Making its pitch

The Columbia Fireflies' season opener marked the city's first minor league game since the Capital City Bombers left town 11 years earlier. (Columbia Fireflies)

COLUMBIA — John Katz wanted 15 minutes. Ray Tanner gave him 2½ hours.

They talked less about business than about their backgrounds in baseball, one as a professional executive and the other as a college coach. The first meeting between the president of Columbia’s new minor league team and South Carolina’s athletic director stretched far longer than either had planned, marking the beginning of a new relationship between college and pro sports in the state capital.

“I want our dialogue to be open and genuine,” said Katz, president of the Columbia Fireflies, the South Atlantic League team which debuted this year. “If he needs something, he can call me. If I need something, I want to be able to call him. I think that’s the way these things should work. You shouldn’t be in a relationship that’s going to be acrimonious.”

In the past, though, the agendas of USC and Columbia’s pro sports efforts often seemed to clash. There was the hockey team that folded after it couldn’t cut a better deal to play at USC’s arena. There was the last baseball team, which moved after a proposed joint facility with USC fell apart. There was the inaugural season of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, who played at Clemson in 1995 because USC didn’t want them at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“I still hear about that,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.

For eight years, Columbia was left as one of the nation’s largest cities without a professional sports team. For 11 years, there was no minor league baseball. There was only the ramshackle old Capital City Stadium on Assembly Street, a college wood-bat summer league team in Lexington and a sports market completely dominated by USC.

“I hear the stories,” said Katz, who moved to Columbia last summer. “I’ve heard them from people at USC and from people in the community. For us, we got here with a clean slate. We’re not trying to infringe on their facilities. That’s just not how we operate. We’re very community-centric, and USC is a very big part of our community.”

The Fireflies have a sizeable advantage over their predecessors: a $37 million stadium, removing from the equation the facility question that always seemed to put USC and the city’s pro teams at odds. Built on the grounds of the old state mental hospital, the 7,500-seat ballpark is key to Columbia’s ongoing redevelopment efforts, with plans to surround it with residential and retail.

“It will fundamentally change the DNA of the city,” Benjamin said. For now, though, Spirit Communications Park remains a sparkling facility surrounded by dirt parking lots and the remaining buildings of the old asylum complex. That change is likely many years in the making, but in Columbia, another shift has already taken place.

“I’m a Fireflies fan,” said Tanner, who became USC’s athletic director in 2012 after a 16-year run as baseball coach that netted two national championships. “It’s a different fan base. You talk about the Gamecocks and the season ticket holders for the Fireflies, it’s entirely different. I’m a baseball fan, so I’m excited they’re in town.”

Before the first game at the city’s new ballpark, Benjamin stood outside the main gate. The mayor wanted to watch the facial expressions of spectators arriving at a stadium light years ahead of anything Columbia had experienced before.

“Oftentimes, Columbia has almost accepted the fact that people might not expect us to be special,” he said. “When people told me we couldn’t pull it off here, I said, ‘Well, they pulled it off in Durham and Dayton and Fort Wayne … but we can’t do it here? We don’t deserve nice things here?’

“The reality is, we do. These are not just big wins economically, they’re big wins psychologically. We’ve got to add places where people feel they get the quality of life they deserve. We’re constantly in pursuit of a higher quality of life and becoming a place that retains and recruits talent. And this is what’s required.”

The ballpark proved the game-changer for Columbia, just as it was for Charleston when the RiverDogs moved from College Park to Joe Riley Park. It was the deal to build Spirit Communications Park — partially funded by $29 million in public funds the city plans to raise through hospitality taxes — that lured the former Savannah Sand Gnats to the capital.

For Columbia, which has long watched investment go to other corners of the state and put up with barbs from the Lowcountry, a void had been filled. “I’ve always felt it was difficult to say you were a great American city if you didn’t have America’s pastime,” said Benjamin, who championed the project.

The stadium, and the funding package to pay for it, passed city council by one vote. But first, there was another stamp of approval Benjamin needed in his effort to bring minor league baseball back to Columbia. “I knew that one of the major psychological hurdles that we had to clear would be getting the open or tacit support of Ray Tanner,” he said.

Under former athletic director Mike McGee, USC often positioned itself as the only game in town, rejecting the Panthers’ overture to play their first season at Williams-Brice and later eschewing the prospect of a joint stadium with the city’s last minor league club. The new team would be a much tougher sell if the Gamecocks viewed it as competition, with their own baseball program or their athletic department as a whole.

Benjamin, a USC graduate, met with Tanner and Jason Freier, whose Atlanta-based Hardball Capital group owns the Fireflies. “That meeting left me feeling very good that we’d have the support of the university, which was key,” the mayor said.

It was so amicable, Tanner said the prospect of another joint venture — this one at a Founders Park outfitted with additional clubhouses to support a minor league team — was briefly discussed. Although the idea didn’t get very far, there would be no resistance from USC.

“I was very supportive,” Tanner said. “I’ve been here for 20 years, and I care about the city of Columbia and its residents. I thought it would be an economic stimulus, the way the plans were unfolding on the Bull Street property, and more baseball. So I never looked at it as, ‘Is this good for our baseball program, or, is this good for the university?’ I never even thought that way. I always thought it was good for the city of Columbia and its residents. I thought it was very positive.”

