2016 Diamond Dogs Defy Doubters to Take Title, but Only Omaha Will Satisfy

It was Thursday afternoon sometime, couple of hours before leaving for Dudy Noble Field, that I hauled out the bound volume containing 1989 Dawgs’ Bites. I don’t do this as much as you’d think, read the stuff I wrote so long ago. It always makes me feel I was a better writer back then, that the games were more fun and seasons more important or more something.

Nah, rather than wallow in Good Old Daze, I wanted to confirm memory of how those Diamond Dogs celebrated what was, up to last night, the last SEC baseball championship earned at Mississippi State. Memory was correct.

There was no celebrating. Seriously.

Partly it was because we (yes, I was there, got to go with the team and resultingly wrote what was one of my better road-trip diary stories about the ‘Bus of Hell’; thanks Jim Robinson for the title) knew the championship was coming. It was Sunday in Lexington, all Mississippi State needed do was take game-three and Vanderbilt edge LSU and the Bulldogs were champs. It happened. Vandy won 9-2, I happened to be in the radio booth at the moment and personally took the word to the dugout long before it was announced.

That word got nods, a few smiles, not a lot. State was stomping Kentucky 21-1 at the time, no exaggeration. If not that day, there was one more weekend left to clinch it with just one more win. No, the emotions had been expended on an epic Saturday evening in Baton Rouge two weekends before when John Cohen homered off Ben McDonald and Pete Young twice closed the door in a twinbill. A week later State swept Florida, which also involved the legendary Super Saturday crowd of 14,991 which stood as the DNF record up to April 2014.

Nope, State won by a numbing 28-16, look it up yerself, score. We got back on the bus, headed home, and got on with the rest of the season which would send Mississippi State into the NCAAs as the nation’s #1-ranked team.

I recite all this, because somebody else reminded me of it yesterday. Pre-game, I stopped by the batting cage for a quick talk with Cohen. Don’t do that very often, mind, but somehow it seemed right. Won’t tell y’all all we discussed and believe me, it ranged way, way afar from baseball at times!

But Cohen himself brought up that with all the justified buzz about this team playing for the crown contrasted completely with the big-deal Dogs of ’89. With good reason, I have to remind younger generations. 1989 was the third SEC championship in five years at Mississippi State, the fourth in a decade. It was somewhat taken for granted; enjoyed but taken for granted.

Omaha and the national title were the goals.

Now. Do you begin to get the theme?

If not, Cohen will say it for me. Say it better too, because it’s absolute first-person experience speaking.

During all the rightful Saturday night celebrating…by the way, I realized with semi-shock later that this was the first time Bulldog fans got to watch a SEC championship won AT their home field since, are you ready, 1979? Somewhere take a bow, Rick Dixon.

…back on theme. A young writer, not around back then, asked Cohen what lessons he learned as a player he could possibly apply to this team he’s coaching into a promising post-season. I don’t think he was ready for the answer. But I, yeah, I was.

“I think the real lesson is if you don’t end up in Omaha it’s not the year you want it to be. And that’s what happened to us in ’89. I think we were ranked #1 in the nation and got shut out by North Carolina.”

OK. His memory is just a touch off. The score was 2-1. But North Carolina did win, on the crafty arm of and I can’t write the name without cringing John Thoden and a little lucky hitting. State tried battling back through the loser’s bracket, forced a third match with the Tarheels on Sunday evening, and just ran out of pitching. It remains one of my bottom-three Mississippi State moments. No, I’m not telling the other two. That will keep for my final-ever column here.

Oh, the 1990 team did upset its way to Omaha and Cohen got to play on old Rosenblatt. Twenty-three springs later Cohen put a team on new Ameritrade. And now, he can claim absolute sole history along with the 2016 Diamond Dogs of completing the first true last place-to-outright champions run in SEC baseball. A nugget dredged up by yours truly last week, if you care. I do.

So he and they have made history. They have ended a championship drought of what in 1989 would have seemed an unthinkable nigh-three-decades. To which this coach is completely candid, telling anyone who wants to know that the SEC is a whole ‘nuther beast nowadays than back in the glory days ‘80s when titles were taken as Bulldog birthrights.

Yet as proud as Cohen can rightly be, I am absolutely certain that before the final out was recorded he and staff were already thinking ahead. Who to pitch when at Hoover? How to script bullpens and intrasquads for non-game days? Where to have practices and when?

And know what? I’m just as certain the players were thinking the same way. Maybe not as immediately, rounding the field and slapping hands with fans and posing for photos was awfully good fun. But they too had no trouble shifting mental gears to tournament time.

“We’re so ready to play, we just want to know what’s next,” Gavin Collins told us.

