The ball was blooped into the outfield, just past where the second baseman could get it and just in front of where the right fielder could make a play — except in this case, the second baseman was Vanderbilt’s Tony Kemp. Kemp, a 5-foot-5 sophomore, must have found an invisible phone booth somewhere along the infield dirt and put on an invisible cape in a nanosecond, because what came next was a play that only Superman could make.
Kemp leapt at least two, maybe three full feet in the air, twisting his body towards the right field fence while turning his head towards home plate to watch the flight of the ball. At the apex of his jump, Kemp extended his left arm, snagged the ball with his glove in mid-air, and tumbled to the ground with it in his mitt.
The description of the play alone doesn’t do it justice, for there was no room for error. The ball hung in the air for only about three seconds, and Kemp, who started on the infield dirt, had to not only read the play immediately but also spin 180 degrees and make the catch a good 40 or 50 feet on the outfield grass. (Here it is; if you haven’t seen it, you sure should.)
The crowd responded with perhaps the loudest cheer of the day. That might not be unusual, except that the game was at Georgia, where if anything, no one would blame Bulldog fans for groaning at yet-another-thing-gone-wrong with their team’s last-place-in-the-Southeastern Conference season rather than cheering.
If you’re unfamiliar with SEC baseball culture, however, it’s really not that unusual. Ask fans of opposing teams who travel to LSU, whose fans have a legendary reputation for tremendous hospitality towards both opposing fans and players alike. It’s the same crowd that actually cheered a Vanderbilt team after it beat their beloved Tigers on a Sunday game several years back.
Culture at SEC football games, however, could hardly be more different.
I’m not the best person to relay night-marish stories of fan experience at SEC stadiums since I’ve been getting press passes for the last decade, but we’ve all heard them. There are tales of fans having urine thrown on them at Florida games. Folks at Vanderbilt have told stories about LSU fans shaking the team bus as it pulled up to the stadium. And of course, there was the infamous “tea-bagging” incident after the Alabama-LSU National Championship Game of 2012.
That’s not even the worst Alabama-LSU incident: a ‘Bama fan shot an LSU rooter after the teams played in 2008.
All over football?
This isn’t designed to pick on any school. You could fill in the blanks of the schools above with just about any SEC institution, though I do think some venues are worse than others.
Why are things so different between one sport to another? What follows is no ground-breaking revelation, but the more that’s at stake in sports, the worst it brings out in people. Multiply your passion, times how many other people care about the same thing, and the result is roughly the potential chaos that can ensue.
College baseball is a great sport. No college league follows baseball with the passion that SEC fans do, but the passion for baseball is just a hair of what it is for football. A huge crowd for baseball is 10,000 fans; there may be that many people watching football games on TV within a two-mile radius of any given SEC stadium any given Saturday.
Don’t get me wrong: I am glad fans are passionate about sports. The reason I became a sports writer is because, though I look at things through a different lens, I can identify. Most days, I feel pretty danged fortunate to watch sports AND get a paycheck for doing it.
But that passion has gotten so extreme that it’s clouded our collective judgment and led to behavior that defies reason. I don’t care what reason people concoct in their minds for doing things at the time; deep down, do they really enjoy dumping urine on their neighbors or rubbing their genitals across a stranger’s face?
Being in Athens and witnessing that brief moment yesterday reminded me again of the joy of sports. Sometimes, it’s not just about your team and how well it does, but appreciating the feats of athletes who can do things we never dreamed of doing ourselves, whether they play for our team or not.
Isn’t that why we became sports fans in the beginning? Most of us appreciated the game, and then formed our allegiances later.
How much better would sports be if we remembered that all the time, not just for the sake of others around us, but for our own enjoyment as well?