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‘Avatar’-inspired good-luck charm helped USC put the magic back in its bats


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Sticking it to ’em

‘Avatar’-inspired good-luck charm helped USC put the magic back in its bats

MARK CALVI WANTED no part of it. The USC pitching coach was merely seeking out his starting pitcher, Sam Dyson, during a fourth-inning rain delay in the Gamecocks’ NCAA regional tournament opener at Carolina Stadium.

When Calvi opened the door to the USC clubhouse, he found the room dark, save for a flashlight that provided enough light for Calvi to see the entire team arm in arm in a tight circle.

“Come on in, coach,” one of the players shouted.

Calvi ducked away and closed the door behind him. Little did Calvi know that USC players were conducting an Avatar-like ritual they say helped turn around USC’s season.

At that point, USC was embroiled in a hitting slump of monumental proportions. It had scored one run in 21 innings while dropping out of the SEC tournament after two games. Over the first three innings against lowly Bucknell to open the NCAA regional, USC managed three hits but had not scored.

“We were just trying to loosen up. It was a little tense in the dugout,” says Robert Beary, a reserve first-year transfer from Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College. “We thought, we’ve got to do something to loosen things up. We’ve got to throw some chairs around or do something.”

Beary was the ringleader and quickly pulled in senior Jeffery Jones, freshman Patrick Sullivan and sophomore Michael Roth. Beary’s idea was to re-create a scene from the 2009 movie “Avatar,” with players serving as tribe members as they swayed and chanted.

The clubhouse séance was intended to exorcise the demons from USC’s bats. Then, when the team returned to the dugout to resume play, Beary said an illustration was needed on how the team should begin hitting.

Beary grabbed a baseball and taped it to a fungo bat. The concept was simple, Beary explained to his teammates: You put the bat to the ball to produce hits. Presto! USC also had its “Avatar” spirit stick, and players since have touched it for good luck before going to bat.

It took a few innings for the spirit-stick magic to take hold, but when USC rallied from a 5-1 deficit by scoring eight runs in three innings of a 9-5 victory against Bucknell, every USC player was beginning to believe.

“The ritual during the rain delay,” says Roth, pointing to the central reason USC’s bats have come alive in the NCAA tournament. “That and the contraption is what’s helping our bats right now.”

A team that was struggling to score runs suddenly was awash in base runners and high-fives after crossing home plate: Eight runs on 11 hits during the final five innings against Bucknell; nine runs on 14 hits against The Citadel; 10 runs on 14 hits against Virginia Tech; four runs on nine hits against Coastal Carolina; and 10 runs on 13 hits against Coastal Carolina.

It adds up to five consecutive wins — all of the come-from-behind variety — regional and Super Regional championships and a trip to the College World Series.

“We’ve started hitting a little bit,” Beary says. “Even if it’s not pretty, we’ve gotten those little — coach (Ray Tanner) calls them — duck snorts, those little Judy hits. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to win a game. It’s not always the home run. It could be those seeing-eye singles or bloops.”

Good-luck symbols have been a part of baseball for ages. Major league teams once used undersized men as batboys and rubbed their heads for good fortune. In college, “rally monkeys” — usually stuffed animals — have shown up in dugouts for years.

USC has gotten into the act during previous trips to Omaha. A stuffed Thor doll, which was won by a player at a mall, was taped to the dugout wall during USC’s games at the 2002 College World Series. The following year, players staged a bonfire with their bats at midseason. A new batch of bats helped carry USC all the way back to Omaha.

This year, the bat now is an integral part of the team. It even showed up for the celebration on BB&T Coastal Field in Myrtle Beach on Sunday following USC’s two-game sweep of Coastal Carolina.

“It’s always with us. When we’re up to bat, when we’re on the field, it’s always with us,” Beary says. “One of the team members always holds it. It’s always being held. So far, it’s brought us some luck, and we’re not going to give up on it. We’re going to take it to Omaha.”

Ryan Fischer, the team’s student assistant manager, is responsible for transporting the stick from the dugout to Beary’s locker in the clubhouse following practices and games. For the airplane ride to Omaha, the spirit stick will be secured in its own travel bag.

Equally unaware as Calvi to all the goings-on regarding the “Avatar” magic is Tanner, who, when asked about it, pleaded ignorance. But as long as it keeps working for his team and his hitters, Tanner says he is all for it. Just don’t ask Calvi or Tanner to attend any of the pregame séances.

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