Polk Likes Look Of Veteran Squad For 2005

The Maroon game uniform tops, hurriedly pulled on following an afternoon practice, were new. So was the 'Bulldogs' script, block letters with angled accents over big, stylized numbers. But at least the MS logo on the caps was familiar.

And so were the faces under those brims, as Coach Ron Polk and veterans Brady Corley and Saunders Ramsey met the media for Mississippi State's annually pre-season press conference. The Diamond Dog skipper and the two team captains discussed the outlook for the upcoming 2005 campaign, which opens next Friday afternoon at Dudy Noble Field.

Or at least they talked Bulldog Baseball after Polk opened with the now-expected, and this time very lengthy, lecture about the latest atrocities being planned against college baseball by the NCAA. Polk even called NCAA president Myles Brand and others in the governing body "nerds" for their treatment of the grand old game, reciting old wrong such as the infamous 11.7 scholarship limit, doing away with graduate assistant coaches, and so on.

This year the MSU coach, as well as his peers, do have another reason for open anger, as the NCAA board of directors is considering cutting the regular season from 56 games to 44. "They're concerned we play too many games and that our kids are missing library time," Polk said sarcastically, pointing to the typically-high grade averages posted by the Diamond Dogs. "No player, coach, parent, or fan wants it to happen."

Polk said the B.O.D. ignored recommendations from four other committees to pursue this schedule reduction. "Their attitude is the less, the better." This even after college coaches did discuss a more uniform starting date for all programs, a concession to ‘snowbelt' programs. "Thank you for another slap in college baseball's face," Polk fumed. "We have seen the enemy, and it is the association we're supposed to belong to."

Schedule reductions wouldn't take effect for a year or more anyway. The scholarship situation is more immediately serious now that the state of Arkansas is setting up tuition waivers for in-state students, leaving Mississippi and Alabama as the only SEC states not providing some sort of aid that can—and is—used to supplement the base 11.7 total allowed a Division I baseball team each year. "We have four schools in the SEC with 11.7 scholarships," Polk said, "and eight with unlimited scholarships. The playing field is no longer level.

"We have to work harder, recruit better. Hopefully we don't have injuries. We have to build up our facilities. And continue to blast an organization that cares nothing, nothing for college baseball."

Polk cares, though he ended up spending more time talking about NCAA matters than the 2005 Bulldogs. But the subject finally turned and here are Polk's comments followed by the Q&A session.

Polk: We started into our practices last Monday so we're about a week-and-a-half into our preseason period, preparing for game-one next Friday with Eastern Illinois. We have five-straight games at home to open the season and then we head to Tucson to play a three-game series with the Wildcats of Arizona where I started my coaching career in 1966. That's where I got my masters degree. Arizona last year was a participant in the College World Series, so it's going to be a great early test for our ball club going into SEC play.

We play 14 games prior to our first SEC game with Vanderbilt here in Starkville. The N.B.C. Classic will be here this year with Austin Peay, one of the stronger members of the Ohio Valley Conference; and Kansas of the Big XII which a couple of years ago went into Baton Rouge and swept LSU in a series. We've got 33 home games. Of the road games four are played in Jackson, at Smith-Wills Stadium, I think it's going to be ready if they get the turf ready. The annual Mayor's Tropy Game with Ole Miss, and then three opponents that will be ‘road' games for us but the Jackson professional baseball association and Smith-Wills bought out to play us in Jackson. We're still the road team but we're basically playing at home, against South Alabama, Samford, and Birmingham-Southern.

We had a great six-week fall program, great weather, and went through our off-season program with individual skill development, weight training and conditioning. So far the weather has been up-and-down while we've been out, hopefully we get real good weather going into the first game. Next year by this time we'll have the Palmeiro Center, which will give us more room to operate.

Our players are always looking forward to the start of the season. This will be my 37th and I look forward to it also, maybe not as much as they do. When they've been playing 37 years they probably won't be as excited as they are right now! We anticipate selling over 5,000 season tickets once again. The outfield Lounge is already packed, our Dugout Club membership has passed 800, our foster parent program is up to 41 families. And our team GPA—I know you're really interested in this--was 2.92 last fall, we continue our wide leadership in the SEC. We have 185 SEC academic honor roll recipients, the next closest is 139 for Vanderbilt. You don't have to give us a hand.

