Ron Polk And MSU Baseball - The 1980s

This is the second part of a four-part series about the four decades that Ron Polk has been Mississippi State University's head baseball coach. We look at the 1980s today.

The 1980s - Ron Polk Takes MSU Baseball To National Prominence

While the 1970s ended with a College World Series appearance, the 1980s started a little slower.

Season 1980

Continuing with his strategy of signing a mixture of junior college and high school players, Polk added three junior college players (Mark Gillaspie, Lou Sottile and Steve D'Ercole) and three high school players (Chris Maloney, Pete White and Dan Zelmer).

Despite the addition of the talented newcomers, the 1980 team performed like you would expect from a team that was depleted by graduation and the Major League Baseball draft. They ended up 31-19 and out of postseason play. The fan support dwindled as well with the team averaging just 1,583 fans per home game, about 1,000 less per game than the previous season.

But flashes of brilliance by the likes of position players Bruce Castoria and David Klipstein, both of whom were sophomores, and walk-on redshirt freshman Brad Winkler provided a glimpse of what was to come. Castoria, showing the potential power that would be so prevalent the next season, hit .259 with 8 home runs and 36 RBI in 46 games. Klipstein hit .340 in 106 at-bats, while Winkler hit .273. But the top hitter on the team was juco transfer Mark Gillaspie who came in at .348 with 1 home run and 33 RBI. The team batting average was only.264 and they scored an average of 5.6 per game.

Pitching-wise, ace Don Mundie tailed off to the tune of a 5-4 record and 5.70 ERA after going 10-1 the previous season. Other starters were walk-on Perry Cliburn (5-3, 1.79), Steve Susce (5-3, 2.66), and Steve D'Ercole (4-4, 3.05). Closer Bryan Hardwick also performed well, going 5-3 with 5 saves and a 3.28 ERA. The overall team ERA was an exceptional 3.33.

Only one player, Mark Gillaspie, earned All-SEC honors.

Senior pitcher Perry Cliburn was the lone draftee, going in the 26th round.

Season 1981

Although Polk only lost 5 seniors from the squad, he signed eight players in his recruiting class, including six jucos. The junior college players were Allen Morlock, Tony Gage, Rick Bairley, Bill Bond, Jerry Swann and Phillip Weathersby while the high schoolers were Jay Tibbs and Dan Van Cleve. Tibbs would never set foot on campus, deciding to go pro after being drafted in the 2nd round.

But the loss of the highly-touted Tibbs did nothing to hurt the performance of the 1981 team. With a strong nucleus of experienced players coming back, the 1981 team rose to the occasion, going 46-17 overall and 17-6 in SEC play, the best record in the SEC. The team won the NCAA Regional in three games and wound up tied for 5th in the College World Series, winning the first game 4-0, then losing two one-run games to Arizona State and South Carolina. Their final national ranking was 6th.

And the fans liked what they saw to the tune of 3,379 per game, a record for MSU baseball at that time.

The year was a season of outstanding individual performances including a 29-home run (then SEC and NCAA records), 98-RBI (then SEC record) and .341 batting average effort by junior Bruce Castoria; a 20-home run, 78-RBI, .410 batting average effort by senior Mark Gillaspie; a 14-5, 3.60 ERA, 16-complete game performance by Don Mundie; and a 11-5, 3.20 ERA, 11-complete game performance by junior Steve Susce. The team's 42 complete games, an amazing number, was the most in school and SEC history and the second most in NCAA history at that time.

For their efforts, Castoria and Gillaspie were named All-Americans as well as All-SEC. Steve Susce also earned All-SEC honors.

All three were drafted as was senior Don Mundie. Castoria, who was drafted in the 19th round, decided to turn down the pro offer and come back for his senior season. Seniors Gillaspie and Mundie were drafted in the 11th and 20th rounds, while junior Susce was drafted in the 11th round and chose to sign a pro contract.

Season 1982

Due to the loss of so many starters and pitchers from the 1981 club, Polk recruited for immediate help, signing jucos Chuck Barlett, Craig Filippi, Robin Jeter, Wally Egnatuk, Mike Bradford and high school players Dean Thomas (he decided to go pro after being drafted), Roark McDonald, Nick Schmidt and Jeff Brantley, a dual position player who would wind up being the greatest pitcher in MSU history and go on to have a long MLB career. Brantley would be the first key ingredient of a future Bulldog club (the 1985 team) that many still consider the greatest baseball team in MSU school history.

