But the league that Polk did more than any single coach to bring, often kicking and screaming, to modern national prominence just said good-bye to it's winningest coach in any sport, ever. Maybe in 10, 12 years Pat Summit can catch Polk's 1,221 victories coaching in the conference. By then few of us will care. It was just satisfying to see that almost 5,500 folk cared enough yesterday to come say good-bye and Godspeed to #1, and yes that bit single digit mowed into centerfield still stands out this afternoon. A couple more days though it'll be just a pile of clippings…not a bad metaphor for how the real #1 will be recalled around the league soon enough, either; from the press clippings.
Again, I'm not here at the park alone—though some managers have been criss-crossing the field doing final clean-ups, while a long pop-fly away Polk is having his normal end-of-year meetings with the players—where was I? Oh, right, to borrow from Willie Sh. I'm here neither to praise Polk or bury him. In the first case I believe in waiting a while before writing legacies. Secondly, as of yesterday the now-former skipper looked in good health, that worrisome cough we heard in February-March is gone. Though if he burns off all those farewell cigars handed by peers and even some SEC umps—who surely owed him—too quickly, well… And I couldn't resist noting yesterday that SEC commissioner Mike Slive violated the NCAA's iron-rule on tobacco products in college sports events by presenting Polk those ten very expensive sounding Belicosos. Hmmm, reckon the commish was making a subtle dig with that particular name stogie, given how Slive and his predecessor often pretend to ignore much of R.P.'s rants about the NCAA over the years?
Wait a minute…mark this down. At 2:29 MyLaptopTime, assistant Wade Hedges just removed the last chair from the Bulldog dugout. The black one at the far-left end…the one Polk sat in yesterday and likely most of the season. Nothing special about the seat, understand, it just happened to be the one the managers stuck at that end to start the season. Still…it's something a long-time denizen of Dudy Noble like meself would notice. Hey, I've often sat in that seat, back when I photo'd State games for the old D.B. It offered a good camera angle of a left-handed Bulldog batter through a 400mm lens. And Polk never seemed to notice an impertinent writer/photog borrowing his seat during offensive half-innings, or if he did he cared not a bit.
Which says something about the coach and the man I guess, in that unlike we fans Polk didn't get caught-up in most of the trivial stuff that get attached to college sports programs. Not unless they were of direct benefit to players and program, that is. Though he's more sentimental than he'd dare show, we who've been to Polk's office over the years can attest. In fact the toughest part about the move a couple years ago from his second-floor office at The Hump (besides fumigating it as the EPA would've declared it a biohazard area) to the current complex was hauling all his STUFF over. And stacks and stacks and I do mean stacks of it still hadn't been hung, placed, and posed at my last visit. Where he'll take it now is a matter of amusing speculation.
Or maybe not, given Polk's unfortunate hints that if his preferred choice as successor isn't chosen that he could take his stuff to Arizona. This methinks is unseemly, setting aside his personally legitimate purposes in telling Greg Byrne who should be the next coach. Just let it stop there, Ron, and let the new A.D. do what he was chosen to do: hire and fire, pay and supply. He has two very vital items already on the immediate administrative plate with football head and assistant coach raises to fund and sign, and the basketball coach contract to extend. By the way, Byrne is doing a superb job keeping his search process low-key and offering no hints other than a post-College World Series timeframe. Not that he would be held to that if the right choice was available right now.
And Polk was correct Saturday noting there is some urgency to the issue. With the NCAA's new scholarship quotas and roster limits taking effect for school year 2008-09, quite a few of the Diamond Dogs Polk is meeting today honestly wonder just where they stand in the altered aid landscape. No wonder so many openly say they would like Tommy Raffo to be promoted, as it would likely speed-up the decisions by State and thus by the players involved for next year. If I were a player I'd feel the same.
I'm not. And while I've known Raffo since he was ‘Tommy Tigger' as nicknamed by teammate Mike Martin as a freshman, I'm not here to argue for or against his chances. I am saying that unless Byrne believes this is an easy choice, then the new director owes it to the program—not just baseball but the entire athletic program and for that matter the entire University—to take enough time to make the absolute best choice to take over a baseball squad that faces some serious challenges in the current and future conditions.
How serious? Try this. The last time I was at DNF the day after a final regular-season home game, and Mississippi State was neither going to play in the SEC or NCAA tournaments, we were tearing the stadium down. The old one, that is, in 1986 to make way for the marvelous (but aging and in need of some internal upgrades) edifice we now so enjoy. Still got two old chairbacks and a couple of bleacher-planks stored down on my farm. 22 years of post-season play was a good run, the envy of 90% of college baseball…but good ain't good enough here. Perhaps another reason I want to wait on the Legacy Summary is that missing the SEC Tourney for a third time in just five seaons is rather tough to take for an old Dog like myself. Oh, I'll go over to Hoover for a day this week just to watch some ball and talk to friends. But without taking the team along it almost seems a waste of time and increasingly-expensive 89 octane.
Just a moment while I move from this seat in the stands--thanks to the Irving Hitt Family for the temporary loan--to, yes, the MSU dugout. While I don't often miss those days as a photographer, thus spending lots of time in the dugout with the Dogs, I still couldn't resist being down on the field for yesterday's ceremonies. Let me just say that it's a professional privilege I do not take lightly that for many years I could work games down there, and have a vantage point not just of the game but of packed stands that can only be appreciated down there. I wish more of you could enjoy it the same way, because the view down there shows what makes this program matter as the wins and records and titles.
