Last swing: Birmingham-Southern's baseball team keeping closing school's spirt alive in World Series

EASTLAKE, Ohio (AP) — They're playing for each other, a community dealing with a different kind of grief and a school that united them but is now closing — for good.

Birmingham-Southern's baseball team is making one last run.

The final swing. There's no waiting 'til next year.

On Friday, the Panthers will continue an unexpected, uplifting season that has captured hearts across the country by playing in the Division III World Series on the same day the liberal arts college founded on the eve of the Civil War shuts its doors.

The last day of school. Literally.

And while Birmingham-Southern may no longer function as an institution of higher learning for the first time since it first welcomed students in 1859, the school's spirit is being kept alive by a tough-minded, tight-knit team refusing to give in.

“I think for everyone, the run that they have gone on has taken the focus off of the sadness and the finality of it,” said coach Jan Weisberg, relishing every moment of his 17th season at the school. “It's been awesome.”

Nothing has slowed the Panthers, who have gone 19-4 since BSC's closing was announced in March. Last week, they battled through a stomach virus that swept through the team and led to two players being hospitalized and several others receiving IVs behind the dugout during their win over Denison in the Super Regional.

“Craziest thing ever,” Weisberg said.

It is for now. Birmingham-Southern's amazing story filled with Disney-esque vibes and emotions, isn't over just yet.

The No. 7 seeded Panthers open the double-elimination tournament on Friday at Classic Park against No. 2-seeded Salve Regina. Two months ago, it would have been hard to imagine Birmingham-Southern in this spot.

Unable to secure a $30 million loan to restore an endowment to offset major financial issues, the school announced it would be closing permanently on May 31. Though the decision seemed inevitable following a two-year battle, the closing rocked everyone connected to Birmingham-Southern.

That shock lingers.

Weisberg remembers feeling like he “had been hit by a ton of bricks” when he got the news from athletic director Kyndall Waters, an alum and volleyball star. The school was on spring break at the time, and Weisberg didn't want his players learning their fate via email or on social media.

He wanted to be the one to tell his team.

"There was a lot of sadness, a lot of crying,” Weisberg said Thursday as the Panthers took batting practice at Lakeland Community College. “But I think that was a pivotal moment in leading us to where we are now.”

They're now America's team. Well, at least America's favorite D-III baseball team.

The Panthers' feel-good journey has become a national curiosity. A GoFundMe account started earlier this week to help the team offset travel costs and other expenses has raised over $107,000 in donations.

The team is being shadowed by a documentary film crew, which has been chronicling every step of Birmingham-Southern's wild ride and showed up in full force on Thursday. At one point, there seemed to be an equal number of boom mics as bats behind the backstop.

The Panthers are soaking in the added attention.

“I did think it would be a little bit of a distraction, but it hasn’t distracted anybody," second baseman Andrew Dutton said. "If anything it has given us fire and like heck yeah, let’s put our story out there. We want everybody to know about it. We’re just playing the game. We’re not playing for the camera crew. We’re just our here having fun.”

For students and alums back in Birmingham, Alabama, the Panthers have helped ease the pain of the school's demise.

A closing ceremony was held last week on campus, which is currently dotted with dumpsters sitting outside buildings that are being cleared out for the property's eventual sale or repurposing.

Weisberg and his family have lived in a home on campus for years, and as he walked by the school's library two weeks ago, he was shaken by the sight of three moving vans sitting behind the building.

“I was like, can't we wait until after graduation for that?,” he said. “Watching it happen has been a slow death. It's been kinda weird.”

Anyone with ties to Birmingham-Southern has felt a wide-range of emotions over the past few months — from despair to joy to sorrow to elation. A roller coaster.

The baseball team's improbable run has only heightened those feelings.

“It is bittersweet,” said school president Daniel Coleman. “Because so many things about this college are vibrant. So many things about this college are really important to Birmingham and Alabama and its future.

"It’s just showing how great this college is in one aspect. And yet we were not able to keep it open. We were not able to get the support we needed to keep it open, so it’s bittersweet.”

One of the school's most famous alums is actress Kate Jackson, best known for her role on the hits 1970s TV show “Charlie's Angels.” Maybe that's played a part in what has at times felt like heavenly help to Weisberg.

Little things have felt bigger, almost preordained. Like on that gray, rainy day back in March when he told his players their school was closing. The sun broke through the clouds and the Panthers had their best batting practice in two years.

He promised to take care of them, and asked for only on thing in return.

“Just don’t quit,” Weisberg said. "Continue to do the things we’ve always done. I told them our program has always been about pass it on to the next guy at your position or the next one to wear your number. But now there is no one to pass it on to, so close up shop and do it the right way.

"And they did, which is awesome.”


Associated Press Sports Writer John Zenor in Alabama contributed to this report.


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