Although the group brought in was a talented bunch, they weren't able to replace the veterans lost on the 1981 ball club. And the won-loss record was strong evidence of that - 28-23 overall, 11-13 in SEC action. The team started the season off with a 5-12 record, then ended it with a 23-11 run. Although it didn't earn a postseason berth, the last 34 games was an indication of what lay ahead.

David Klipstein lead the Bulldogs in hitting with a .385 average, while Bruce Castoria tailed off to 15 home runs after hitting 29 the previous year.

Walk-on juco hurler Hans Herzog led the pitching staff with a 8-4 record and had the third best ERA, 3.87. True freshman Brantley was moved exclusively to pitching, and got his feet wet to the tune of a 3-3 record with a 4.10 ERA.

Klipstein, Castoria (both seniors) and Chuck Barlett were the only 'Dogs drafted - Klipstein in the 29th round, Castoria in the 7th round and Barlett in the 15th round. Barlett, only a junior, elected to come back for his senior season.

Season 1983

Polk, knowing he had a strong nucleus of players returning, decided to gamble with his recruiting and signed 8 players, 6 of whom were high school players. Two of the six, Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark, would wind up being the two greatest hitters in MSU history. In addition to those two, other high schoolers were Mark North, Trent Intorcia, Mike McCraney and David Smith. Bob Parker and Bob Locke were the juco players signed. Four of the eight were drafted - Locke in the 3rd round, Clark in the 4th, Palmeiro in the 7th and North in the 31st. All four chose to stick with MSU.

The next three years would be three of the greatest in MSU baseball history thanks in large part to two of the signees - Palmeiro and Clark.

Palmeiro provided the 1983 team immediate dividends - hitting .406 with 18 home runs and knocking in 78 RBI. Clark took over as the starting first baseman midway in the season and wound up hitting .337 with 8 homers and 29 RBI. Senior Brad Winkler, surrounded by the two, wound up having the best season of his career - .367, 16 home runs, 79 RBI. The team batting average was .315 and it averaged an amazing 9.0 runs per game.

Pitching-wise, the team was led by senior Hans Herzog (12-3, 4.96), sophomore sensation Jeff Brantley (11-4, 4.49) and junior Harold Myles (8-0, 5.56). The team ERA was 4.60.

The squad wound up with an overall record of 42-15 and 17-5 in the SEC, the best record in the SEC. For its efforts, it was invited to play in an NCAA Regional, losing out to Texas, the host team, in the championship game. The team's final ranking was 12th in the nation.

Hans Herzog and Brad Winkler, both of whom came in as walk-ons, were selected All-SEC, as was Rafael Palmeiro.

Jay Porter and Chuck Bartlett, both seniors, were the only two Bulldogs selected in the MLB draft - Porter in the 9th round and Barlett in the 10th.

Season 1984

Although he had a young but experienced club coming back, Polk signed a 11-man recruiting class that included jucos Gator Thiesen, Frank Davis, Pete Frantzis, David Wilder, Gene Morgan and Bobby Thigpen as well as high schoolers Jay Scoggin, John Mitchell, Terry Ellis, David McMahon, and Tommy Edwards.

As expected, Thiesen (2 HR, 41 RBI, .298), Morgan (6-4, 5.26) and Thigpen (8, 45, .276) provided immediate help, but it was the maturation of the two previous recruiting classes that led the charge. Palmeiro hit .415 with 29 home runs and 94 RBI. Will Clark hit 28 home runs and 93 RBI. Bob Locke knocked in 44 runs and batted .312. Jeff Brantley was 13-3 with a 2.65 ERA. and Trent Intorcia was 6-2 with a 2.77 ERA.

Their performances helped the 1984 team to a 45-16 record and 19-7 in SEC play. The team was selected to host an NCAA Regional, only the second time in school history, but wound up losing the championship game to New Orleans. They ended the season ranked 7th in the nation in one poll.

Clark and Palmeiro, both sophomores, were selected All-Americans as well as All-SEC. Brantley and Thiesen, both juniors, joined them on the All-SEC team.

Both Brantley (13th round) and Thiesen (15th round), along with senior Bob Parker (21st round), were selected in the MLB draft. Brantley and Thiesen chose not to go pro. And their return helped provide MSU fans with a season that will live in their memories for as long as they live.

Season 1985

Not needing much in the way of new faces on the 1985 team, Polk took a recruiting gamble, just as he did with the Clark-Palmeiro class a couple of years earlier, by signing three highly-touted players - high schooler Jay Bell and jucos Greg Litton and Doug Jennings - to go along with four other talented players - Ray Mullino, Trent Weaver, Joel Johnson and Kent Walters. Two of the latter four were junior college players.