Our new scoreboard is operation, last year they worked the kinks out and we have Maroon to the Max program for subscribers to be able to watch the games live. That will be great for our kids' parents, and Jim Ellis will do a great job of that and the radio network as strong as ever.

The Palmeiro Center has taken a little setback. I'm not an expert on dirt, I'm an expert on two things: baseball and the NCAA. But they either brought in some bad dirt or didn't pack it in, they had to take all the dirt out and put it back. It was a big, big mistake so we're set back about four weeks, now we're starting about the first June, maybe. When the Palmerio Center to be finished then we start on the office and hall of fame complex which will go right outside our third base dugout.

Last year our kids found a way to get to another NCAA Regional. We started out with probably the youngest baseball team I've ever been associated with in all my years—31 freshmen and sophomores on a 41-player roster, with just three seniors. Then the first week of the season we lost Jon Mungle with a ACL tear. And two of our freshmen we were depending on, especially for depth were not able to play. Bunky Kateon had shoulder surgery (in fall 2003) and never recovered fully enough to play, and Michael Rutledge had a wrist nerve problem that required casting all spring. All three are healthy, but Jon is not yet 100% but is closing in on it.

We won five of our last six games, three on the road in Tuscaloosa, to get the NCAA Regional in Atlanta. We hope this year we don't have crippling injuries, because with 11.7 scholarships that determines a lot of the destiny of a baseball team in this day and age. We also had Thomas Berkery out three weeks last year with an injury. We ended up with an adjusted RPI of 28 which is pretty good for such a young club with so many injuries to key position players. The Southeastern Conference again remains very strong with seven or eight teams in the top-25.

Let me give a quick look at our roster. We did lose our starting catcher, Craig Tatum, to professional baseball, he signed with Cincinnati. But I feel our catching is in great hands. Thomas Berkery will be a versatile player for us, he can catch, play third base, could play second base where he started two years ago, and if Jeffrey Rea goes down that's a very distinct possibility. Thomas will split the catching with a true freshman, Edward Easley, who can also play third base. We've got 13 people that are dual-position players, we work them out primary and secondary positions so if we have injuries we don't miss too much of a beat, we've been practicing in those positions. And you feel you need to use the good players as much as you possibly can.

We also have Eli Dew, a redshirt freshman, available, along with returning letterwinner Joseph McCaskill. We're also very pleased with two walk-on catchers, in Wyn Diggs, a junior college transfer, and Brooks Lewis, a true freshman.

In the infield we lost our third baseman/shortstop Steve Gendron, who by the way signed a pro contract with the Florida Marlins organization. The other loss we had was Tyler Scarbrough who played first base and third. Everybody else returns. That includes our starting first baseman, junior Brad Jones, who will be backed up by Brian LaNinfa who can also DH and in a pinch play in the outfield. We also have Alex McIntosh, a redshirt freshman, and two really good future players for us in Jeff Flagg and Mitch Moreland.

Many of these freshmen are going to redshirt but that decision has not been made yet, until we play a few more scrimmages. I'll meet with them all individually and we may make decisions before the season, or we may wait three or four or in some cases nine or ten games before the boy makes a decision, with my advice.

Jeffrey Rea returns at second base after a fine freshman season. Bunky Kateon will start at shortstop, and we have four choices at third base. Michael Rutledge, who also plays shortstop, Easley the catcher, Berkery, and Ben Grisham, a letterwinner who also plays the outfield and pitches. We have a letter-winner in Daniel Tackett who can back us up at shortstop and second base, and Brooks Tinsley also plays the middle infield.

We more than likely will recommend redshirt status for freshman Ryan Wiser and Mark Muzzi. We do have a fine pitcher/third baseman in freshman Chad Crosswhite, who we also feel has a bright future.

Our outfield is very experienced with four players who have started many games. Brad Corley, Joseph Hunter, Jeff Butts are juniors and Jon Mungle is a senior. LaNinfa and Ben Grisham can also play the outfield, Ryan Fesmire provides us depth. We signed Matt Richardson out of junior college, he had great numbers but he came to us with a labrum tear (shoulder injury) that bothered him in the fall and we haven't decided whether to advise him to redshirt or not. We'll make that decision next week. We have a walk-on junior college transfer in Marshall Faulkner who could be a redshirt though he does have skills and we think will get better. Jeff Flagg is also an outfielder/first baseman.

