JOE DIER - "Friday, 3 o'clock, Mississippi State plays UAB to open the 112th season of baseball. The Bulldogs enter the season with 2,029 wins. That is the most wins of any team in the Southeastern Conference. The skipper of the Bulldogs is a coach who has won 1,122 games. He is the winningest coach in the Southeastern Conference. 888 of those wins came during a successful 22-year stint here at Mississippi State. We are very proud to have Ron Polk back here to skipper the Bulldogs."
Next up was Coach Ron Polk.
RON POLK: - "I remember that season 112 years ago (reporters laughed). We had a bad pitching staff that year.
"As Joe mentioned, this Friday we open the 2002 season playing as host in the National Bank of the Commerce Classic. We appreciate the National Bank of Commerce for again hosting this tournament. We do hope the weather is better. I was somewhere else at the time, but I did read about it in the newspaper. I subscribed to the Starkville newspaper. We have Alabama at Birmingham, a fine ballclub, coming in and Ohio State, who is picked to win the Big 10. Mississippi State played at Ohio State in their regional.
"The first game of the tournament is 11 a.m. Friday morning between Ohio State and UAB. We follow them at 3 o'clock when we play UAB. Then, we play Ohio State the next day and Sunday. Sunday's game has been moved to a noon-time start. Ohio State has a plane connection and we have to get them out of Starkville and bus them to another site so that they can fly back to Columbus, Ohio.
"After that tournament, we go on the road for single games against Louisiana Tech and Louisiana Monroe. Then we return for seven straight home games before we go to Mobile and play South Alabama in a two-game series. After that, we start the SEC schedule, hosting South Carolina, the pre-season favorite to win the east side of the SEC.
"We have thirty-two home games and twenty-three road games and one neutral site game with Ole Miss in Jackson for the Mayor's Cup Game where we are the home team.
"Of the players on the team, there are only four players that I was involved in the recruiting process on. They are pitcher Tanner Brock, catcher Jason Burkley, pitcher Ryan Carroll and outfielder Enrico Jones. Then I retired. When they arrived, they played for the other coaching staff.
"When I moved back to Starkville, I moved back into my old home which I had rented. I moved back into my same office that I had for 22 years. I had a big-time comfort zone. The players did not because they were faced with a new coaching staff except for the one holdover, Tommy Raffo. It is not easy for players to make the adjustments because of the new system, the new plan, the new signals, the new everything. The boys have done a good job making the adjustments.
"The only Southeastern Conference school that we don't play is Tennessee. I was hoping it would be the University of Georgia. We have ten SEC weekends which are always fun and exciting. It is a big-time challenge because the Southeastern Conference remains, in most people's eyes, as the number one baseball conference in college baseball.
"We practiced six weeks in the fall and we have a three-week spring practice which we are in the middle of. The University of Georgia and us are the last two teams in the SEC to start our seasons. We do that for a purpose. It gives us a great opportunity to have a lengthy fall practice when the weather is good. That gives us a chance to evaluate our club and doing a good job of putting our plan together. Once we start playing, we play. Other schools start early and have a real short fall. They start at the end of January and the first of February and you look at their schedule at the end of April and May and they are only playing on the weekends. I think with our schedule, it forces us to use our six, seven, eight and nine pitchers throughout the entire year.
"I think the kids are excited about the upcoming season. It appears that our fans are also excited as the season ticket count closes in on 5,000, which would be a new record. That 5,000 would be 4,924 more season tickets than we sold at the University of Georgia my first year. They had sold 76 season tickets.
"Our Dugout Club membership has gone up 300 over last year. I think we now have 652 Dugout Club members. They have been a tremendous help to us as we make some improvements in Dudy Noble Field. It is a beautiful facility, but there were some things that we felt like we had to get done.
"We have put back the SEC logo signs that I guess were blown down during that tornado last year. They are all new signs. Plus, we have put back up the retired uniform number signs, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark and Jeff Brantley. We have also repainted the centerfield fence. We have taken that very light brown color and added a dark green to it. It gives a better hitter's background to it for the kids. We put new wind screens around both bullpens. All of the mounds have been completely rebuilt by a professional. We have also built an indoor dirt mound in the John Grisham tunnel behind the first base grandstand. We have also put new netting everywhere. We have added new netting and padding for the batting cage. We have also purchased tarps for just about everything, mounds, bullpens, and other places. We have new bat racks and helmet racks in both dugouts. We put new flooring in both dugouts and replaced the flooring in the tunnel leading to our dressing room. All the green padding that was up here since 1987 has come down and now we have new green padding, which really dresses up the ballpark immensely. For the players, we have put new carpet in the players' locker room and the lounge. We have put tile in the equipment room and we have added satellite tv capability in the players' lounge, the locker room and the training room. We are purchasing a new weather radar unit that we can have right next to us in the dugout. This is a crucial thing for a coach during a ballgame. The players also got a new ping pong table and we have a new pool table coming in for them also. After the season, we are going to add new ceiling and lighting fixtures in our locker room because we feel like we need to brighten it up. We have repainted the players' lounge. We will be adding new furniture in the players' lounge very shortly. Also, we are going to put new furniture in the baseball alumni sky suite. Two new sets of game uniforms have been purchased. New dugout jackets have been purchased for the boys. A lot of this is Dugout Club money.
"We have also asked the Dugout Club members for a commitment to provide us with money for new lockers. That is going to happen after the season. The respond was tremendous. We are going to have 44 new lockers, which will be major league. We will have coaches' lockers.
"Our next major project is the $1,600,000 indoor workout area, coaches' offices, new entranceway, hall of fame room and a walk of fame on both sides of the stadium. Right now, we are kind of in a holding pattern. We are waiting on a check. If anyone knows anybody with 1.6 million let me know. (reporters laughed).
"Now, for the most important aspect of this program, the guys themselves.
"We lost some significant players from last year's team and that was the outfield starters Jon Knott, Josh West and Phillip Willingham. In addition, we lost some pitchers who pitched a significant amount of innings, Brandon Medders, who signed a baseball contract, Adam Larson, who transferred to Middle Tennessee State (I talked to Adam's dad last week. He is doing very well up there and will be a factor for them I'm sure), and the graduation of Josh Wooten and Jeff Hunter.
"We return our starting catcher and our entire infield, Steve Gendron, who played third base, Matthew (Maniscalco), who played shortstop, Michael Brown and Chad Henry, who divided up second base, and Matthew Brinson our first baseman. The strength of the ballclub is an experienced catcher, an experienced infield and a strong pitching staff with great depth. Weaknesses will be the lack of outfielders who played much last year and a team coming off a rather poor offensive year, especially in the power department. Team speed should be ok, although we may have to manufacture runs a little more than I like. Mississippi State started off by not hitting a home run in the first 15 games. I hope that doesn't happen this year. Pitching and defense can win you guys, but it helps to have that three-run home run occasionally. Timely hitting is still the best offensive weapon you can have. Hopefully, we can do a good job in that area. One of the reasons that we were so successful last year at Georgia is because we walked about as many times as we struck out. That is a huge statistic.
"Prior to the first pitch, I will get from my assistant coaches and also from team captains Matthew (Maniscalco) and Tanner (Brock) starting lineups against right-handers and left-handers and also a ranking of the pitchers. Until I get that, I will not make a final decision on a couple of spots because I want to see what the coaches and players have to say. We anticipate red-shirting 11 or 12 players. We have a roster size of 44, including 20 pitchers. We have two young men, Robby Goodson and Brett Cleveland, who are pitchers and position players.
"Both Steven Gendron and Michael Brown have worked a lot in the outfield to try and give us a little more offensive production there. That could happen very early in the campaign. We do return Casey Long, Enrico Jones and Brad Hutto, who all played some games in the outfield. Robby Goodson also played some out there. Cager Garner also played some there. He has suffered a setback due to mono this winter. He is ok now. We have red-shirt freshman Winston Pearson who could get some playing time this spring. We would like to red-shirt freshmen Brian Johnson, Ryan Fesmire and Brad Jones. Brad also plays first base.
"Brent Lewis, who plays third base and first base for us, and Jon Mungle, an outfielder and first baseman, should be key contributors this year because they both swing the bat very well. Jon was red-shirted last year.
"Behind the plate, we back up Jason Burkley with two red-shirt freshmen in Reed Hawkins and J.B. Tucker. J.B is also an outfielder, while Reed is also a third baseman. Lee Parks, who has been here five years, also provides us with experience behind the plate. We do have two true freshmen catchers that we really like a lot. Both are potential red-shirts. I will be meeting with both boys, Thomas Berkery and Craig Tatum, early next week. They will make the final decision, but I will be giving them quality advice.
"Behind Gendron, Maniscalco, Brown, Henry and Brinson, we have Josh Abraham, Josh Thoms and Brad Hutto. We would like to red-shirt JoJo Haney. Brett Cleveland has had a back problem but is recovering. He will also likely be a red-shirt. We feel like he has a good career ahead of him.
"That very quickly covers every position. There are just too many pitchers to cover them individually.
"We have several key pitchers returning in sophomore Paul Maholm, seniors Tanner Brock and Ryan Carroll. Tanner and Ryan were both drafted last year, but, thankfully, decided to come back. Junior Joey Collums, who pitched quite a bit last year, returns as does junior Steven Dowe. Others returning are Collins Hughes, Jeff Lacher, Todd Nicholas, Chris Young and Jonathan Papelbon. The players and coaches rated junior college transfer Jacob Blakeney very high during the fall, but Jacob was set back with a hand injury. We feel like he will be back (this week) and ready to go. Allen Buckley, who was red-shirted last year, is ready to compete. We like Brian Owens, a left-handed pitcher, who is a junior college transfer. We also have Saunders Ramsey, a local Starkville boy, who red-shirted last year. The rest of the pitchers are almost all freshmen. We think we will be red-shirting all of them. We can stand an injury or two in the pitching staff, but we just need to stay healthy with our frontline position players. If we do that, then I think we can compete on a very high level in the Southeastern Conference once again."
Coach Polk asked for questions after the prepared remarks.
Talk a little about Jon Mungle.
"Jon is a good hitter. It is just a matter of finding a spot for him. He runs very well and is a good athlete. Right now, his offense is way ahead of his defense, so he could be in the DH role or he could play somewhere in the outfield or could even play first base for us."
Overall, do you feel this will be a good hitting team?
"I think this team has matured to the point where we feel better about them than we did when we first saw them in the fall. I think they are a better hitting team than they were at this time last year. Some kids have made some great adjustments."
Talk a little about catcher Jason Burkley.
"Unfortunately for Jason, he had to catch just about every inning of every game last year. I don't think with him having Reed Hawkins, J.B. Tucker and Lee Parks behind him, that Jason will have to endure the agony of having to catch every game."
Talk a little more about Jason's improvements from last season.
"Jason has improved a lot. I think we have helped him a little bit offensively. I think he has a better concept of how he needs to use the entire field. He is a tremendous bat discipline guy. He may have led the entire SEC in walks last year. We want him to keep that, but, at the same time, we have to get power production out of some guys."
Who are your candidates for the SEC pitching rotation?
"Tanner (Brock) and Paul (Maholm) and Joey Collums. We have others, but I think those three would be the rotation right now. We are not sure who will start the first game and the second game. We just have to get ready for the SEC. We have 14 games prior to the first SEC series. Those games are when you start setting up your pitching rotation."
Who will be your closer this season?
"Jonathan Papelbon will be a good candidate and Robby Goodson has shown us a lot of arm strength. Jonathan is a competitor and has good stuff. If our starting pitchers are as good as I think they are, we are hoping that we can get into the 7th and 8th innings with them most ball games."
What role do you feel Chris Young will fill?
"Chris is a possible starter. He could be a closer, or could be a setup guy. He is very valuable to us. He is a competitor and a veteran.
"We have a lot of pitchers. We have more pitchers than I have ever had in my coaching career. We will probably have some problems with some pitchers that should be pitching, but we will just not have enough innings. That is a good thing about our schedule; it allows more pitchers a chance to pitch innings."
Who are the candidates for DH?
"It is any candidate that probably should be starting but that we don't have a spot for. We have Jon Mungle, Brent Lewis and a few other guys."
Who will you start against UAB next Friday?
"It will be either Tanner or Paul. We haven't made that decision yet because we haven't gotten enough information on UAB."
Talk about the competitiveness of the NBC Classic.
"It is a tough start. UAB beat Mississippi State last year. UAB is always competitive. Ohio State was a very good ballclub last year and return just about their entire ball team, including their number one and two pitchers."
Of the players on the team, who do you think will hit for power?
"I think we have some guys who can juice the ball. We don't have two, three or four guys in the lineup who we feel like can hit 15 to 20 home runs. Brent Lewis, Jon Mungle and Matthew Brinson and a few others like Michael Brown can hit with power. The hitters think the ball park is too big, but I told them it wasn't too big for some of the great hitters that we have had here in the past. The fences have not been moved. If we hit .320 and have timely hitting, I don't care if we hit a home run."
Talk about Matthew Maniscalco.
"He is a tremendous defensive player. He makes the routine plays as well as the outstanding plays. He is sure-handed and an accurate thrower. He is a leader. The players selected him as the co-captain. I think he has made tremendous adjustments at the plate. His swing path is much better. He doesn't swing and miss as much. He is not hitting what you call the 'I got it ball'."
COACH RUSS MCNICKLE:
Coach McNickle coaches the catchers.
Talk about the backups for Jason Burkley.
"Reed Hawkins has had a little arm problems, but if he is healthy, I would think that he would be the second guy. J.B. Tucker has gotten better with his accuracy. All we need to do is get his time down."
I have only been able to see one of the intrasquad games so far and saw Jon Mungle hit a home run. Have any other home runs been hit in the other four games?
"I believe Mungle hit another one in one of the first intrasquad games. Michael Brown has hit a couple and Matthew Brinson has hit a few in (batting practice). Early on, the pitchers have dominated because our guys are thinking about some things that we have asked them to work on."
Talk about having Coach Polk back.
"It feels great. I have never heard a single negative word about him. It is an honor to be able to play for him."
Talk about your decision to turn down the pro offer and come back for your senior season.
"I just had to sit down and weigh my options. Obviously, having Coach Polk back played a part in my decision."
As a pitcher, have you noticed an improvement in the hitting since last season?
"I have definitely noticed an improvement."
Talk about Jonathan Papelbon as a reliever.
"I think he has the mentality for a reliever. He doesn't care if there are 10,000 people in the stands or 10. Everytime he goes out, he has the same intensity. He fits the role well."
Have you noticed an improvement in the hitting?
"Definitely, there is a difference. A lot of people have confidence this year. There are key guys, including myself, if we come through and hit, then we will have a great chance to win some games and even go to Omaha."
Have you noticed a big improvement in the players that were freshmen last year, guys like Gendron, Lewis and Mungle?
"Those guys can hit. They could hit last year. It is almost like last year when a couple of guys, including myself, didn't hit very well, it became contagious with the younger guys. We know we can swing the bat, but it almost became a mind game last year and we lost confidence at the plate."
How does this team compare to other MSU teams you have been on?
"I am very excited about this team. There is just a different atmosphere and excitement this year. I don't think there is a better coaching staff in the nation. It is unbelievable the individual attention we get from those guys."
Just from watching practice, it seems like everybody just feels better about their hitting this year.
"There is a lot less talk about hitting now. When guys are struggling, you like to talk about it. Now, when you pop up, you just make an adjustment. One thing you have to remember when you watch us scrimmage now is that we are facing a really good pitching staff. We aren't facing scrubs. Every single day you have to be ready to play."
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Well, that wraps up this week's edition of the Monday Morning Bulldog Coffee Break.
Have a great Bulldog week!
Archived Monday Morning Coffee Break Articles:
Feb. 11, 2002
Feb. 4, 2002
Jan. 28, 2002
Jan. 21, 2002
Jan. 14, 2002
Jan. 7, 2002
Dec. 31, 2001
Dec. 24, 2001
Dec. 17, 2001
Dec. 10, 2001
Dec. 3, 2001
Nov. 26, 2001
Nov. 19, 2001
Nov. 12, 2001
Nov. 7, 2001
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