The midweek miniseries event of the season


Published: Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 12:19 a.m.

The parking lot looked like a used car dealership, vehicles pulled onto grassy medians and into spaces so tight the drivers must have exited through sun roofs. The ticket booth couldn't have had more people around it before the game if the $1 tickets came with free jambalaya.

The trees were alive with the sounds of baseball because a handful of those turned away climbed the branches past the left-field fence, a scene that hadn't been a part of Gator baseball since 1996.

"There were guys out there yelling Gator stuff sitting up in the trees," said Florida outfielder Ben Harrison. "It was all that I'd hoped for since I came to school here."

The Mac was packed on Wednesday night because this wasn't Dartmouth or Michigan in Gainesville to get out of the cold.

It was Florida State on a weird Wednesday, one that got even more weird as the night went on.

How else do you explain a kid back in his hometown - P.K. Yonge's Ryne Malone - hitting a home run to lead off the 11th inning to be a hero, then making two of his team's three errors in the bottom of the inning to help Florida win the game?

Weird.

But maybe we should have expected the weirdness because Florida and FSU aren't supposed to play in the middle of the week. Those games are supposed to be reserved for tune-ups to get a look at your pitching in preparation for conference weekends.

This was Pat McMahon's idea and as some of us looked for a parking space with a cartoon balloon of ampersands, asterisks and exclamation points hovering over our heads, it looked like he knew what he was doing.

When the crowd was announced as a record 5,663, you knew he did. The two teams will play again in April in Tallahassee, in May back at McKethan Stadium. Maybe by the third game it won't seem so strange, but to call these games scattered throughout the spring a series would be an overstatement.

Apparently, it was so confusing, so odd to have these two teams playing on American Idol night, that one of the three umpires failed to show. Either that, or he is still circling the parking garage, his fuel light glowing and his fingernails crusty from digging deep into the car seats looking for sustenance.

It ended the way the Gators wanted it to end, with a win. When more than 5,000 people show up to see you play, you certainly don't want to send them away disappointed, even if it takes a ball hopping over the glove of the shortstop to do it.

"What a fun event for both teams to play in front of a great crowd," McMahon said.

It's especially fun when you win. As a result of the bizarre 11th, Florida didn't waste seven straight shutout innings from its bullpen and wasn't burned by its inability to score in only one of the first 10 innings.

Most importantly, the Gators didn't waste the biggest crowd in school history.

Just a year ago, this game drew fewer than 3,000 fans in Gainesville. McMahon decided he wanted to move it as far away from Gator basketball as he could.

"It's baseball season now," McMahon said. "There is a focus that way."

So here they were, Florida in its mid-week uniforms that make them look like the New York Mets without the baggage, the Seminoles in their garnet and gray. It got off to a rocky start for Florida, starter Steven Porter giving up four runs before many of the fans had made it into the stadium.

Then it settled down to some excellent baseball. Which is what you would expect no matter when it is played between two top 20 teams.

It's not like this kind of thing never happens - non-conference rivals within states often play in the middle of the week - it's just that fans of both teams had become used to the weekend series.

It had been more than a decade since the two teams had played a mid-week game. And this decision left some with wrinkled noses and heads cocked like a dog hearing his name coming out of the television speaker.

Wednesday?

For UF-FSU?

What's next, a Friday night football game between the two schools?

An ACC Officials Appreciation Day at The Swamp?

A Dave Hart-Jeremy Foley steel cage match in the O'Connell Center?

We see now that it makes perfect sense. It was a great game, OK, until the last of the 11th, and a great crowd.

McMahon was right about spreading the games out and pushing them back. The FSU series is always big, but on Wednesday night we saw how special a one-game-at-a-time series can be.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053.

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