The only pitcher we lost off last year's team was Jeff Lacher, he graduated and signed with the Florida Marlins organization. Russ McNickle is our new pitching coach, Daron Schoenrock had a great opportunity at the University of Memphis. We have 21 pitchers on the roster, four of them are also position players. We won't give a lot of information on anybody who is not going to be a factor. But the only pitcher in re-hab is Brett Cleveland who tore his knee getting out of a shower last fall. His recovery is way ahead of schedule and he may just miss the first week or two of the season.

The rotation pitching should be veteran Alan Johnson, veteran Todd Doolittle, both seniors, and sophomore Josh Johnson after a super summer in the Central Illinois League. And we feel junior Brooks Dunn should be even better for us as a starter, possibly a set-up man in some games. Jamie Gant can help us in relief or as a starter, in addition to Jon Crosby who got his feet wet last year. Saunders Ramsey and Brad Corley can share in the closing roles and set-up roles, and we have other pitchers that have pitched for us—Eric Ebers, Mike Valentine, Andy Wilson, and we really like John Lalor but he had mono in fall and now he has back spasms, we haven't seen enough of him.

We expect to lose four seniors to graduation and three or four to the June baseball draft. The depth on our staff is good this year but we have to get ready for next year when we start losing some really good pitchers. We also feel pitchers that will be factors in a very short time are Jeremiah Boling, Jesse Carver, Trent Hill, and Justin Pigott. Another freshman, Paul Falkenberry, was unable to pitch in the fall and early spring due to arm problems.

Q: Do you feel more comfortable with this team as opposed to this point last year?

Polk: It's more experienced, if that's a comfort level and it normally is. I mean last year I felt good, if we had been healthy. Because we had to move Gendron to short. But we were were fortunate after that, if anybody else had gone down we were on a tightrope there, if we'd lost another infielder or two we'd have been in bad shape. Thankfully we were able to finish strong and go to a Regional. But we hope to do more this year than just go to a Regional.

Q: Do you have a set lineup or will you rotate guys?

Polk: It's hard to say, we'll look at things after these scrimmage games, and Brad and Saunders will give me their lineups against a lefthander and righthander, all the coaches will look at it. Normally we don't have a set lineup, I think six or seven guys are pretty solid. The rest of it just depends on matchups, depends on who's healthy. We've had a lot of sickness but thankfully we're not playing. We didn't take flu shots but most aren't catching flu, they're catching a real bad virus going around campus. It makes it tough to have practices but we've managed to survive.

Q: Would you describe your offense as better than last year?

Polk: Well, I believe we'll be better than last year. Although last year offensively I thought we were really good. But we have experienced people who know what bat discipline is all about, they know about situation hitting, I think they know what their role is and what they can and cannot do. Anytime you have freshmen and a lot of sophomores in the lineup they can get overmatched at times by some of the SEC pitchers we have to face. But we have a mixture of sophomores and juniors. And last year we didn't really totally struggle, it was right in the middle and it was not so much anything else but guys getting a little tired playing every day. And we just weren't winning the close ball games, which an experienced ball club generally finds a way to do.

The league is going to be a bear. Vanderbilt our first weekend might be the best pitching in the Southeastern Conference. But I think we can hang with anybody in the league this year.

Q: How do you see the league this year?

Polk: There are no weak teams. Now with John Cohen at Kentucky and Tim Corbin at Vanderbilt there's not a team that you feel you have a good chance to sweep or win two out of three on the road. There are no teams left that are really week. And most teams that we play of course have the advantage with scholarships. So that makes it tough.

Q: Do you think about your 1,000th win at Mississippi State?

Polk: No, absolutely not. It's just a number. I've been at 1000 wins for almost ten years, at Georgia Southern and Georgia. No, people bring it up, it's amazing. And I should have got it last year and gotten it over with.

Q: How much has the new strength program helped?

Polk: Our strength program has been good over the years. We've been blessed to have good strength guys, not just good people that know their stuff but that the kids respond to as well. But I think we're bigger and stronger, and more flexible. The off-season program has been as good as we've ever had.

Q: Will that help you on the field?

