Center last December, I knew my way around; between Mercer University Drive, Stadium Drive, and University Center Drive, our hosts could not have made it more self-explanatory how to get where we were going without christening a street "Kyle Park Here Avenue." We arrived early, got hot dogs, and saw a good game punctuated by hard-thrown pitches, hard-hit balls, and impressive arms in the outfield that deprived both teams of extra bases.
We also saw something else, though. While the Diamond Dogs upped their all-time series lead to 45-9 by taking their 19th straight contest from the Bears, we saw a lot of civic pride and a lot of fan devotion. We heard a lot of rooting for the home team and a lot of expressions of concern for Johnathan Taylor’s well-being.
In a small venue in which it was possible for spectators to offer exhortations to the players with the reasonable expectation that those players would hear the words being directed their way, we were reminded that, at professional sporting events at which the participants are grown men doing their jobs, fans yell out the players’ last names, but, in intercollegiate athletics, where the competitors are university undergraduates, fans yell out the players’ first names. Every "attaboy" is directed at someone who loves your school as much as you do, rather than at an employee of your preferred franchise, which may trade the player to a rival team or move the club to another city.
There are people in this world who find it silly, and worse, to worry about what two groups of college students do in what essentially is a children’s game involving a ball. There are days, most often days on which a group of college students dressed in red and black has dropped a dramatic contest to a group of college students dressed in orange and blue, when I wonder whether those people might be right.
Then, though, there are the days that I get to sit in the midst of good people who care enough about their community to show up and support their small private college in a contest against the state’s large flagship university in a sport at which the smaller school has not beaten the larger institution in almost two decades; when I am able to watch a group of young men overcome adversity to card an emotional victory in the wake of watching a teammate suffer a potentially life-altering injury; when I am a part of a father-son trip to the ballpark as both a father and a son, and two family members who live in the metro Atlanta area and two other family members who live in South Georgia are able to meet in the middle and enjoy a baseball game and a hot dog like good Americans have been doing for decades. Those are the days when I know that anyone who finds intercollegiate athletics silly, or worse, is missing a large part of the point of a great many things, of which sports is but one.