Dantzler enjoys the big stage

Heading into Wednesday’s game, South Carolina’s LB Dantzler shared the team lead with eight homers and is second with 37 RBIs.

COLUMBIA — Back when Little Brad Dantzler actually was little, he stood in the outfield at a baseball park in Winter Haven, Fla., and shagged Jim Thome’s fly balls during batting practice. He roamed the outfield with Ellis Burks. He met Ken Griffey Jr. He even played catch with Bob Feller, though at the time, Dantzler just knew him as a nice old man in a Cleveland Indians shirt.

Starting when he was 11 years old, Dantzler spent three spring trainings as an Indians bat boy. He got out of school two hours early and zipped across town to the park, where major leaguers transformed from two-dimensional images on his television screen and baseball cards to guys who he ate lunch alongside in their clubhouse.

“It helped to make his psyche to where he’s never been nervous, he’s never been overwhelmed, never felt like he doesn’t belong,” said his father, who is also named Brad.

Ten years later, Dantzler found his psyche tested this spring. After spending two seasons at a junior college, he debuted as South Carolina’s third baseman. He wrestled with trying to stay positive early in the season, when he ripped a maddening number of balls right at fielders. He told himself things would eventually turn in his favor — and they have.

In the previous seven games before Wednesday’s home contest against Davidson, he was hitting .370 with four doubles, three home runs and seven runs batted-in — a big part of USC’s current 11-game Southeastern Conference winning streak. Those seven games raised his batting average from .232 to .255. He now shares the team lead with eight homers and is second with 37 RBIs.

“It took a lot longer than I would have hoped,” he said. “But now I’m getting a few hits and it’s starting to feel better.”

Dantzler is familiar with the ebbs and flows of hitting. A lifelong baseball player, he used to attend games with his father at Florida, where Brad was an all-Southeastern Conference first baseman in the mid-1980s. Dantzler envisioned himself playing for the Gators one day, too.

Brad and his wife, Susan, decided before their son was born in 1991 that they would call him LB, for Little Brad, to avoid confusion. Throughout his youth, he was a small, but successful, player. Then, his experience with the Indians “just cemented the fire in him for baseball,” Brad said.

It wouldn’t have happened if fate hadn’t brought the Indians to Winter Haven in 1993, after Hurricane Andrew destroyed their new spring training park down in Homestead. Winter Haven had a vacant park because the Red Sox just bolted for Fort Myers. Years later, Brad was at a local Chamber of Commerce party and met Jerry Crabb, who oversaw the Indians’ spring training. Brad asked Crabb if they had bat boy openings, and within a month, his son got one.

Still, even by high school, Dantzler’s smallish physique — slighter than his current 5-11 and 205 pounds — resulted in him getting none of the SEC scholarship offers he wanted. Brad attended junior college for two years before playing at Florida, and he tried to encourage his son as he headed off for the State College of Florida (Manatee-Sarasota) — an elite junior college program.

“I knew that if he wanted to play in the SEC, he wasn’t ready coming in as a freshman,” Brad said. “I know because I played it. I knew this was the best thing for him. I kept saying, ‘Look, what is it you really want to do? You’ve got to go somewhere and mature. This is what it takes to get to the next level.’ ”

Dantzler said he went to junior college thinking “I had a good chance” at earning an SEC offer, because “I always felt if you just keep working hard for something, things will work out in the end.”

They did. A strong freshman season brought a USC offer. Florida expressed interest, but wanted him to play outfield, Brad said. Dantzler wanted at least a shot at playing third base.

Before Dantzler came to USC, his dad told him to always remember to “look around” and take in every moment. Brad relishes vivid memories of his college career — like being on the bottom of a pile-up during a brawl with North Carolina. Occasionally, he still slips on his 1984 SEC championship ring.

Dantzler must have listened, because he is enjoying the buzz surrounding his pet betta fish, Reptar, which he brought to Auburn late last month when his neighbor was unavailable to watch the fish. As word of the strange traveling partner hit Twitter, Dantzler smacked two homers in the series and decided to continue keeping the fish in the dugout or bullpen at games.

He even brought Reptar — which he named after a character from the cartoon TV show “Rugrats” — into a postgame press conference during last weekend’s series against Alabama. By then, “Fear the Fish” T-shirts were being sold, with a garnet betta fish at the center of the USC’s black “C” logo rather than a Gamecock. Brad bought 15 of them and gave them to friends and relatives.

He feels proud to tell everyone that Little Brad became not only a trendsetter, but a fine player.

“The most surreal thing for me was to see how good he’s become,” Brad said. “He is so much better than I was. He’s a big man now. He’s grown up.”