Oh, not everywhere. Tabbing two members of our starting outfield was as easy as it gets. One of them was maybe the best all-around batter ever to call Dudy Noble Field home. The other might just be the best all-around athlete to play baseball for Mississippi State. Or for that matter one of the best in any sport.
But positioned literally in-between the two were, well, a couple of candidates carrying such equal achievements despite differing styles that picking one took days of thinking, soliciting opinions, and crunching numbers. Especially as the DH job was already taken by a first baseman. A decision was made with accidental help, after a teammate of both happened to call and helped make the choice.
Don’t worry though. There are no losers here and we’ve created (OK, cheated) a place in this all-State star dugout for him. It helps legitimize things to remind that one batted left and the other right, both could play defense with equal ease though again radically different images, and either would be a pinch-hit nightmare for the best of pitchers.
RIGHT FIELD: Hunter Renfroe 2011-2013 .294avg, 20hr, .488slg%, 150 hits, 92rbi
Never mind none of his career numbers are top-ten. Renfroe should serve as poster boy for the great hitter of this dead-bats era. It’s saying a MSU-mouthful, but there probably has not been a better athlete playing outfield here. Or any other position. And because he had to mature from a small academy background it took time for all his gifts to flourish. When they did for a season-and-a-half, greatness ensued. His home run shot in the 2013 College World Series epitomized the pure plate power Renfroe packed in a dead-bat era. Which makes the mind boggle at what he could have done with those ‘90s era nuke bats, like probably own every modern SEC homer record. Even with dumbed-down bats and not a whole lot of lineup protection he hit .345 (pitchers thought it was more like .500) as a junior with 16 homers and 65 RBI. The speed whether in the field or on paths was stunning. And the arm? Just scrounge up that video of him gunning down a careless runner coming off first base after a running catch in the SEC Tournament. 30-06 bullets have more arc than that throw. It’s a mouthful for sure, but there hasn’t been a truer all-tool athlete to wear a Mississippi State uniform. A couple as good and more polished earlier, but none with more pure potential.
CENTER FIELD: DAN VAN CLEVE 1981-85 .318avg, 232 runs (#1), 55 doubles (#4), 70 steals (#2), 143 walks (#4), 19hr, 129rbi
As noted, this wasn’t easy to decide between two elite candidates from the 1980s. And cases can be made for a guy or two from the 1970s in fact. Fair or not the margin came down to…emotion. And in baseball emotion counts. So does timing. This is the 30th year anniversary of John Fogerty’s ‘Centerfield’ after all. And Dan Van Cleve was patrolling center field that same spring, fittingly wearing a truly “beat up glove” getting to seemingly-impossible balls. Also emotionally, DVC left us a couple of years ago from a sudden heart attack. But set aside the emotion and Van Cleve earns his place in the lineup purely on achievement. His average is good if not great, and the power was average at best. Forget that. Look at all the walks, and what he did on the paths. Once in scoring position guess who it was providing Clark and Palmeiro and Thigpen many of their RBI? Right. Still our other candidate has his own numbers, some better and some lesser. So it’s back to emotion, not least what this Dog displayed when throwing his body around with raw reckless passion. And for years team trainer Stratton Karatossos kept a framed photo from the Omaha Herald on the training room wall. It was of Van Cleve flat-out four feet in the air, perfectly parallel to the Rosenblatt turf as he successfully dove at a fly ball with, yes, that beat up glove.
