By Gene Sapakoff, The Post and Courier
The bright banner hanging from a Claflin University light pole between the Leadership Development Center and Trustee Hall has an orange and maroon message for students: “The world needs visionaries.”
Sitting nearby, Brett Bullard agrees. He entered the predominantly black school as a scrawny white kid looking for a place to play baseball. Three years later, he is an all-star center fielder with a clear vision.
The passion for baseball and teaching are apparent in Bullard’s eyes, and in his parents.
Ike Bullard is a longtime Lowcountry teacher and coach who also has served as team chaplain for two minor-league teams — hockey’s South Carolina Stingrays and baseball’s Charleston RiverDogs.
“Claflin has been a blessing for Brett,” Ike Bullard said. “It’s the right fit.”
Sharon Bullard has seen every one of her youngest son’s baseball games since he was seven years old — except for Claflin’s game at Alabama’s Tuskegee University earlier this season.
“She couldn’t find an affordable rental car at the last minute,” Brett Bullard said with a smile. “Other than that, she’s seen them all.”
She has seen Bullard make gradual progress after a slow start to his college career. It began with one year at North Greenville College after Bullard graduated from Northwood Academy in North Charleston. A coaching change prompted Bullard’s transfer to Claflin, where he joined the baseball team as a walk-on.
There were no guarantees.
Bullard struggled as a sophomore in 2010. Claflin head coach James Randall, a former professional baseball player who appeared in four games with the 1988 Chicago White Sox, was direct.
“I was weak defensively,” Bullard said. “Coach Randall said, ‘Brett, we’ll give you a chance in the outfield if you work hard and get your throwing right.’”
A summer of intense workouts added 30 pounds to Bullard’s 5-11 frame, from 145 to 175.
“I did exactly what Coach Randall said and now I’m an everyday starter,” Bullard said. “He’s definitely a player’s coach. He tries to work with you without sugar-coating anything.”
The Panthers this week are headed into the NCAA Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament as East Division champions. They play their home games at nostalgic Mirmow Field, a near-mirror image of Charleston’s College Park and home to Orangeburg’s Class A South Atlantic League franchise in the early 1970s.
Bullard, a left-handed hitter who leads off for the Panthers, is batting .360 with 28 RBIs and eight stolen bases.
“Brett has been a sparkplug for us,” Randall said. “He plays the game the way it should be played. He plays like every play is his last. It’s really hard not to like Brett. He’s the first one at the field and the last one to leave. Brett likes everyone and everyone likes Brett.”
Racial stuff? Never been a big deal to Bullard, whose cultural status at Claflin is similar to the rare black player on a Division I baseball team, whose rosters are predominantly white.
“Probably the main thing I’ve learned here is that there really aren’t a whole lot of differences,” Bullard said. “We’re humans and we all have goals in life.”
Bullard has lived in a Claflin dormitory for the last three school years. His girlfriend, Brendell Studnicka of Clay Center, Neb., lives nearby; she recently completed her fourth season on the S.C. State volleyball team.
Bullard is active on campus, serving as a member of the Claflin Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and as Sergeant at Arms for the Sports Marketing Club.
“Brett fits in real well,” said Claflin senior right fielder Julius McDougal. “He’s very well-liked on campus. Everybody knows him. People just like to be around him. As far as the baseball part, we never think about the color — if you can play, you can help us.”
Still, the lack of black college baseball players at all levels — including the sad fact that S.C. State disbanded its team in 1994 — is disappointing to McDougal and baseball enthusiasts of various races.
“You definitely want to see more black players in baseball, especially me as someone who plays baseball,” McDougal said. “Most black kids just prefer basketball or football, but I think the RBI (Rebuilding Baseball in Inner Cities) program and other things are helping. I was in an RBI program in the Detroit area, so I know steps are being taken. It just might be a slow process.”
For now, McDougal and Bullard are bent on putting the finishing touches on one of Claflin’s best baseball seasons. Both players have been invited to play in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities All-Star Baseball Game, a two-day event June 29-30 in Atlanta.
After that, Bullard wants more of Claflin. He is appealing to the NCAA for another year of eligibility to coincide with the pursuit of a Master’s degree in teaching designed around a combined Claflin/S.C. State course load.
“I want to better the lives of children, just like my dad,” Bullard said. “He’s been pretty inspirational.”
Brett Bullard plans to spend the summer as he has spent the last few, working with kids at the North Charleston Recreation Department.
Ike Bullard was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam. It’s easy to see why he’s a proud father.
“I’ve worked with all kinds of kids for a long, long time,” he said. “We’ve taught Brett that everybody’s the same. I don’t think he looks at things as black and white. I think he’s colorblind.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff