COLUMBIA — He said his goodbyes to the grounds crew and the fans at his last home game two weeks ago. He made peace with himself going into the SEC Tournament that he wouldn’t be that guy, thinking of every potential “last” — last warm-up, last buttoning of the jersey, last at-bat — even though reality told him it could be.
Andrew Eyster still had a game to play, hoping it would lead to more games to play, and that was all that was on his mind.
And then it was over, gone, in the fraction of a second it took South Carolina catcher Talmadge LeCroy to lose the grip he had on the ball that would have forced another inning and given Eyster and the Gamecocks another chance at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
“We clearly never gave up and kept fighting to the end. That’s how it goes sometimes,” he said in the moments after that 2-1, 10th-inning defeat to Florida. “I’m going to miss this group of guys.”
Not nearly as much as they will miss him. Eyster finished his 176th game at USC doing what he often did: Coming through in a big moment.
It was Eyster’s chopper that tied the game at 1 in the ninth against the Gators, another in a string of numerous clutch career moments, and he was fourth in line to bat in the 11th had the game gotten there. There was no doubt in the minds of anyone in that dugout, least of all his, that had he gotten that chance, he would have again delivered and maybe the Gamecocks would still be playing.
They aren’t, and Eyster’s magnificent career is relegated to the books. He again was a superlative this year, batting .318 with a team-high 53 RBIs, belting 10 home runs while patrolling “Eyster’s Alley,” the nickname bestowed upon right field at Founders Park.
Always jovial, Eyster managed a smile as he sat in his chair at the post-game press conference, this time facing what he knew was inevitable. As soon as that presser was done, so was his time as a Gamecock, and perhaps as a baseball player.
“I’ve talked about it before, how coming in four years ago, it was just a place to play my two years and move on to pro ball. Things don’t always work out how you plan them,” he said, sputtering through his tears. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, how these last four years have gone. I feel like I’ve given a lot to this program but what I’ve gotten in return is substantially more.”
The video quickly went viral and drew reaction from teammates past and present. The nicknames — Eyster the Hit-Meister, Sticks — were prevalent as well as his love for and contributions to the program.
“When you have guys in your locker room that are willing to do that and have the platform to do that because the players respect the kind of player they are, how they handle their business, Andrew Eyster’s one of those guys,” USC coach Mark Kingston said earlier this year. “He’s not afraid to correct the young guys, he’s a great role model for them.”
He may get a nibble at pro ball, but Eyster returned this season knowing that if he didn’t get picked before now when his promise was at his highest, his chances aren’t great. Eyster turned 23 just before the season, an age where many minor-leaguers are in their prime, but he had no regrets.
He only thought about leaving the game for good for a few seconds last year, before quickly realizing he’d be miserable without it and would always have the “what if” floating around his brain. Eyster returned, played marvelously and now it’s time to see what will come of it.
“I’ve gotten some of my best friends, people that I consider family. A home, somewhere that I’m probably going to live once I’m all graduated and done with everything,” he said. “I don’t know if I deserve that, but I’ll forever be grateful for this place and this program, this community and this university has done so much for me and my family.”
A consistent and solid hitter. An above-average right fielder. Forever entrenched as one of the four busts hammered into the Gamecocks’ most cherished Mount Rushmore, that of the “Clemson-Killers,” after he smacked two walk-off hits in less than 24 hours to clinch last year’s rivalry series.
Andrew Eyster deserved one more chance in the Gamecocks’ last game. He didn’t get it.
But if this season was the one last chance he had to play baseball, he came through.