This does not mean Bulldog players nor staff are not enjoying the moment. They are just treating it as, well, a moment. Meaning, there’s another moment ahead. Many of them if this team has their way and keeps playing this way.

Which reminds me, let’s do a quick check. OK. The ten-SEC win streak these Dogs closed their schedule on is one short of the program record. The (you guessed it) ’89 team won 11-straight in one stretch. So did the ’79 team. The latter played in the College World Series.

The former…right. As Cohen reminds, “That leaves a certain taste in your mouth. You want to really finish this thing off.” Meaning, Omaha or bust for the Bulldogs. Just as it used to be. Just as it might again be, even if the college baseball landscape is so infinitely far more competitive today.

This is as good a point as any to make my own public confession.

I did not believe this would happen.

No, not just in 2016, though I’m reasonably sure only the Bulldogs themselves saw SEC championship potential in themselves. Which is all they needed of course. Well, that and a lot of new talent, a lot of now-healthy veterans, and just a lot of things falling into perfect places. Cohen keeps reminding all who’ll listen that ‘16s success wasn’t just due to timely recruiting and health and such. It began in ’15 summer league ball when so many of these Dogs found their potential, came back to campus to hone it, and then put into live action over an amazing turnaround spring.

What I really mean though is, I really had begun to sincerely believe Mississippi State was not going to win regular season SEC championships. Yeah, not a nice thing to admit, but as they say confession is good for the soul if bad for the reputation. As if I have much of one to lose by now, but that’s another issue entirely.

Over the last quarter-century I’ve been convinced that for various reasons it was increasingly unlikely even Mississippi State could stockpile enough personnel, of sufficient talents, to survive a 30-game regular season grind without stumbling and falling behind programs with (yes, this again) the scholarship totals advantages. Wow that’s a long sentence, even for me. But it sums up the situation as a pessimistic me figured it.

The twist was, my SEC championship pessimism wasn’t that big a deal with much anyone else. It happened to basketball years ago and it’s trended the similar way in baseball. All that matters is the NCAAs. Conference titles are enjoyed, pennant races fun, and the trophy is celebrated.

And forgotten quickly. No kidding. Be honest: how many of y’all who cheered the 2004 SEC basketball title were a week later fuming about losing in the Orlando Regional? I did not ‘get it’ at the time. I do now.

Maybe this baseball championship is a little different. Primarily because it’s been so, so long since Mississippi State won it, and for how it emphasizes the program’s marvelous spring. Which if I might add, I’m wracking the skull if this just might be the greatest one-year turnaround for ANY Bulldog major sport. Help me out on this one, folks.

And still the comments from club and Cohen do hew to the idea. Once Commissioner Greg Sankey hands them the trophy this Wednesday, it will go to the bus and the Bulldogs get busy playing tournament baseball. Busy preparing to host next week’s Regional and with success a super round the next week. More history in the making, too.

Cohen said it well. “We still have a lot of baseball to play. That’s going to be the message to these guys.” Ahhh, Coach, your guys are ahead of you on this. You don’t have to tell them of how ’89 played out after returning from Lexington.

It was with a lost home series to Alabama. A 1-2 showing at the SEC Tournament in Gainesville. Then…no, I can’t recount it again. Just know that from the moment 1989’s crown was clinched the club started slipping. No rhyme or reason, it just happened.

It’s a different world in 2016. It’s a different bunch of Bulldogs. Oh, I’m not gonna say who’d win a head-to-head series…but I will always insist 1989 was the top-to-bottom best all-around club ever to wear the uniform here. And it did not get them to the Series.

That’s where this team can not just continue to write history in the form of records and totals. They can go win that whole darned thing. Any squad which can walk into Nashville, Gainesville, Baton Rouge and walk out with won series BEFORE they even really truly realized what they had to work with, is a squad capable of winning its own way to Omaha without any help.

No, that doesn’t sound pessimistic at all, does it? I’m delighted beyond expression how happy I am to have been proven wrong by this Bulldog ball club about SEC championships. The 2016 season press pass might be added to the baker’s dozen of most meaningful credentials since 1979 framed and hung on the wall. Which of the current 13 is removed, hmmmm… My hand-drawn score ‘card’ will be stuck in the memorabilia display, somewhere. Maybe take the place of the scorecards from say the 2005 SEC Tournament?

I will buy the commemorative tee shirt too. A few of them in fact, for family. Especially a couple of grand-nephews and -nieces to sport this summer. It will remind them Diamond Dog baseball is a lifetime affair.

It will also remind them to sometimes take what their occasionally-great-uncle says with a few grains of salt.

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