COLUMBIA — Ray Tanner leaned forward in his seat near South Carolina’s dugout. He rested his elbows on his knees and looked straight ahead, through the black netting that separates the field from the fans at Carolina Stadium. He did not speak.
USC led Liberty by two runs with one out in the eighth inning of Friday afternoon’s sold-out season opener. Liberty runners stood on second and third. This was a familiar situation for USC, yet another close game, on an unfamiliar afternoon, as Tanner watched the Gamecocks from the stands after the school honored him in an emotional pregame ceremony.
Every game for the past 16 years, he stood in USC’s dugout, looking very much like he did Friday, as he leaned forward and intently stared at the pitcher’s mound.
But now, his former assistant, Chad Holbrook, stood atop the dugout steps, and Tanner sat in the stands with his family, feeling not quite as nervous as he did while coaching, but appearing no less focused.
Liberty cut USC’s lead to one on a groundout. Two batters later, with runners on first and third, Tanner watched silently again, rubbing his palms together. Closer Tyler Webb ended the inning with a strikeout. Fans around Tanner stood and cheered. Tanner didn’t move, didn’t clap. Baseball coaches do not rejoice when tension remains, and while his title is athletic director, there is still a baseball coach in Ray Tanner.
Only when the game was over, and USC won 4-3, did Tanner stand and applaud. Much about this day felt different to him — watching a game in a sport coat and slacks, even buying a pretzel from the concession stand. But the relief of a close victory, in USC’s 29th one-run game out of 70 since the start of last season, never changes.
While the transition from Tanner to Holbrook officially took hold Friday, Tanner began the process with a conscious decision during fall practices. He spoke with Holbrook occasionally on the phone, but avoided stopping by Carolina Stadium.
“I purposefully stayed out of the way,” Tanner said. “I thought it was important that coach Holbrook moves forward as quickly as possible and puts his fingerprints on the program.”
On Thursday, Tanner visited the locker room and wished the Gamecocks luck. A couple of them asked him to throw batting practice, “which made me feel good,” Tanner said. On Friday morning, USC’s coaches called him during their staff meeting and chatted about designated hitter rules — the type of conversations they’d normally have on game days.
Friday brought a litany of honors for Tanner. As he stood on the field with his wife and two children, USC renamed a street outside Carolina Stadium as Tanner Way, showed a video tribute highlighted by interviews with former players, and retired Tanner’s No. 1 jersey, while unveiling a graphic on the left field wall with “TANNER” above the number. He is the first person in USC baseball history to be so honored.
Tanner, usually outwardly gruff, admitted the ceremony tugged at his emotions. Holbrook, meanwhile, supported his reputation for being less stone-faced than his mentor.
“I’m glad there wasn’t a camera in front of me when they showed that video, because they would have seen the soft side of me,” he said.
After the 25-minute ceremony, the Gamecocks were “uptight” and made three errors in the first two innings. But they still led 4-0 entering the eighth. While Tanner said he watched the game unfold from a fan’s perspective, he remained mentally invested in the game, wondering what substitution Holbrook might make next.
Holbrook ended the afternoon by telling his favorite Tanner story.
In the second series of 2010, USC lost two of three at East Carolina. Back in Columbia, Tanner “undressed the team like I’ve never seen a team get undressed,” Holbrook said. On the way out of the locker room, he kicked a trash can and limped back to his office, as Holbrook laughed at the absurd scene.
A midweek game followed soon thereafter, and USC trailed Valparaiso 3-0 after the second inning. Tanner turned to Holbrook in the dugout.
“I was due one of these,” Tanner told him.
“What do you mean?” Holbrook said.
“A horse crap year,” Tanner said. “We’re going to have a horse crap year.”
Holbrook smiled as he recounted the moment. It will never fade from his memory, because everyone knows how 2010 ended. But Holbrook couldn’t resist spitting out the kicker, that team’s ultimate answer to Tanner’s challenge.
“And we won the national championship,” Holbrook said.