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Casey statue brought poem's lesson to Cherry Park

While she was serving as mayor of the city of Rock Hill, Betty Jo Rhea remembers a friend calling her on a rainy day. The friend's grandson had just left school and insisted he had to visit Cherry Park and see a certain bronze statue.

But once the child did see the statue, he was sad.

"He was sad because Casey didn't have an umbrella and was getting wet," Rhea said Tuesday.

Amidst the softball and baseball fields of Cherry Park the Mighty Casey statue stands, smile on his face, bat in hand, charming children and visitors alike since it became a permanent fixture in the park in 1992.

Bringing the much-loved statue to the city was part of a city-wide effort to "reinvent itself for the next century," beginning with the Civitas sculpture on Dave Lyle Boulevard, said former city manager Joe Lanford.

Civitas was the first "heroic sculpture" in Rock Hill, and Lanford and other city officials searched for what would be the next.

"We wanted the second piece to be contrasting, still a heroic sculpture, but a contrast to the refinement that was displayed in Civitas," he said.

Lanford saw the Mighty Casey statue on display while on vacation in Denver. He talked to Mark Lundeen, the artist, about leasing it for one year.

"It seemed like the perfect fit for Cherry Park," he said. "It was a chance to see if the community would fall in love with Casey and support it, and they did."

The city agreed to lease it for the year through private funds, and the 14-foot, 1,400-pound statue arrived in Rock Hill a few years after the park opened in 1985.

American writer and poet Ernest Thayer immortalized the fictional Casey in his poem, "Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888."

The poem recounts a baseball team from the town of Mudville, also fictional, that is losing by two runs with two outs in the last inning of a game.

Mighty Casey, the team's star player, is the fifth to bat. The hopeful crowd believes that they can win as long as he gets the chance to bat.

The first two batters strike out while the next two hit a single and double. It is left up to Casey.

He does not swing at the first two pitches, both strikes. On the last pitch, he strikes out, losing the game and leaving an unhappy crowd.

Though the Casey in the poem does not have a happy ending, his statue does.

When the year was over, so many people had fallen in love with Casey that they asked the city to buy it.

"A great deal of money was raised by the kids who were playing at the park because they really fell in love with Casey," Lanford said.

Rhea remembered people holding bake sales just to raise money for Casey.

"I had letters," she said. "Children sent me money from their piggy banks."

About $225,000 later, Casey was there to stay as a result of the resident fundraising efforts.

Casey's story - striking out at bat - is a story that seems to appeal to the community, Lanford said.

"I was interested to see the number of times parents were with their child crying because he struck out, telling them even Mighty Casey struck out sometimes.

"The moral of the story, the only failure, is in not trying," he said. "Everybody strikes out or makes an out many more times than they get a hit, especially young children as they're learning the game. I think that's a valuable lesson.

"It's important for all of us, but especially children to learn and appreciate."

Want to go?

What: Cherry Park's 25th anniversary celebration

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Cherry Park, 1466 Cherry Road, Rock Hill

Featuring: Games, activities, music, food and memorabilia

Information: rockhillrocks.com or 803-329-5620

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