OMAHA, Neb. – Mere moments after guiding South Carolina to its first national title and the athletic department’s second title, coach Ray Tanner grabbed the microphone on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium and mentioned Bayler Teal.
It might have confused some observers. Teal wasn’t on the field and wasn’t even on the team. But the reality is that he might as well have been on the roster. He was as much a part of the team as any coach, player of support staff.
Seven-year-old Bayler Teal was exactly like the South Carolina baseball team: tough, courageous and resilient. He fought until he succumbed to a two-year battle with Neuroblastoma – an aggressive form of cancer found in infants and children – a week ago.
It just so happens that South Carolina was in the midst of its College World Series run.
As with many teams, South Carolina is involved in its local community. One of the stops in the community is the children’s hospital. That’s where the Gamecocks met Teal long ago, where associate head coach Chad Holbrook grew an instant bond with the blond-headed child that always seemed to have a smile on his face.
Holbrook’s bond with Teal made sense. Holbrook had dealt with a similar situation when his son Reece was forced to deal with Leukemia, another serious form of cancer. Reece, though, battled through the disease and it is in remission.
Holbrook seized an opportunity to comfort Teal and his family, which includes parents Rob and Risha and 5-year-old Bridges, He developed a strong relationship wth Teal, who eventually became like a member of the team and threw out the first pitch of a Gamecocks contest in March. Teal’s health, though, deteriorated in the couple of months leading up to the CWS. As a result, the Gamecocks entered the CWS both playing for Teal and praying for a miracle.
That miracle didn’t happen, though. The worst-case scenario played out. Teal lost his battle with Neuroblastoma on June 24, the same day the Gamecocks were set to face Oklahoma in an elimination game.
That night, Brady Thomas roped an RBI single to center field in the 12th inning to give the Gamecocks a 3-2 win. The next night, the Gamecocks defeated rival Clemson 5-1 in yet another elimination game before again beating the Tigers, this time 4-3, to advance to the CWS Championship Series.
By that point, the Gamecocks were all about doing everything for little Bayler. They broke the huddle to “1-2-3, Bayler” and had the initials “B.T.” on their hats. In a way, the little guy was with them even though he wasn’t physically on the field.
With the Gamecocks playing UCLA for the national title for the fourth time in program history, chances are good Bayler would’ve wanted to attend the series. Parents Rob and Risha and brother Bridges decided to make the trip to Omaha to see history unfold.
The family, which hails from Bishopville, S.C., population 3,800, drove to Charlotte, N.C., only to discover their flights had been cancelled and there were no other flights to take. On a normal day, that travel inconvenience would be fine to handle. But this was Monday, the same day the Gamecocks were to begin their series with the Bruins.
With the help of an area philanthropist and others, the Teals were able to nail down an afternoon charter flight for $10,000. They made it to Rosenblatt Stadium for first pitch and were featured on the ESPN television broadcast. They also took with them a South Carolina hat that Bayler had worn and a sign that he had made and was signed by Gamecocks outfielder Whit Merrifield.
In that game, South Carolina ace pitcher Blake Cooper tossed a gem to lead the Gamecocks to a 7-1 win over the Bruins. Also in that game, it almost felt like there was something special helping the Gamecocks to get all the key hits and make all the big plays.
Perhaps that something was more like someone. Maybe it was Bayler.
His presence was felt more than ever Tuesday as the Gamecocks used a strong starting performance from Michael Roth and an excellent relief performance from Matt Price to get in position to beat the Bruins in extra innings. In the 11th inning, Merrifield – who was Bayler’s favorite player – slapped a single into right field to bring home Scott Wingo and to give the Gamecocks their first baseball national title.
After the pandemonium on the field, Rob Teal had an opportunity to hold the national title trophy with only his son on his mind.
In the postgame press conference, Tanner was asked about the impact Teal had on the team. Tanner paused for at least 10 seconds, tears welling in his eyes. He looked up and explained how important Teal was to his team in a room where you could hear a pin drop.
“You know, the fact that what we do in the athletic arena, you know, regardless of the sport. We battle. We compete. And a lot of times you don’t put too much into it and lose perspective,” he said. “He really became a part of our team and always was in our prayers.”
Suddenly, Tanner’s sorrow turned into a smile. He had come to a realization.
“I gotta believe that right now he’s [Bayler] probably smiling,” he said. “He’s a happy camper looking down us.”
This national title was for the university and the state of South Carolina.
It also was for one of the bravest kids anyone could ever meet. Bayler Teal.