Unlike the earlier class when all four of the drafted players decided to stick with MSU, the three touted players in this class - Bell, Litton and Jennings - were not only drafted, but all three signed pro contracts. While the losses didn't affect the 1985 team, they would have significant ramifications in 1986.

Opening day, against Mississippi College no less, saw 4,026 fans in attendance. The fans knew something special was happening. And the Bulldog team didn't disappoint, going 14-0 to start off the season. Losing 4 of the next 6 didn't dampen the spirits of the Bulldogs, fans and players alike. The team then won 8 of the next 9 to go to 24-5 on the season.

A trip to Hawaii was next on the agenda. But unlike the last time they went when they lost 4 of 6, this time they came back with 4 victories in 5 games and an overall record of 28-6.

Still tired and having jet lag, the team immediately headed over to Auburn to play the Auburn Tigers in a three-game SEC series. And they lost all three. Mississippi College also defeated the Bulldogs in a game played in Jackson, MS a few days later.

The Dogs, giving the fans no time to wonder if the magic had disappeared, then ran off an eight-game winning streak to go to 36-10 on the season. They ended the season going 6-2 in their last eight games, including a three-game sweep of the Ole Miss Rebels. Over 20,000 fans came out for the three-game series. With the sweep, their final regular season record was 42-12. And their final 19-7 SEC record was the second best in the SEC.

Next up was the SEC Tournament, the way the SEC then decided the SEC overall champion. And the Bulldogs were up to the task, winning three straight to take the league title.

The 'Dogs were once again chosen to host an NCAA Regional. And they didn't disappoint this time, winning 3 of 4 games, including the title game, to advance to the College World Series. Almost 38,000 fans attended the regional. And this was back in the day when all MSU had were wooden bleachers as a grandstand. And there were no reserve seats - first-come, first-serve. The first title game, which was played on a Sunday afternoon, attracted over 9,000 rabid Bulldog fans. I say rabid because they filled up the stands - and I mean filled them up - THREE hours prior to the start of the game. And according to an article written by sportswriter Joseph Ammerman "it took exactly eight minutes to fill the stands."

While the Bulldog faitful would be disappointed due to MSU losing 14-6 to Michigan, they wouldn't be the next day when their 'Dogs came roaring back and crushed Michigan, 19-8, earning themselves a berth in the College World Series.

And State was ready and loaded for all comers. They had two pitchers that were almost unbeatable, Brantley at 17-2 and Morgan at 13-1 as well as a solid third starter in Steve King (7-2) and a hard-throwing closer in Bobby Thigpen (7 saves). Add in two future 1st round draft picks Palmeiro and Clark and you have a team that should compete for the national championship.

And State did that with two straight victories to start off the CWS.

Then, in their third game, State, with Gene Morgan on the mound and leading the Texas Longhorns 5-2 going into the bottom of the 7th inning, got a bad break. Morgan took a shot off the ankle causing him to lose his effectiveness, which ultimately cost State the game and very likely the national championship.

State next played Miami (FL), but lost on a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 9th off of Thigpen which eliminated them from CWS competition.

While it was a disappointing loss, it didn't detract from what was then the greatest season in MSU sports.

The Bulldogs set an SEC record with 50 wins; Jeff Brantley, with his 18 victories, ended up as the all-time SEC leader in wins; Will Clark was selected the Golden Spikes Award winner as college baseball's player of the year; Palmeiro ended the season as the leading home run, RBI and hit leader in SEC history; Brantley, Clark and Palmeiro were all selected All-Americans; the team, which ended up ranked 3rd nationally at the conclusion of the season, was ranked No. 1 in the nation for four weeks early in the season; home attendance was 3,894 per game; Polk was selected Coach of the Year, and, with the success, Mississippi State was finally going to build a new 3,700-seat concrete grandstand with skyboxes and 3,000 additional bleacher seats at a cost of over 3.5 million dollars.

The season ended with seven Bulldogs being drafted - Palmeiro and Clark in the 1st round, Thigpen in the 4th, Brantley in the 6th, Gator Thiesen in the 10th, Dan Van Cleve in the 21st and Gene Morgan in the 22nd. All signed pro contracts.

Season 1986

With the loss of the draftees and other players to graduation, there was very little left in the cupboard, hence this year's recruiting class would be very, very important to the immediate future of MSU baseball.

