The Columbia Fireflies wrapped up their second season Monday, and it wasn’t short on excitement.
The Fireflies, who are the Class-A Mets affiliate, hosted many events at Spirit Communications Park, including the 58th annual South Atlantic All-Star Game in June and a recent game during the total Solar Eclipse. In addition to these big games, the Fireflies were also home to former Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow for the first half of the season.
“We had a lot in 2017 ... with Tebow being here for two months,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, director of media relations and broadcasting. “You mix that in with the All-Star Game ... Columbia and Spirit Communications Park chosen as the site. Our marketing team and our entire front office was prepared.”
Tebow's presence and the additional events helped the Fireflies break their overall attendance record at Spirit Communications Park, which Fitzgerald said continued to “re-break” each day throughout the season.
“It’s been incredible the last two seasons, no question about it, having this franchise here in Columbia," said Fitzgerald, who is also a play-by-play announcer for ESPN. “I think it fits — it’s something for the community. This stadium was built for the City of Columbia, for the Midlands, for the community.”
As for the performance on the diamond, Columbia was one of the top teams in the South Atlantic League with a 40-28 record in the first half of the season, a half-game behind the Greenville Drive for first place in the league.
Despite early success, the tables started to turn within the Columbia roster, which left the Fireflies at the bottom of the pack at the end of regular season action. Columbia closed its regular season home skid with a 33-36 record and an overall 68-70 mark.
Among the roster moves during the regular season, Tebow was promoted to the High-A St. Lucie Mets on June 25.
Despite Tebow’s departure, Fitzgerald added there is certainly more young talent coming up the pipeline – specifically 19-year-old young-gun Andres Gimenez.
“This season, the team got off to a great, great start,” Fitzgerald said. “Injuries have forced the team down the standings in the second half of the season ... There are players that are here that perhaps should be at lower levels, but because of injuries, the Mets need them up at this level ... Regardless of the win-loss (record), there have been excellent prospects.”
Former Gamecock player and Columbia native Gene Cone is the lone South Carolina alumnus on the Fireflies roster. Cone was selected in the 10th round draft of the 2016 draft. An outfielder who played for three seasons under former coach Chad Hollbrook, Cone played 84 games for Columbia this season, his first full season with the club. He spent the 2016 season in Brooklyn, New York, with the Short-Season A Brooklyn Cyclones.
While Cone had leg injury that left him out of play for about two months, he is still working hard to reach the next level.
“It had its ups and downs,” Cone said on the 2017 season. “It was a learning experience, just like I think all of Minor League baseball is. Just trying to keep making goals and strides to get up to the top.”
Similar to Cone and Fitzgerald, Fireflies manager Jose Leger summed up the 2017 season as “interesting."
"It’s been an interesting year ... but I think (it was) a good flavor in the mouth of these guys going home now and getting to experience what it is to play in a full season for the first time in their career," Leger said.