A franchise record of more than 200,000 fans attended Augusta GreenJackets games at Lake Olmstead Stadium last season. And 140,000 more have seen one of 51 games so far this summer.
None of them is more dedicated and loyal than Bessie Neal.
The 80-year-old Augusta native says she has never missed a game since minor league baseball returned to Augusta in 1988. Through 21 1/2 years, more than 1,500 home games, three different major league affiliates and countless minor league prospects, Mrs. Neal has seen it all.
"There's been so many memories," she said. "I pull for all my players. They're all here to reach the same goal, and you can see them trying. You have to appreciate that."
Mrs. Neal has watched it all from her perch in Lake Olmstead Stadium: Section 5, Row 1, Seat 1. It's perfectly positioned as one of the best seats in the house -- elevated enough to see over the crowd and onto the field but centrally located and low enough to easily flag down a friend or fellow fan who passes along the main walkway behind home plate.
Even the staff know her spot and seek her out each evening. GreenJackets director of stadium operations David Ryther said she's usually one of the first in line when he opens the gates for each home game.
"I can't imagine what it would be like if she wasn't there," Mr. Ryther said. "If you're having a bad day, you know you can go to her, and she'll make your day a little bit better just by talking to her."
Rain delays and heat might keep some less-dedicated fans at home. Others come out only for big promotions or fireworks.
Mrs. Neal couldn't come up with a single reason to stay away from the ballpark. That includes direct orders from the doctor.
"There's been times the doctor's told me to stay at home," she said. "I don't listen."
Mrs. Neal simply laughed at that thought. Not even surgery one morning kept her away from a night game a few years ago.
"I was a little giddy," she said. "But I sure had a good time that night."
Her short stature and lively demeanor ensure a good time for fellow season ticket holders. A sharp mind and even sharper tongue provide added entertainment.
While pregame warm-ups took place before a recent game, longtime GreenJackets usher Jerry Kothera wandered over for a daily chat with Mrs. Neal. Mr. Kothera is one of the longest-tenured ushers at Lake Olmstead Stadium, but he hasn't witnessed half as many games as Mrs. Neal.
"I'm still new," he told her. "It's only been eight years for me."
She quickly indicated she won't be caught.
"Keep coming," she said. "As long as I can crawl, I'll be here."
The way Mrs. Neal puts it, baseball is in her blood.
"I come from a baseball family," she said. "It's always been that way."
She said her brother, Buddy Rowland, played professional baseball as a catcher in Augusta when the team was called the Augusta Tigers in the 1940s. Her husband, Billy Neal, helped Bill Heaton work the grounds in the late 1980s when Mr. Heaton led the charge to bring minor league baseball back to Augusta.
"He would go out with (Heaton), and they would water the grass and work on it," Mrs. Neal said. "They did everything they could to get things ready and make sure it all looked right."
Mrs. Neal's nephew is Jeff Rowland, who won two baseball state championships at Greenbrier High School before becoming a starting outfielder for Georgia Tech. He was drafted in June by the Cleveland Indians.
Surrounded by generations of baseball players, Mrs. Neal has a strong knowledge of the game and the history surrounding baseball in Augusta. Mr. Ryther said she also possesses a kind spirit and reaches out to other fans and players with annual birthday gifts and cards to the GreenJackets staff.
"She's one of the nicest people I've met in my whole life," he said. "She's knowledgeable about the game and genuinely cares about what happens. You love to see that type of enthusiasm. And she loves all the staff, even the interns, they love her."
But Mrs. Neal isn't afraid to speak her mind, either. She once told a fan to "shut his mouth" when he called a player stupid. She said she has ruffled a few feathers over the years with some people in the ballpark, usually in defense of players or the team.
She also cares about the future of the game in Augusta. Ask her about the ballpark's concessions, parking, attendance or the possibility of a new stadium in downtown Augusta, and she'll provide a straight, well-informed answer.
"I speak my opinion," she said. "I don't want a baseball stadium downtown. What do you think about an 80-year-old woman walking down Broad Street at night? I don't like it."
The revolving door that exists in a minor league baseball clubhouse brings high turnover and hundreds of new faces over the span of two decades. Mrs. Neal has seen many come and go, and her list of favorites include managers, coaches and players from all over the world.
Osiris Matos, a Dominican pitcher who spent portions of the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons in Augusta and is now on the San Francisco Giants' 40-man roster, made the list. Madison Bumgarner, last year's minor league pitcher of the year, also caught Mrs. Neal's eye.
"He is as good a person as he is a pitcher," she said.
But no one captured Mrs. Neal's heart like Frank Garcia-Luna, a pitcher who came to the Augusta Pirates in 1993 as a 20-year-old prospect from Mexico City.
Mrs. Neal keeps an autographed ball from Mr. Garcia-Luna in a case at home. The ball is signed "to my U.S.A. mom" and is among Mrs. Neal's most prized possessions.
"You just don't forget something like that," she said.
The memories, the fellowship, the atmosphere and the effort -- all of it has had a hand in bringing Mrs. Neal to the ballpark for two decades.
She has seen the worst of it, including a 49-87 season in 2003, and the best, including last year's Minor League Baseball-leading 93-50 mark and South Atlantic League championship.
Win or lose, it's America's pastime, and a lifetime dream fulfilled for one dedicated fan.
"This is the best thing in the world to me," she said. "It's baseball. It's the love of the game. What more in the world could you want?"
Reach Billy Byler at (706) 823-3216 or email@example.com.