Polk hit the high schools heavy, adding guys like Ben Webb, Mark Williams, Nelson Arriete, Brad Hildreth, Tracy Echols, Scott Mitchell, Burke Masters, Jody Hurst, Tracy Jobes and junior college players Dan Paradoa and Wes Johnson. He also signed two other high school players, Jerome Nelson and Anthony Candelino, but both were drafted and signed pro contracts. Hildreth and Paradoa were drafted in the 8th and 4th rounds but elected not to sign. The signing class wound up being ranked the 8th best in the nation.

Despite the abundance of talent, it was young and inexperienced. And the 1986 team's record reflected that, going 34-21 overall and 12-15 in SEC play. It was left out of NCAA postseason play for the first time since 1982. The team hit .290 and averaged 6.7 runs per game, while the team ERA was 4.28. Attendance was down to 1,952 per home date, almost half of what it was in 1985. But youngsters such as Hildreth, Echols, Arriete and others won starting jobs as they prepared for 1987.

Dan Paradoa was the lone All-SEC selection on the team.

Two players - Ray Mullino and Steve King - were drafted in the 25th round and both signed.

Season 1987

Despite the minimal losses in personnel, Polk went out and signed a seven-man class that was ranked by Collegiate Baseball as the 5th best in the nation, the second season in a row that he had signed a top 10 class. Included in the group were Tommy Raffo, Richie Grayum, Todd Nace, Bobby Reed, Jon Shave, Dirk Wilner and Pete Young. And for the first time, all of Polk's signees were high school players. The transition from junior college players dependency to high schoolers was now complete.

The 1987 team started off fast, going 10-1 in their first 11 games. Then it went 3-8 in its next 11 games. A 15-game winning streak follow, moving their record to 28-9. Over the course of the next 11 games, the Bulldogs lost 8. Their record was now 31-17. The team needed a three-game sweep of Alabama to earn the last spot in the SEC Tournament. And they did exactly what they needed to do, sweeping Alabama 10-3, 4-1 and 7-2.

Once in the tournament, they went on a run that saw them win four straight, including three straight one-run victories. The Bulldogs had gone from a team that looked like it was going to be left out of NCAA postseason play, to one that not only won the SEC championship (it's 2nd in the last 3 years), but was slected to host another NCAA Regional.

The Bulldogs won the first game of the regional 10-6 over North Carolina State, but lost the next two games to Texas A&M and Western Carolina, thus ending their season. Their final national ranking was 23rd. Not bad for a roster that had 31 of 40 players who were either freshmen and sophomores.

Youngsters such as Tracy Echols (12-43, .339), Jody Hurst (5-18, .336), Brad Hildreth (6-36, .311), Pete Young (5-51, .309), Richie Grayum (10-36, .307) and Burke Master (2-34, .283) held their own as they learned the ropes of SEC competition. And all three SEC starting pitchers - Mike Martin (11-5), Nelson Arriete (6-1), and Terry Ellis (7-5) - were also returning.

Season 1988

With the majority of the players back, the 1988 season was full of hope.

Not needing much help, Polk secured the signatures of four high school players - Chuck Daniel, Jim Robinson, Rob Norman and Allen Tyson. Tyson, however, was drafted and wound up going pro. But the overall talent level of the 1988 team was extremely high in pitching and hitting, so he wouldn't be missed.

And it showed coming out of the blocks, with the team jumping out to a 11-2 record. For the rest of the regular season the team would follow a pattern of winning four or five and losing a game or two. It continued like that until near the end of the season when the 'Dogs went on a 9-1 run that put their record at 39-16 going into SEC Tournament play.

In tournament play - which was held in Starkville - they were 3-2, winning their first three, then losing the final two to Florida 1-3 and 3-5.

Hosting an NCAA Regional for the 4th time in 5 years, the Bulldogs expected to win and advance to the College World Series. But a strong Cal State Fullerton team defeated the Bulldogs in the championship game 5-3. The Dogs ended the season 44-20 and 17-10 in SEC play. And ranked 12th in the nation, the 5th time in 8 years State's baseball teams had been ranked 12th or higher at the conclusion of the season.

Eight players hit .305 or better - Hurst (9-51, .371), Tommy Raffo (9-56, .355), Pete Young (12-53, .338), John Cohen (11-52, .332), Burke Masters (1-32, 326), Jon Shave (2-36, .325), Brad Hildreth (3-35, .308), and Richie Grayum (13-68, .305). And all were returning next season. And you can add in Tracy Echols, who sat out the season due to academic reasons. The team averaged .324 and scored 8.4 runs per game.

