A very brave fan inspires Carolina

Bayler Teal

OMAHA, Neb. -- The word survival is kicked around quite a bit here, concerning baseball teams trying to extend their stays in the College World Series. It's such a silly word to use, really.

Half a country away, in Bishopville, S.C., a grieving family laid a little boy to rest Sunday. Bayler Teal, just 7 years old, lost his fight with cancer Thursday.

And baseball teams are talking about living and dying with pitches?

"Life's such a fragile thing," South Carolina associate head coach Chad Holbrook said Sunday. "What you accomplish on the field is such a small part of the whole picture of life. When a 7-year-old kid loses his life, it just puts things in perspective."

Holbrook is the link between South Carolina's baseball team, which begins a best-of-three series tonight against UCLA for the NCAA championship, and Bayler.

Holbrook, 39, understands that perspective from personal experience.

A few years ago, there were no guarantees that Holbrook's youngest son, Reece, would emerge from leukemia's grip.

Reece is now happy, healthy and in remission. But that doesn't mean Holbrook ever stops thinking about what his family has been through -- and could go through again at a moment's notice.

As an extension of that, he's acutely aware of hurting families in South Carolina and beyond.

He reached out to the Teals in 2008, just after Bayler was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Holbrook, in effect, invited them to be part of the team.

Through some invasive treatment, Bayler's condition improved for a time, allowing him to assume something close to a normal lifestyle. He even got to play some baseball -- and he was good at it.

In March, Bayler was invited to throw out a first pitch at Carolina Stadium. Things were looking up.

The thing about cancer, though, is it steals your joy. And it does so quickly, without warning and without empathy.

By late April, the monster had returned in a big way.

Upon hearing that, Holbrook told the Teals that the Gamecocks would dedicate their series against Georgia to Bayler. South Carolina went out and swept the Bulldogs.

Then, just before the NCAA Tournament super regional at Coastal Carolina two weeks ago, the Gamecocks heard Bayler had taken another turn.

Again vowing to play for Bayler, they went out and won two games against a talented Chanticleers team, reaching the College World Series for the first time since 2004.

Before they left for Nebraska, the Gamecocks told Bayler they were dedicating their play in Omaha to him.

"He was so excited," his father, Rob Teal, said last week. "He understands they're playing for him. He tells everybody."

South Carolina dropped its first game at the College World Series to Oklahoma. But it rallied two days later to keep playing in this double-elimination event by defeating Arizona State, the tournament's top-ranked team.

The Gamecocks took the field Thursday against Oklahoma, again needing a win to avoid elimination. That just so happened to be the day Bayler died.

Holbrook kept that to himself, not wanting to emotionally throw off the Gamecocks going into the game.

So, imagine Holbrook's feelings as he watched South Carolina, down to its final out -- and strike -- in the 12th inning, trailing by a run. Imagine, then, as he saw two base hits deliver one of the school's most dramatic and important wins, in any sport.

It was a lot to process. That night, Holbrook said "time stood still."

"I was numb. I was just numb," he said. "It's hard to describe it. I knew someone was looking out for us."

Still facing elimination, though, South Carolina needed to defeat Clemson on Friday and Saturday to continue its run.

It did. Not only that, but how about a left-handed relief pitcher giving the Gamecocks a complete-game, three-hit performance in that first win against the Tigers? It was Michael Roth's first start since April 2009, and the longest outing of his career as a Gamecock.

On his hat, Roth sported the initials "BT" -- for Bayler Teal.

"That just gave you chills, to watch him keep pitching like that," Rob Teal said. "It's hard to put into words how uplifting it is. It's like celebrating his life, knowing he touched those players."

And while it looked at times as if the Gamecocks might let Saturday's deciding game slip away, Sam Dyson and Matt Price -- who have combined to throw 360 pitches in Omaha -- gutted through to the end.

"We never gave up, like Bayler," junior outfielder Whit Merrifield said. "We're a team playing inspired."

That's obvious -- and glaringly so from the Teals' home in Bishopville.

"It brings tears to my eyes, but they're happy tears," Rob Teal said. "These last two nights could've been the worst two nights of my life, but instead I've been watching the games and thinking that Bayler's there with them. I know he's there. It's made it a lot better."

And it's about to improve even more. Rob Teal, 28, his wife Risha Teal, also 28, and 5-year-old Bridges are now making their way out to Omaha.

They're expected to be here tonight at Rosenblatt Stadium when the Gamecocks and Bruins begin playing for the national title (7:30 p.m., ESPN).

"We're honored that we're in a position that we can give their family some happiness," Holbrook said.

For Bayler, there will be no first car, no first love. No high school football games or proms. No college. No wedding.

It's unfair. It doesn't make sense, any of it.

But stop and consider this: In just seven years on this planet, Bayler Teal made a footprint that'll stick around forever. Little Bayler has a legacy, and it's hitched to this South Carolina baseball team.

Wherever he is, he's willing the Gamecocks to victories. He's taught them the true definition of survival.

And Bayler isn't done.

"We've never won a national championship in any sport that matters," Rob Teal said. "If I had money to bet, I'd bet we'll win this thing. I've got this feeling."