On the Road: Witnessing the eclipse in Columbia

Fireflies take advantage of totality, delay game as moon blocks sun

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | August 22, 2017 12:00 PM

On Monday afternoon, the largest crowd in Columbia Fireflies history embraced the darkness.

Columbia, South Carolina, was nearly in the center of the "path of totality," the approximately 70-mile strip from which the total solar eclipse could be best observed. The Fireflies, Class A affiliate of the New York Mets, capitalized on their prime viewing location by taking on the Rome Braves in a mid-afternoon "Total Eclipse of the Park" ballgame at Spirit Communications Park.

The highlight of the afternoon was the in-game eclipse delay. It was, quite simply, the most spectacular event at a Minor League Baseball stadium that anyone could ever hope to witness.  

Abby Naas, Fireflies vice president of marketing and public relations, spearheaded the team's "Total Eclipse of the Park" endeavors. She first heard about the eclipse prior to the Fireflies' inaugural 2016 campaign (the franchise formerly operated in Savannah as the Sand Gnats) and was immediately intrigued. After the team landed Aug. 21 as a home game versus the Rome Braves on the 2017 schedule, she joined the city of Columbia's "Total Eclipse Weekend" steering committee and went all-in on making it a day to remember at Spirit Communications Park.

"We're doing the silly Minor League Baseball stuff," she said. "We've got an Eclipse Pale Ale that Catawba Brewery does, deep-fried moon pies and tater tots that are shaped like stars. And then we've got the glow-in-the-dark jerseys. When I talked to [jersey manufacturer] Wilson at the [Minor League Baseball] Promo Seminar, it was 'Look, there's an eclipse coming through. Have you ever done this? …So they had to figure out how to make glow-in-the-dark jerseys."

Tweet from @ColaFireflies: The moment you've all been waiting for...our #TotalEclipseofthePark jersey auction is LIVE! Bid: https://t.co/iFD5wiRL4a#LetsGlow pic.twitter.com/xje8u2lj6R

Then there were the logistics of the game itself. Naas coordinated with eclipse experts at the South Carolina State Museum to determine the specific parameters of the delay; additionally, the Minor League coordinators working for the parent clubs involved in the game had to approve it. Once these issues were taken care of, and the event was a go, the team decided to present the eclipse in as minimalistic a fashion as possible.

"We're just gonna let it be extremely natural for people at our ballpark," said Naas. "Which is really strange, because usually you're at a ballpark and the music's pumping and people are talking and things are happening."

The Fireflies built the event, and the fans came. Team president John Katz reported that individuals from 34 states bought tickets to the game, which he called "bigger than any game in the history of our franchise." These are strong words, considering the Fireflies played the first half of their season with box office phenom Tim Tebow on their roster.

Among the record 9,629 fans in attendance was Michael Aulenbach, who traveled with his wife from Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania.

"I'll put 1,000 miles on my car for this one. I love baseball and my other hobby is astronomy, so this combines both things," he said. "People in my astronomy club said it's life-changing and once you see one, you want to see another."

Paul Kemper, from Youngstown, Ohio, made the eclipse the centerpiece of a 3,000-mile baseball road trip, remarking that "I'm 67 and I've never seen an eclipse. I can't miss it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Ed Pelegrino traveled with his wife and two sons (ages 14 and 12) from Fort Myers, Florida.

"An event likes this brings new fans to the ballpark, and that's always good for the game," he said. "As longtime fans, we're ambassadors of the game as much as the players, if not more so."  

Kate Collier and Andy Levine, a married couple from Brooklyn, New York, praised the communal spirit evident in the ballpark.

"To have a place to watch it with other people, experiencing it all together, is something really neat and special that we may never get to do again," said Levine.

Andy Levine and Kate Collier of Brooklyn (left) and Michael Aulenbach of Pennsylvania were among the record crowd.

The game's first three innings were like any other ballgame, with between-inning contests and dance cams and intense interest in the fate of the opposing team's "beer batter." But throughout, an increasingly palpable sense of excitement was slowly building.

At 1:24 p.m., after a half inning had been played, it was announced over the PA that a partial eclipse was upon us and that fans should wear their eclipse glasses (distributed to all upon entry). However! These glasses should only be worn between innings and when in a stationary position. Safety concerns were present from several angles, resulting in a jumble of considerations. Looking at the sun without glasses during an eclipse is dangerous, but so is wearing nearly opaque glasses when a baseball game is going. Fans still needed to be alert for foul balls, and for each other.

2017 Road Trip

In the top of the fourth, after the clock has struck 2:30, Fireflies manager Jose Leger was ejected after arguing that Rome's Bradley Keller did not tag up before advancing to second on a fly out to deep right field. Would his argument last until the game was delayed due to the eclipse? Would he keep raging in the darkness? And where was he going to watch the eclipse from after he was ejected? It was that kind of afternoon; baseball's daily dramas and absurdities intermingling with an impending sense of the sublime and spectacular.

Finally, with three and a half innings in the books and roughly seven minutes until totality (scheduled for 2:41), there was a stoppage in play. What happened over the next several minutes was surreal and inspiring; after it was over, it was hard to believe that it had occurred at all.

Video: Solar eclipse reaches totality in Columbia

 The eclipse delay was a mere 19 minutes, during which the game's players and ballpark staff laid out on the field and took it all in. The game's final five innings, largely played during a partial eclipse, felt anticlimactic. Like your favorite local bar band taking the stage after the Rolling Stones, South Atlantic League baseball in the wake of jaw-dropping astronomical phenomena was inevitably an afterthought. There was plenty of ninth-inning drama, however, as Rome scored two in the top of the ninth to tie the game 5-5 before Andres Gimenez's walk-off single in the bottom of the frame gave the Fireflies a 6-5 win.  

The biggest game in the history of the Columbia Fireflies was now in the books, though the box score -- Time of game: 3:25 (:19 delay) -- will never reflect the reason why. This was an afternoon of awe and inspiration, a collective experience of total positivity.  

"I think this is really good for the country," said Alan Hand, in attendance with his wife, Kristina. "We have so many people divided, but this is a communal eclipse and we can all sit down and watch it across the country."

Matt Campbell, at the game with his wife and five children in tow, echoed this sentiment.

"Even on the way down from Charlotte, with the traffic and stopping at the rest stop, everybody seemed to be really friendly to one another," he said. "We were all out to see the same thing … a unifying moment when we don't really feel that way a lot of times nowadays."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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