Polk: Yeah, we didn't move our fences in like Ole Miss! I'm not sure we're going to hit many home runs. I believe Mike Bianco made a good move with his ball club, with the team next year he might move ‘em back. But we're not going to move our fences in and out according to our ball club because our Leftfield people would kill us. But we're probably the biggest park in the league now. Tennesse has moved their fences in now. So we're the biggest, and I think that is how you recruit pitchers. They like to pitch in big ballparks.

Q: Did you say Josh Johnson will pitch on SEC weekends?

Polk: No, I can't say anything about anybody pitching. I'm saying we've got 14 games before (SEC play), Alan and Doolittle have done it before. Josh will be a factor, I hope there's a good chance. But we've got a lot of choices. Again we've only been out a week-and-a-half, we have four or five more scrimmage games we can play and these pitchers need to step it up so we can make good decisions.

Q: What will you do if the NCAA does pass the 44 game schedule? Will you retire?

Polk: Well, I'm hoping that we blast them, if 278 coaches said what I did today it would never happen because the NCAA would be embarrassed. But I'm the only one that says it, unfortunately. And they think I'm out of control, but I'm saying what everybody things. I've been president of the ABCA, coaches call me now and say what are we going to do? I say blast them, they say if we do they may cut us down to 35 games. Why not keep blasting them so we don't play any more and go play golf every day. It's going to be a year-and-a-half to two years away, but all of a sudden we find out about this, it just came out of this committee. It hasn't been in writing yet because they're embarrassed, I'm sure, to have it publicized. But it goes to show they don't care about us. I mean, for us to have 11.7 scholarships and women's team handball to have more…that's embarrassing. You talk about discrimination, our kids are discriminated against every day, and who cares at the NCAA? Nobody. Why, because they're left-wing, politically correct, whatever.

Q: After fall ball you said some spots in the batting order looked set. Have any others been set so far?

Polk: Well, Jeffrey Rea is going to lead off; Brad Corley will bat three or four, Brad Jones…I really haven't thought about it because I'm so involved with just watching the kids right now. Batting order to me is important but it's not really, after the first time through who cares? If the nine-hitter gets up with the bases loaded and it's a one-run game in the ninth you wish he wasn't up, but he did because he was in the nine-hole. It's not a big thing except to have guys take care of guys in front of them when they're running, the bunting game, hit-and-run and run-and-hit.

Q: Will this be a team that runs the bases more?

Polk: I'm more run-and-hit, 3-1 count and 3-2 count steal guys with a straight steal. Because I don't like to take outs, or get picked off bases. I'm a 27-out theory guy, always have been and always will be. I don't like to give outs away. Called third strikes are horrendous, routine fly balls, I-got-its, we try to stay away from those. You steal when you feel it's a 70-75% chance of success. But I'd rather run-and-hit, so our stolen base numbers often are not as big as other teams. But they don't run-and-hit, hit-and-run like we do. We will run, yes, but we like to swing and go.

Q: Have you thought about how much longer you will coach?

Polk: Ahh, yes. As long as the kids enjoy me. I was out there today and I beat them some of them bunt-running, I'm 61 years old and running faster than these guys are. The NCAA got me in '97, I couldn't take it any more. But I could do USA Baseball (then). It's over because it's all pros now, they have a senior team but it has no purpose any more. The NCAA makes it tough on all coaches. I'm not the only coach that's mad. What did we do wrong? These things were happening before I blasted them, these people don't care about us and that's why I blast them. We've got people in office now that don't like coaches and athletes. There are three kinds of people: those with intelligence and common sense, intelligence and no common sense, and common sense and no intelligence. I've got common sense and no intelligence; the people in Indianapolis are very intelligent with no common sense at all. The people that I want to see up there are people like Dr. (Charles) Lee and Dr. (Robert) Kyahat, great people, common sense, and intelligent. But they are all left-wing liberals. They didn't play sports, they were the last people picked on the flag football team in grade school. No, really! And they say I'll get you, athletes and coaches. That is what the coaches at Indiana told me, this guy is a hypocrite. He is in power because he wants to lessen the image of college athletics. And he's hurting me, our kids, our programs, our fans. And why? You ask him why. Nobody calls him with you know what this guy in Starkville said, where is your rebuttal? I don't know why. Ask him why? Because he knows he'll be asked tough questions. Did you tell them what you wanted to talk about? That's why he didn't return your call. He won't return your call. I'm a nice guy, I return all calls!

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