So, clearly, was the meeting later with Katz, whom Tanner discovered lived on the same street he did. The Fireflies have embraced their new neighbors, avoiding game-day conflicts with USC when possible, selling a garnet and black version of their cap (and in fairness, an orange one as well), and tweeting good luck to the Gamecocks before the NCAA regionals.

“I have interns from USC. I have full-time staffers from USC. Half my video production team runs the video boards at USC,” said Katz. Even the Fireflies’ neon yellow and dark blue colors were chosen strategically. “Garnet and black is a strong brand,” he added. “You find something that’s further from garnet and black than that, let me know.”

Both sides agree USC and the Fireflies aren’t competing for fans; one comes to see the Gamecocks win, another for Thirsty Thursday, the fire truck hosing down the crowd on Splash Sunday and $5 seats on the berm. “It’s a different market,” said former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble. “It’s entertainment, versus actually pulling for the team.”

Coble, mayor from 1990-2010, said there was once “a lot of disagreement” between the city and USC on the use of university-owned venues. While that relationship improved, it couldn’t keep the city’s pro teams in business. Now, with minor league baseball back and in its own stadium, those days seem long ago.

“I think it’s a really healthy relationship,” Tanner said. “… We’re good for the city, they’re good for the city, and there is absolutely no problem coexisting.”

The original dimensions of Spirit Communications Park included a right-field wall 318 feet from home plate. Katz looked at the blueprint, looked at the expanse of property he had to work with, and asked architects for another 12 feet — but not just for baseball.

“Now you can run soccer and football right down the first base line,” said the Fireflies president. “It’s not an afterthought to host additional sporting events.”

For this new team to work, not just in a market dominated by USC, but in a city where many taxpayers were skeptical about using $29 million in public money to fund a ballpark, it had to be about more than baseball. There’s a reason the facility’s first event wasn’t a ballgame, but a night of praise involving two Baptist churches.

“Baseball is only there 70 days out of the year,” said Benjamin, the mayor. “This has to be a multi-purpose venue to meet the needs of the entire city.”

Which is why the right-field line was extended, so the stadium’s football and soccer alignment would run along the seating bowl and not across the outfield far from spectators. Which is why Katz is talking with area athletic directors about hosting high school football games. Which is why the stadium is open to the public every day (until three hours before first pitch) as a city park.

To Mike Veeck, such efforts are key in a team’s success or failure. “How often is it used so other people can see how it’s utilized in the sense of community?” asked the president emeritus of the Charleston RiverDogs and part-owner of five baseball teams. “That’s so important. What you and I view as a ballpark, they view as a venue.”

Columbia may be a minor league market defined by instability and dominated by the Gamecocks, but Veeck believes none of that should matter if a team establishes itself in the community the right way. He said Columbia had been left as “scorched earth” by one previous owner, who sold the club and then reportedly skipped town without paying the stadium water bill.

“I’ve owned 15 clubs around the countryside. I’ve worked for four major league teams, I’ve owned a piece of a major league team. I can’t tell you a single time it’s the town’s fault or the university’s fault,” Veeck said. “It’s just always the operator’s fault. It’s great to be able to complain and say, ‘Woe is me.’ But you’re doing something wrong, that’s my belief.”

Veeck knows a stadium can make the difference. “We struggled until we got The Joe here in Charleston,” he said. But he also understands the importance of community outreach, like a high school tournament played every year in the stadium of his team in St. Paul, Minn. The Saints draw 8,000 per game despite being located seven miles from where the Minnesota Twins play.

“Ownership really does matter. Not just in the sense of who they are and what they are, but their decorum,” Veeck said.

“I do love that market,” he added, referring to Columbia. “I find the downtown vibrant and entertaining and ever-expanding. But the moment it comes out of your mouth, ‘Gee, they should have supported it,’ they never will. … The moment you start using an excuse or explanation other than ‘We have to work harder,’ you’re sowing the seeds of your own demise.”

Katz calls the Columbia stadium “the community’s ballpark,” perhaps appropriate given that the bulk of it is being financed publicly. But the city is out not just to reestablish a pro sports presence, but also redevelop 181 acres near the heart of downtown. The Fireflies are among the first occupants of the Commons at Bull Street, a mixed-use project with the stadium at its center.

Right now, it’s just the ballpark, a glass-front office building outside of right field with a law firm as its lone occupant, and loads of empty space and promise. There’s talk of a movie theater, restaurants, 400,000 square feet of retail, the old asylum’s landmark Babcock Building renovated and turned into apartments.

The completion of that project remains years away. So is the prospect of a city-owned arena, which would further unshackle Columbia’s pro sports efforts from USC. Benjamin tried to land the Charlotte Hornets’ D-League team, which instead went to Greensboro, and an arena is unlikely without a long-term agreement like the 30-year deal the Fireflies signed with the city.

More recent sports discussions, Benjamin said, have concerned whitewater on the city’s rivers. As far as pro sports, the Fireflies currently stand alone — but in Columbia, after nearly a decade in the minor-league wilderness, that’s good enough.

“There’s something special about being able to don your team colors,” the mayor said, “and say, ‘This is my city, this is my team.’ ”