COLUMBIA -- It was 8:45 on Thursday night, and South Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner was still holding the black marker between his fingers. He scribbled his signature on a hat and passed it across the table to a little kid. "There ya go, my man," Tanner said.
Next up was a middle-aged woman, one of at least 1,500 faces that passed before Tanner. While he signed, he small-talked with her, smiling and saying he might know someone at the place where her sister works.
As she moved down the line, Tanner rose from his folding chair behind the table and exhaled. He and his players had been signing autographs non-stop for nearly three hours, signing bats and balls and even a bucket. They signed for a kid who could barely see over the table, for a teenager in a camouflage ball cap, for a dolled-up 20-something blonde. They signed for a silver-haired man wearing a bow tie and tweed jacket, and for an elderly fellow using a walker. They signed for so long that one player joked about needing to ice his hand later.
USC baseball has held preseason fan parties before, but nothing like this. For most of the night, the autograph line stretched about 100 yards across the indoor football practice facility. Fans waited an hour-plus to meet Tanner and his players, who have delivered unprecedented athletic success to their school and state by winning back-to-back national championships.
Tanner knows how rare this kind of spectacle is in college baseball, and he wants to enjoy it. "You're not in this position all the time," he said.
Baseball has "always been one of the centerpieces" of USC's athletic department, said athletic director Eric Hyman. USC played in five College World Series before Tanner arrived in 1997 -- and five since. But the team's popularity is peaking now as the Gamecocks prepare for Friday's season opener and their quest for a third straight national title.
Season tickets sold out for the first time ever -- 5,590 of them, gone by early January, accounting for almost all of the 6,400 permanent seats at three-year-old Carolina Stadium, which fits 8,242 people. Last season, USC set a school record for average home attendance (7,431). It was the third straight year that USC ranked No. 4 nationally in attendance.
USC baseball bumper stickers are everywhere in Columbia. Tanner has a pizza named for him at one restaurant and a sandwich at another. Miss Cocky, a store that sells USC apparel catered to women, just started carrying a garnet T-shirt that reads: "CHICKS DIG DIAMONDS."
"It's almost like we're celebrities," said junior outfielder Evan Marzilli. "It's like the pro team of Columbia almost, it feels like. It is awesome."
A thin layer of garnet dust covered the gray floor. The sounds of ink guns spraying and pistons compressing air filled the humid back room.
The T-shirt printing machines at Eat More Tees in Columbia had been running constantly since midnight, after USC won last year's national title. The employees back there pulled a 16-hour shift that first night to meet retailers' immediate demands. Eat More Tees printed nothing but USC baseball national championship shirts for two weeks.
The business made $300,000 just off 2011 World Series shirts -- $100,000 less than it made on USC shirts during the entire 2011 football season, said owner Kevin Schumacher. One of his artists, Darian Metz, said that before the first national title "there was absolutely no demand for Carolina baseball shirts, outside of the diehard fans."
Schumacher's company distributes to places such as Addam's University Bookstore, which always sold plenty of USC baseball products in the spring. Now, "baseball product is something you can sell 24/7, 365 days a year," said Leslie Carter, the general merchandising manager at Addam's.
USC baseball is now a party scene, a far cry from the 1980s at Sarge Frye Field, when the atmosphere was "like a library," said Jason Thonues, who has attended USC baseball games occasionally since he was a kid in the 1970s. Last week, Thonues traveled from his home in Sumter to Columbia and loaded up on USC gear -- plus a $200 canopy for tailgating outside the baseball game on April 14, right after the spring football game.
"My calendar's been marked," he said.
Marzilli sat with his girlfriend at a restaurant in the fall of 2010 when a woman and her child approached the table and asked for an autograph. He was stunned. His girlfriend blushed and laughed. This never happened to Marzilli before, and he hasn't forgotten the moment.
People's interest in being around his team -- and knowing every detail about it -- only grew.
About 2,000 people attended USC's second preseason intra-squad scrimmage last month -- something pitcher Matt Price marvels at but can't quite comprehend.
"It is kind of weird," he said. "I know you all like baseball, but we're just playing against each other."
Tanner said he gave 127 speeches to civic organizations, charity events, Gamecock Club booster gatherings and companies after the first national title. He likes doing them, but vowed to cut back after the second. He did -- but just by 15. Each year, he turned down 40 to 50, he said.
Tanner, who now earns $650,000 a year, embraces public speaking as though he were an everyman politician. At Thursday's fan party, he stood on a stage, holding a microphone in his right hand and gesturing with his left. He spoke loudly and clearly into the mic, with no awkward pauses. He wore a modest red sweater and brown slacks. Everybody stared at him. He appeared comfortable.
Tanner promoted the next day's softball game, then answered a pre-written fan question about pressure. He joked that he feels so little of it that "sometimes I take a nap during the game." The fans laughed. He told a couple more stories and the crowd cheered him off stage.
He climbed down the stairs, sat in his folding chair, gripped the marker and starting chatting with the next person in line.
17 - VMI, 3 p.m.; 18 - VMI, 3 p.m.; 19 - VMI, 1:30 p.m.; 24 - Elon, 3 p.m.; 25 - Elon, 1:30 p.m.; 26 - Elon, 1:30 p.m.; 28 - Presbyterian - 4 p.m.
2 - Clemson (at Joe Riley Park), 6 p.m.; 3 - Clemson, 2 p.m.; 4 - at Clemson, 2 p.m.; 7 - North Carolina-Asheville, 7 p.m.; 9 - Princeton, 7 p.m.; 10 - Princeton, 4 p.m.; 11 - Princeton, 1:30 p.m.; 13 - Charleston Southern, 7 p.m.; 14 - Appalachian State, 7 p.m.; 16 - at Kentucky, 6:30 p.m.; 17 - at Kentucky, 2 p.m.; 18 - at Kentucky, 1 p.m.; 20 - at Furman (Fluor Field, Greenville), 7 p.m.; 21 - Wofford, 7 p.m.; 22 - Florida, 7:30 p.m.; 23 - Florida, 7 p.m.; 24 - Florida, 1:30 p.m.; 27 - at The Citadel, 7 p.m.; 30 - at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m.; 31 - at Vanderbilt, 3 p.m.
1 - at Vanderbilt, 2 p.m.; 4 - at College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 6 - Tennessee, 7 p.m.; 7 - Tennessee, 4 p.m.; 8 - Tennessee, 1:30 p.m.; 10 - The Citadel, 7 p.m.; 11 - at Francis Marion, 7 p.m.; 13 - Mississippi State, 7 p.m.; 14 - Mississippi State, 4 p.m.; 15 - Mississippi State, 1:30 p.m.; 17 - College of Charleston, 7 p.m.; 20 - at Auburn, 7 p.m.; 21 - at Auburn, 4 p.m.; 22 - at Auburn, 2 p.m.; 26 - Alabama, 7:30 p.m.; 27 - Alabama, 7 p.m.; 28 - Alabama, 1:30 p.m.
2 - Davidson, 7 p.m.; 4 - at Arkansas, 7:35 p.m.; 5 - at Arkansas, 7:35 p.m.; 6 - at Arkansas, 2:05 p.m.; 9 - Furman, 7 p.m.; 11 - at Georgia, 7 p.m.; 12 - at Georgia, 3 p.m.; 13 - at Georgia, 2 p.m.; 15 - USC Upstate, 7 p.m.; 17 - LSU, 7 p.m.; 18 - LSU, 7 p.m.; 19 - LSU, 1:30 p.m. 22-27 - SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala.; 1-4 - NCAA Regionals; 8-11 - NCAA Super Regionals; 15-25/26 - College World Series in Omaha, Neb.