It’s been ten days since we folded up our chairs and trudged quietly out of the Jungle, shell shocked by the events of an East Carolina-UNC-Wilmington baseball game that lasted nine hours on paper but, in truth, was decided in about thirty minutes.
If I still feel an ache, I know that the die-hard Diamond Bucs fans — the faithful Jungle fence leaners, the all-day tent dwellers, the LeClair Lunatics — have felt the anguish of that weekend rise repeatedly and stuffed it back down.
Sports messes with our hearts and our minds like nothing else. We are adults with logic and the Internet, so we know an unhappy result in an NCAA baseball regional isn’t the end of the world.
We know that a nuclear summit matters more, that our actual sadness should be reserved for a friend who has a sick child or a lost loved one.
But still we feel the regret.
None of it mitigates the pride in the players or the coaches, the applauding of a 44-win season or the fact that simply hosting a regional marks an accomplishment. The Pirate Nation has a tremendous capacity for hope and pride in its teams, and those soaring emotions can exist alongside the low-grade angst that remains.
I didn’t attend the regional games as a member of the media. I sat in the Jungle Friday night with my friend Valerie, Saturday with my son and Sunday night with my husband. It’s been a while since I sat out there, and I am now ready to fight anyone who suggests that any college baseball team anywhere has a better environment or more invested fans.
I understood that deeply in 2010, when I wrote a book about Keith LeClair and grown men came up to me in tears to ask if they could give me a hug because his story was a part of them. I felt it in 2016, a ball of nerves listening to the broadcast from Lubbock, Texas, knowing that all over Eastern North Carolina people were breathless, trying to turn their hope into collateral that would enable an important dream to come true.
No single college baseball fan base in America wants a trip to Omaha as badly as the Pirate Nation. I don’t have any statistical way to back up that statement, of course, but I stand behind it.
The commitment and the passion I saw at Clark-LeClair during the first weekend in June was unparalleled, and even as Pirate fans start their football countdowns, or speculate about the prospects of the three ECU players selected in the draft, that expectant hope still abides.
Some will watch the College World Series games this weekend and some will undoubtedly abstain, but everyone who loves the baseball Pirates will imagine what it will be like when this megaphone-hoisting, marathon tailgating, purple-and-gold chanting mob gets to storm Omaha, Nebraska in full force.
Every postseason accomplishment, every pronouncement of commitment from Cliff Godwin and every talented recruit who chooses ECU because he catches a sliver of that vision nourishes that dream a little more.
The outcome of the 2018 Greenville Regional stung, and it should have. We only grieve because we feel deeply, so if questions about the harmful effects of rain delays, or what went wrong in one or two innings, crop up from time to time this summer, that’s only fuel for a Pirate Nation that wants it more than most.
Cliff Godwin has said it all season: Be where your feet are.
If we care about ECU baseball, our feet are with Spencer Brickhouse hitting home runs in the Cape Cod League, or with American Baseball’s selection of Drew Henrickson’s home run robbery against South Carolina as college baseball’s Play of the Year.
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If we’re being honest, we can admit that it’s hard to wait until February of 2019 to rev this thing back up in earnest.
But the nature of the sports calendar is this: We engage, and then we anticipate until it’s time to engage again, all the while knowing that it’s OK to hold onto that regret and recycle it into the most powerful force in sports: hope.