LEFT FIELD: Rafael Palmeiro 1983-85 .372avg, 268 hits, 67hr (#1), 239rbi (#2), 224 runs (#3)
As if you had to ask. Sure there have been plenty other Mississippi State freshmen who started on opening day. None of the others we know of took advantage to hit a three-run homer in their very first Bulldog at-bat. Or went on to set program home-run standards for both season and career which still stand all these years later. Had Palmeiro played a full four seasons in college most every possible offensive mark (not merely here at MSU but for the SEC) would also still stand first and likely remain out of future reach. Remember, too, how he played in quite a lot of seven-inning games; whereas most of the league’s modern era record-holding hitters played only nines and got all of those extra at-bats over the course of their seasons/careers. The measure of his greatness is that while Palmeiro’s swinging style was ideal for average, it still had all that wallop. And after all, he did hit cleanup in 1985 as well as claim the single-season home run record with his marvelous 1984 campaign. The real reason State fans always say it as Will and Ralph isn’t so much the order in which they batted, as Palmeiro let his play speak for him and stayed true to a lower-key personality. As ball players we don’t dare to nor care to judge who was the ‘better’. As legends they are eternal equals. Just don’t tell either of them that…because while one showed it more the competitive fire burned just as hot in Palmeiro. Maybe hotter if I dare say so.
ALTERNATE: JODY HURST 1987-89 .338avg, 156 runs, 27hr, 125rbi, 119 walks, .959fld%
The best commentary on his centerfield defense is to remember how Hurst was so smooth running—jogging, really, with those long, easy strides—that few recognized just how remarkable was the range and reliability. Maybe the arm wasn’t his main strength but wasn’t really a problem either as he would get the ball to the plate as necessary. To have such long arms he still had the quick wrists which got that bat around with serious sting. For those of us who happened to be there when Mississippi State played the old Jackson Mets in an exhibition, memory of his first-pitch homer remain vivid. It was a true line-shot that seemingly was still rising as it cleared dead-center in Smith-Wills Stadium. While Hurst certainly hit for power and average alike, it was the eye at the plate that allowed a tall strike-zone guy to work a startling total of walks. Like, 69 of them in 1989 alone against just 50 strikeouts. And in leadoff, too. Seriously, that says so much about his offense as State had a 6-5 guy up first to get on base. Yeah, his only flaw was that Hurst made it look just too easy to the crowd. Everyone at field-level recognized something special, and it remains one of our mysteries why it couldn’t translate to the big-league level.
DESIGNATED HITTER: TOMMY RAFFO 1987-90 .366avg (#6), 45hr (#8), 207rbi (#4), 52 doubles (t#7), 186 runs (#10)
For most any other college program, this would be their all-time first baseman. At Mississippi State the position is taken of course. That does not diminish Tommy Tigger (ask Mike Martin how the nickname came about) a bit. First off he was a superbly reliable defender showing the glove, the range, the arm, the complete package. But it was with the great big bat that Raffo earns his spot in this all-time order. Remember that after 26 seasons he is still solidly top-ten in average, in home runs, for RBI, extra-base hits, runs, bases, everything. On teams stacked with characters he was the lower-key kind of guy who let the bat make the noise. And as the RBI figures remind, he was just as clutch as he was consistent. Re: 1990 NCAA Regional. Raffo is also one very big reason among many why his 1987 freshman class has to be graded the best groups Ron Polk or any other State skipper assembled. Maybe the best in sheer numbers of great and good players, really.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Maybe the quickest wrists ever on a Bulldog belonged to OF MARK GILLASPIE (1980-81). So does the second-best career batting average, but Gillaspie also had plenty home-run punch. ‘Punch’ wasn’t the strongest point for OF Mike Kelly (1976-79), contact was his specialty. So was speed; he’s still the only Dog ever with 20 triples and leads in steals too, along with #10 status in average and hits. They would soon be overshadowed by other ‘80’s outfielders with better numbers, but we can’t overlook the excellence of OF DAVE KLIPSTEIN (1979-82) and OF BRAD WINKLER (1980-83). The ‘Klipper’ was a .343 career batter who just did not strike out but did draw lots of walks. Winkler went more for big swings but also had the good eye and at one point had the career walks record. And both are still fourth and third respectively in career steals, which reminds that there was a time Ron Polk’s offenses were built around reaching-and-running. The more things change, huh?..