By Jeff Owens/Photos by Boston Red Sox, SC Athletics and Allen Sharpe
Ray Tanner has been out of the dugout for more than six years now, but during the 2018 World Series, he felt like he was coaching and managing again.
Tanner, who led South Carolina to back-to-back College World Series championships in 2010-11, hung onto every pitch as he watched two of his former players, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Steve Pearce, lead the Boston Red Sox to the World Series victory.
Bradley, who helped lead Tanner’s Gamecocks to two national championships, was named MVP of the American League Championship Series. A week later, Pearce, who starred on South Carolina’s 2004 and 2005 teams, was named MVP of the World Series.
No one was prouder or pulling harder for them than their former head coach.
“I have been out of the dugout now for quite a few years and I felt like I was back in there again,” Tanner said. “I was hanging onto everything those two guys did. It was really special.”
Bradley hit two home runs, including a grand slam, and had nine RBI in the ALCS. His three-run double won Game 2 against the Astros and his grand slam in Game 3 sparked the Red Sox again. His two-run homer in Game 4 put the Red Sox ahead as they closed out Houston four games to one.
Pearce, who joined the Red Sox in a trade at midseason, hit three home runs and had eight RBI against the Dodgers in the World Series. He hit a game-tying home run and a three-run double in a 9-6 win in Game 4 and hit two home runs in the series-clinching Game 5. After playing for seven different major league teams, the 12-year veteran finally won his first World Series.
“Baseball's a funny game," Pearce said after being presented the MVP trophy. "You never know where the game will take you. I've gone through a lot in my life and during my career to be here. I couldn't be more thankful."
As the former Gamecocks led the Red Sox to their ninth World Series championship, Tanner was in frequent contact with his two former players. He had planned to be in Boston for Games 6 and 7 but was thrilled to see them win the title in L.A.
“We were texting back and forth and just kinda relishing the moment of what they were going through and then to have an ALCS MVP and a World Series MVP, you have to pinch yourself and say, ‘wow,’” Tanner, now South Carolina’s Athletic Director, said. “It couldn’t have been a better World Series for me, that’s for sure.”
Bradley and Pearce were two of the most accomplished stars to play for Tanner at South Carolina. Bradley hit .331 in his three-year career with 30 home runs and 133 RBI. He was the MVP of the 2010 College World Series.
Pearce was an All-American in 2005, when he hit .358 with 21 home runs and 63 RBI. In his two-year career, he hit 42 home runs and had 133 RBI. He was the first South Carolina player to hit more than 40 home runs in a two-year career.
More importantly, both were big-game, big-moment players.
“When you look back over my career and the teams that I had and the really good teams, you could find a guy or two on each team that might have not led your team in hitting or might not have led your team in a particular category, but in special moments when the game is on the line, they find a way to make something positive happen. That was Jackie and Steve,” Tanner said.
“When they both played here, you could count on a quality at-bat, you could count on getting a man home from third with less than two outs, you could count on advancing the runner, you could count on Jackie leading off an inning knowing we needed to get baserunners, he could coax a walk or he could come up and get on base. They are big-moment guys. You have to have guys who can perform in the moment and those guys have done that for a long time.”
Pearce led South Carolina to the 2004 College World Series and was drafted in the 10th round of the 2004 MLB Draft by the Red Sox. He decided to return to school, however, and led the Gamecocks in all three triple-crown categories for the second straight year.
“He could really square up a baseball,” Tanner said. “He hit balls hard consistently as much as any player I have ever coached.”
The knock on Pearce entering the 2005 draft was, where would he play. Was he a first baseman or an outfielder? He was drafted by the Pirates in 2005, made it to the big leagues in 2007 and played five seasons in Pittsburgh before moving to the American League, where he has played for every team in the AL East. With every club, he played both outfield and first base, while also serving as a DH for several American League teams.
In Boston, where Bradley patrols center field and the Red Sox have the best outfield in baseball, Pearce platooned with Mitch Moreland at first base, facing mostly left-handed pitchers. He proved in the playoffs he could get it done with his bat and glove.
“I think there are a lot of organizations over time who said, ‘we can use Pearce’s bat but he is not an everyday player,’” Tanner said. “I never thought he was a defensive liability at first base. I thought he was a plus defender. I think he displayed his ability to play first base during the playoffs.
“But the reason he stayed in the league is, big-moment guy with a big bat.”
The success of Bradley and Pearce on a such a big stage also brought national attention to the university. Both players went out of their way to mention South Carolina and the baseball program. That could reap benefits for Mark Kingston’s baseball team and the athletic department as a whole.
“You talk about positive representation and how they handled themselves with their humbleness and their team-first approach, it was very special,” Tanner said. “You can’t put a price on that.”
“That just speaks to our program,” said Kingston, who led South Carolina to the NCAA Super Regionals in his first season last year. “Guys are very proud to be a part of this program, past guys, future guys, current guys. Once you become a Gamecock, you are just proud of that fact and seeing those guys do their post-game interviews and talk about being Gamecocks, that’s special.
“It is up to us now to make sure we continue to promote that to the next generation of recruits to show them what can be done when you come through our program.”
Bradley, a 2016 American All-Star and a gold-glove winner this season, returns to Columbia during the offseason and spoke to the team prior to last season. He tweeted out a special message to the team on Opening Day and always goes out of his way to publicly support the University. So does Pearce.
“That’s who they are. It’s like they are still here,” Tanner said. “They are still the same guys and we have a lot of fun with that. I think that is unique because sometimes guys move on and maybe enjoy success at that level, they are professional athletes and they have done very well financially and sometimes you see a change.
“Those guys haven’t changed. They are very fond of their roots at this university and they stood for that and gave us plenty of shout-outs back our way. That was heart-warming to me.”
That kind of support from two major league stars has a big influence on current and future players.
“I think it’s cool how they go about their business,” said Gamecock center fielder T.J. Hopkins, who grew up watching both Bradley and Pearce play. “It’s kinda cool to watch Jackie come out here and talk to us and he’s just like another teammate. He’s easy going and easy to talk to. He’s just a really, really good dude.”
Tanner and Kingston have both been in touch with Bradley and Pearce and hope to have them return to the University soon. And Kingston is already using them as a valuable recruiting tool.
“We will do as much as we can to use the recent success of those guys to help get guys excited about our program,” he said. “Every recruiting call we have had recently, that’s one of the first thing that is talked about. It’s an exciting time for those guys and exciting time for our program.”
Tanner keeps in touch with both players. He’s seen Bradley play for the Red Sox several times and went to the Outback Bowl in Tampa with Pearce in January.
As exciting as it was watching two former players win a World Series, he is most proud of the kind of men he helped mold. To know that they maintain a close relationship with their former coach and school means the world.
“I was touched and somewhat emotional,” Tanner says. “The accomplishments and the winning and the MVP, that’s great, but I was very touched and emotional about seeing them translate that to our past and say, ‘This is a great moment but we remember where we came from.’”