The team pitching was led by veterans Mike Martin (5-5, 5 S, 3.49) and Terry Ellis (10-4, 4.70) as well as youngsters Rob Norman (6-1, 3.96), Bobby Reed (8-0, 1.09) and Pete Young (3-2, 8 S, 1.83). The team ERA was 3.91.

Richie Grayum, Jody Hurst, Tommy Raffo, Bobby Reed and Pete Young all earned All-SEC honors. Young also earned All-American honors.

Still a young team, just one player was drafted - redshirt sophomore Jody Hurst in the 24th round - but he elected to come back for his junior season.

Season 1989

Polk, not needing many new bodies on a team that was already loaded, signed seven high school players - Reid Cornelius (97 miles per hour fastball, 4.0 GPA and 29 ACT), Mike Alford, Rex Buckner, Bart Carter, Scott Cooke, Chris George and Joel Matthews (Joel would eventually became a MLB scout.). Cornelius - compared to Roger Clemons and Tom Seaver by some scouts due to his dominating fastball and projected to be, at best, a top 5 pick in the first-round selection - broke Bulldogs hearts when he signed with Montreal three weeks prior to the start of school for the highest bonus ( in the $250,000 to $280,000 range) given to a high school player at that time.

Despite the loss of Cornelius, the Bulldog hearts quickly recovered when they found out their beloved baseball team was ranked No. 1 in the country in preseason polls. But with everybody back and a strong nucleus of the 1988 pitching staff also back, it was not a total surprise.

The Bulldogs, on opening day, trounced Brimingham Southern, 16-3, in front of 6,881 fans on a cold, windy February afternoon. They looked like a No. 1 ranked team.

MSU followed that victory with 28 more in 33 game to go to 29-5. After a 2-2 record in their next four games, they went on an 11-game winning streak to go to 42-7. They ended the regular season with a 4-3 record in their last seven games which put their season record at 46-10 and 20-5 in SEC action.

In the SEC Tournament they went 1-2, but were already guaranteed to host a regional.

With a team that appeared to have it all - hitting, home run power, pitching and fielding - MSU fans expected their team to breeze through the regional and go on to play in the College World Series.

And the 'Dogs seemed to be headed in that direction when they won their first two regional games. But a one-run loss to North Carolina caused the Bulldogs to move to the loser's bracket. They easily defeated Indiana State 11-2, then followed that with a 6-0 victory over North Carolina 6-0.

One more victory and they were Omaha-bound, but North Carolina jumped out to an early lead and wound up winning 7-1 over the 'Dogs. It was a very disappointing end to a season that saw great accomplishments, but not the one that everybody wanted so badly - a trip to the College World Series.

Reflecting back on the season, there were many great performances, including Tommy Raffo's 22-home run, 80-RBI, .383 batting average season; Jon Shave hitting .357; Brad Hildreth and Barry Winford hitting .340 and .337; Pete Young saving 8 games and having a 1.22 ERA; walk-on Chuck Holley going 9-2 with an ERA of 1.76; Chris George going 7-1 with a 2.51 ERA; Bobby Reed going 12-3 with a 3.72 ERA. And there was the emergence of walk-on freshman pitcher Jon Harden who would win Bulldog hearts over the course of the next three years. 4,476 fans attended each home game during the '89 season, a new MSU record.

Tommy Raffo and Pete Young earned All-American honors as well as All-SEC honors. And Barry Winford, Jody Hurst and Burke Masters joined them on the All-SEC team.

Seven players were drafted off the team - Pete Young in the 6th round, Jody Hurst in the 10th, Richie Grayum in the 11th, Barry Winford in the 12th, Brad Hildreth in the 18th, Bobby Reed in the 41st and Jon Shave in the 56th. As expected Reed and Shave did not sign, although all the others did.

The 1990s would start off with a team loaded with returning pitchers and a solid group of position players.

During the 1980s the MSU baseball team won 3 SEC titles (the SEC Tournament champion was considered the SEC Champion during the '80s), and was 1st in the SEC Western Division 3 other years. During the 10 years, MSU had the best overall SEC record 2 times, the 2nd best record 1 time, the 3rd best record 3 times, the 5th best record 1 time, the 6th best record 1 time and the 7th best record 2 times. Seven of the teams appeared in an NCAA Regional with two going on to play in the College World Series.

Check back Wednesday to read about one of the most successful and turbulent decades in the history of MSU baseball - the 1990s.


Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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