Reptar, meet Byron the Bunny
Major League Baseball lists six Bunnys and a Rabbit (Maranvile) among its all-time players, not to mention a Hopp (Johnny, 1939-52) a Hopper (Norris, 2006-08), and a Hare (Shawn, 1991-95). Minor league baseball once featured a Cedar Rapids Bunnies, which played from 1904 to 1932 and were the Cincinnati Reds’ first farm team.
But none of those bunnies burst onto the scene quite like the Gamecocks’ bunny, which debuted April 17. Sure, Rabbit Maranville was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but did he rack up 1,100 Twitter followers in a day?
After a rash of injuries and a four-game losing streak, the Gamecocks were in need of a rabbit’s foot heading into their series at Auburn. They opted for the whole rabbit instead. Shortly before they boarded their bus, a quartet of Gamecocks – senior Brison Celek, junior Grayson Greiner, junior Joel Seddon, and junior Joey Pankake – went to a pet store and bought a one month-old “rally rabbit,” hoping to restore the team’s mojo. They named him “Byron,” though not for the poet Lord Byron, who may have been thinking of a slump-busting bunny when he wrote, “Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.” The players named him for a character on an obscure HBO sketch comedy show (search “Canadian Border Patrol” on YouTube).
Byron quickly took on a second life of his own, with all the appendages of a modern media celebrity. A fan created a Byron Twitter account (@ByronTheBunny). In true rabbit fashion, his followers multiplied at a rapid rate. By day’s end, Byron had collected more than 1,100 followers – or, as Pankake gleefully pointed out, more than freshman outfielder Gene Cone. Gamecock fans made Byron photoshops. He was given his own hashtag, #FearTheEars. Suddenly a bunny was the talk of the trip, not the Gamecocks’ struggles at the plate. Given their losing streak, that may have been the point.
Either way, it was clear: Gamecock Nation had descended into a rabbit hole.
Whether a bunny can shake the Gamecocks out of a slump remains to be seen. If this all sounds bizarre, and absurd, and ridiculous, you’d be correct. But South Carolina is also following a long tradition of superstition and silliness in baseball. It’s a sport where players believe monkeys (Angels, 2002), squirrels (Cardinals, 2011), and beards (Red Sox 2013) carry magical powers. No sport has more tales of teams embracing superstition to snap out of a funk. The Gamecocks are actually taking a page out of their own book – two years ago, before a series at Auburn, they adopted a pet betta fish named Reptar. Naturally, the Gamecocks swept the Tigers, and went on to win the SEC East. A benign fish soon gained a cult following, with Reptar t-shirts, tribute songs, and hand gestures. The Gamecocks are hoping history can repeat itself, albeit it in a different aisle of the pet store.
Strange as this story sounds, it also makes perfect sense. Baseball is one of the most mentally taxing sports on Earth. In addition to being a game of failure, it leaves plenty of time for thinking. Thinking leads to dwelling, especially if a player is slumping. Players are at their best when they’re loose, clear-headed, and relaxed. If a bunny can lighten the mood during a difficult stretch, so be it. If a rabbit can help the Gamecocks forget their failures, and return them to their hard-hitting ways, Byron will have done his job.
(And if he doesn’t, four upperclassmen baseball players will have a decidedly unmanly pet in their apartment.)
In the meantime, we’ll see if Byron can take his place alongside such storied baseball Byrons as American League founder Byron “Ban” Johnson, and such renowned baseball Bunnies as Major League first baseman Bunny Brief (1912-17). Who knows? Maybe Byron can kickstart a run to another national title, something the Gamecocks last did in 2011.
If so, Greiner, Pankake, Seddon, and Celek were on to something. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2011 was the Year of the Rabbit.