COLUMBIA — You’ve probably seen him, the out-of-place older man prominently placed in the University of South Carolina dugout and getting lots of ESPN camera time during the Gamecocks’ run through the last two College World Series.
Dr. Ronald Kasper belongs. “He’s valuable,” head coach Ray Tanner said of the most visible team psychologist in college sports. “He helps our players focus.”
While many other athletic departments have team psychologists, few have one so closely tied to a program. Kasper has been associated with USC’s baseball program since 1997, and will be in the middle of things at Carolina Stadium today against Manhattan as the nationally seeded Gamecocks open postseason defense of back-to-back national championships.
Medical privacy laws prevent Kasper or Tanner from discussing specifics, but South Carolina players consider Kasper an unsung star. “Doc” has turned slumps into streaks, tears into cheers.
He is omnipresent at fall workouts in Columbia and on magical June nights in Omaha, Neb.
Freshman shortstop Joey Pankake credits Kasper for helping turn an error-prone start to the season into better defense.
“He understands where you’re coming from,” Pankake said. “He’s always there for us.”
At games. On the bus. At practice.
“Doc is great,” junior pitcher Adam Westmoreland said. “He’s around us all the time. It’s nice to have someone around to talk to who isn’t a coach, or isn’t a player, but who is a little bit older and knows how things work.”
Kasper, 70, seems taciturn in those dugout TV shots. Behind the scenes he is outgoing, even bubbly.
A Dickson City, Pa., native who got his doctorate at Mississippi State, Kasper is ideally suited for the baseball counselor role. He signed to play for the New York Yankees out of high school in 1959 and had a brief stint as a minor league pitcher. Kasper came to South Carolina in 1994, hired by forward-thinking former athletic director Mike McGee, and now works part-time for the athletic department. He is available to all South Carolina student-athletes but has been most closely associated with the baseball program since Tanner arrived from N.C. State after the 1996 season.
He doesn’t call himself a sports psychologist. Rather, Kasper says he “brings clinical psychology into the sports realm in a counseling fashion.”
For instance, helping an outfielder deal with academic and/or girlfriend problems before a big game.
Teaming with Tanner “Performance enhancement as well as personal counseling and supportive counseling make up the thrust of what I do,” Kasper said. “My personal philosophy has been that if I can help players in their personal life, that’s going to enhance their performance. They’re going to play in a more direct fashion, no matter what sport they play. If you have stresses bearing down on you, it’s very tough to perform.”
Tanner and Kasper make for a nice motivational 1-2 punch.
“As a coach, sometimes you get on players,” Tanner said, “and you don’t always feel good after you do it. Dr. Kasper came behind me one time after I had an altercation with a player — or a discussion, I should say. Dr. Kasper told the player, ‘Don’t listen to the delivery; listen to the message.’ That’s the kind of thing that goes a long way in helping a player out.”
For Pankake, it wasn’t so much the technical aspects of fielding sharply hit baseballs while the Gamecocks opened SEC play with a 1-5 record. It was confidence.
“Dr. Kasper sees things differently,” Pankake said. “He doesn’t come from the same view as the coaches, but he will still tell you how it is in an honest way.”
Tanner sees a competitive edge.
“What Dr. Kasper brings was seldom used in athletics years ago,” Tanner said. “And when I came here 16 years ago and met him, I was somewhat reluctant. It was like, ‘I’ll coach and I’ll be the psychologist and I’ll be the parent’ and all those things. But gradually I started to appreciate the expertise.”
Two rings Kasper emphasizes critical thinking, reacting instinctively under pressure. Some of his advice is solicited, some not.
“I’ve always told the players, ‘Let me help you with your problems; you don’t always have to listen to me, but think about it,’” Kasper said. “If I notice something, I’ll say, ‘It looks like you’re struggling.’ If they say no, I won’t intrude.”
Kasper thinks one of the keys to the Gamecocks’ success is a coaching staff comprised of “family men.” Kasper is married — his wife Barbara is a Lexington County reference librarian — and has a son and teenage granddaughter.
Fatherhood, grandfatherhood and baseball experience allow Kasper to relate. He still throws batting practice in the cages beneath Carolina Stadium.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me,” Kasper said. “They’re a fun group of guys. Let me put it this way: I’d like to play with a team like this.”
Kasper has two “ostentatious” College World Series rings.
“You go to a party with one of those rings on and you get attention,” Kasper said. “People want to hold them. They want to take pictures.”
Recalling Omaha, the stone-faced man you see in the dugout quickly gets animated.
“It was wonderful,” Kasper said. “It was surreal. It was like when I was 17 years old going to spring training with the Yankees and there’s Mickey Mantle standing there. It was a gamut of emotions for me in Omaha, and for all these young men who are never going to forget. Then the second time; I mean, are you kidding me?”
As the Gamecocks prepare for another run at the College World Series, Dr. Kasper belongs.
“The players know that he loves the game and that he loves them,” Tanner said “He’s an asset.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff