Former MSU lefty Wes Johnson named MVP

Still able to hit the corners with the breaking ball, former Mississippi State left-hander Wes Johnson isn't thinking of hanging up his spikes anytime soon.<P> The towering 6-4, 220-pounder was selected the Most Valuable Player in the 2002 State Semipro Baseball Tournament.

A former Mississippi State Diamond Dog, Johnson won back-to-back games in the state tourney, the final decision coming in the title game, elevating the Jackson Indians to a berth for the Indians in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kansas.

Johnson played on Mississippi State's 1987 SEC Tournament championship team under Ron Polk, the league's all-time winningest coach.

The hard-throwing left-hander still recalls the first time he took the mound for Polk's Diamond Dogs in a relief appearance against the Auburn Tigers and All-American Bo Jackson.

"I don't guess I'll ever forget that," said Johnson, who looks intimidating on the hill. "I was scared to death. We had the lead late in the game. There were two outs but Auburn had the tying run on base. Bo (Jackson) was at second and he could run as everybody knows.

"Trey Ganious was coming up for Auburn and he was a great hitter. I struck him out, but the catcher missed the ball, allowing him to reach base and keeping the inning alive. Luckily, I got out of the jam."

Jackson had to beat Greenwood twice in the final round of the State Tournament to get to the Nationals in Kansas.

Johnson came on in the bottom of the second inning in a scoreless game. He allowed only one-hit over the final five and 2/3 innings and went on to notch a 2-0 shutout win.

"I was throwing the ball pretty good," acknowledged Johnson, who could always "wrap-up" a batter with his "wrap-around" curve. He could also throw the ball by a batter, but his control wasn't always the best in the world as he would be the first to attest.

"I don't think there's any doubt but that I'm throwing the ball better today than I ever have - at any level - and throwing strikes," said Johnson.

Another seven-inning game had to be played immediately following the first contest to decide the championship in the two-game title round format.

Terry Gray, head coach of the Jackson Indians, asked Johnson if he was okay to start the second game.

"I told him I felt fine and he gave me the ball," explained the very likable and hard-working head baseball coach at East Webster.

A native of nearby Mantee, Johnson took over the reins upon the semi-retirement of longtime Wolverines' basketball and baseball coach Jerry Greene, who designed the new park at East Webster after Mississippi State's spectacular Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium, a model baseball showcase.

In the mold of a Tom Glavine of the red-hot Atlanta Braves or a Randy Johnson, no relation, of the defending World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks, the still very active Wes Johnson mowed down Greenwood, 7-1, on a complete-game, four-hitter in the State Championship game.

"I've been extremely blessed to still be able to get out there and pitch, and pitch effectively," offered Johnson, married with three terrific children.

"I've been blessed with a wonderful wife, Jennifer, and our three children - Walker, age three, who bats left-handed, but throws right-handed, and two girls, Jordan (1 1/2), and Jaden (3 months).

"I'll probably continue to pitch as long as it doesn't interfere with my family," added Johnson, who comes from an athletic family as one might surmise. He's kin to former Mississippi State relief ace Jon Harden, who helped pitch the Dogs to a share of the SEC Tournament title in 1990, and was named the MVP. Johnson's first cousin, right-hander Bruce Johnson, also pitched at Mississippi State.

Following a decorated prep career at Cumberland, Johnson signed a baseball pact at Clarke College after weighing several options. The coach at Clarke was left-hander Joe Gibbons who had pitched in the major leagues.

"I've had some great coaches," acknowledged Johnson, who progressed under Gibbons. "I respect coach Gibbons and coach Greene, who taught us a lot about baseball fundamentals.

"Jerry Greene has done so much for baseball at East Webster. He made it fun for us and that's one reason I still enjoy playing," he said.

Mississippi State assistant coach Pat McMahon scouted Johnson while the big left-hander was at Clarke and offered him a chance to pitch for the Diamond Dogs.

"I have a lot of respect for Pat and Ron (Polk)," said Johnson, who played high school basketball under Robby Harrington and football under Donny McMinn.

Wes' father Charles Johnson, who played at East Mississippi, died at an early age. His mother Kathy Frazier was his inspiration.

"I wish my father could have seen me pitch," added Johnson, who has been associated with an awful lot of talented players coming from a small town.

Johnson, who went 4-0 during the regular semipro summer season, had a chance to sign with the Detroit Tigers after graduating from Mississippi State, but instead was faced with arm surgery.

"I think that was the key," agreed Johnson. "Some scouts from Detroit talked with me before the surgery.

"Nobody from the pros wanted to talk to me afterwards, but my arm got stronger and stronger. I haven't had any problems since or contract offers either," he said with a good-natured smile.

Several of Johnson's teammates at Cumberland went on to play in the SEC and elsewhere - pitcher Richard Carroll went to Ole Miss, shortstop Shane Harrington played at Delta State and Jim Ray, a two-sport standout, went on to become the head football coach at Neshoba Central.

Baseball began to flourish at Cumberland under the late Sam Henderson, one of the winningest coaches in the state, in the early 1960's, and was carried on by Greene, his son-in-law.

"Sam Henderson and Jerry Greene started a fine tradition here in baseball. Hopefully, I can keep it going," said Johnson, who comes from the same mold.

Cumberland and East Webster have been fortunate to have had all three in them in the fold.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer, is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News. He will be writing regular feature articles for Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports and Mississippi High School sports on the internet.

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