OK. Back on topic. Make no mistake, State's next skipper inherits a challenge far greater than when Pat McMahon took over in 1998…gad, was it just ten years ago? Not just in making the round of cuts and shifts the new rules mandate, which actually could prove a blessing in that a more efficient roster. Even loyal aides have questioned Polk's passion for investing so much fall-ball time in tryouts and walkons, which while it did produce some good players over the years took time away from honing the guys recruited to play positions. I offer Forrest Moore as Exhibit A for this past year; last fall he should have been only working either first base or pitcher (the latter it seems now) and not splitting time between the tasks. Yes, versatility is a virtue on a 25-man weekend roster, but Polk tried maybe too hard making a team of Dogs-of-all-trades with too few masters of their various crafts. Alright, I'll simplify that: the trademark of MSU baseball the last 5-6 years has been a lot of fair-to-good players by SEC standards and not enough really good ones. The kind that win championships over the course of a season, something we HAVE NOT DONE SINCE 1989 I remind.
Oh, State's mix of personnel could put together winning weekends. That 2005 club had a rough season but was tailor-made for Hoover and won the league tourney title; and last year's lineup and staff put it together at the right time and even more the right place. Seriously, we should thank our '07 stars for that tropical storm in the Gulf when the Dogs were playing Florida State at Tallahasee, ‘cuz if the wind wasn't blowing in from left that first FSU meeting State doesn't advance. Ask Justin Pigott for confirmation.
But, and for an old Dog like myself it's the big but, it's been far too long since Mississippi State had a team built for the entire season. It's been 19 Mays since this program brought home a SEC championship, the real one. Maybe younger fans don't care about such things, a la what college basketball has become where only the NCAA tourney matters. I'd still like to win another conference crown at DNF before my own retirement, if ever I get the chance that is. On a sportscribbler's pay it's not likely.
Anyway the point is that as the afterglow of a truly memorable afternoon honoring the man who made college baseball matter to so, so many, the underlying situation remains challenging for whoever takes over the proverbial reins. This state still isn't going to provide lottery-based aid anytime soon if ever, nor match the sheer volume of top-flight prep baseball talent available in other states. Polk was entirely correct on those topics…though with frequent repetition it came to sound too much like a built-in excuse for not winning as State once could and did. For that matter Polk's constant defense of his teams for failures inevitably was absorbed by some players, I and some players of former generations are convinced. Though only Will Clark himself would dare say so openly; as in the time he was told how Polk kept saying the home park was "too hard to hit home runs out of." To which the irrepressible Clark said "I never had any problem!"
To the current point, I daresay it will take at least a couple years of very good and likely very luck recruiting for Mississippi State to be close to SEC contention again. Jay Powell, whose opinion is to be trusted, has seen enough games to say that there's a decent core of talent on the roster if it all returns and is healthy. Both are big ifs and in the case of Brandon Turner a double-if; he's not been happy for a while and with that seemingly-permanent hamstring problem who can blame him? Does State dare count on him being back and able to play, then go back down next March? Does he dare take the chance himself? I don't envy that decision process. I asked top slugger Tyler Moore, draft-eligible as is base-steal leader Grant Hogue, what his thoughts were on coming back for next year. Too soon of course, as he'll have to see what happens in the June draft. I kinda think he and Hogue will return, but that's just a guess or maybe wishful hoping. At least the return of Connor Powers should shore some things up on one corner of the infield as well as at the plate; his power would've helped complement Moore and drive in Hogue the last several weeks. Missing Ryan Collins afield and on paths didn't do the offense any good of course.
Yes, those injury losses crippled State's chances of making it to post-season for a 23rd-straight spring. Though given the amazingly unexpected collapse of pitching this year, which was (dare I remind us) thought to be the pre-season team strength, doing better than 7th or 8th in the standings would've been a battle. For that matter, if the 2008 roster had been healthy start-to-finish, the pitching performed as hoped, and defense not been so bleeping erratic, I figure Mississippi State had the talent and experience to come in…6th in the league. Maybe 5th with some breaks, but that was tops. At their best the '08 roster was a mid-pack SEC squad in talent terms (though again it'd been a good mix for spacious Regions Park). No shame compared to a lot of leagues, but nothing like the long-gone Good Old Days; just entirely in keeping with what Bulldog Baseball has been most of this decade. A mid-pack program in a good league.
Can the new boss change that? We'll see. Four years ago when doing the annual December interview with Polk for a pre-season feature, he was already talking about when he'd leave the scene and how under the rules his successor would likely struggle. "Maybe then they'll say that old guy did a pretty good job," he told me. I didn't print it then, just filing the quote away for future reference. Now seems the right time, and judge the remark for yourself what it implies on his outlook at the time and for the future.
Yet none of that belies what was accomplished and achieved and enjoyed over most of the years. Like most legendary figures, the image will begin growing again given the insulation of just a few years. As I wrote for the summer magazine editorial, his true legacy isn't the records and players as much as the modern stadia scattered all across the college baseball map today. Though that also makes me painfully add that in doing so much go encourage the growth of the game in general, Polk succeeded well enough to cost Mississippi State it's advantages in playing a sport few schools really cared about in our own glory days.
I'll truly miss Ron, both as a willing target of editorial wit and a reliable source of quotes and notes. And of course just as a friend. Truly, there's never been nor likely to ever be a more available coach at State or anywhere else for that matter to the media, though you had best state exactly what you wanted and accept what time was scripted for the response. All-business, all the time. Or, was he? Some suspicious signs of sentiment have been seen around the park lately, though quickly covered up with the sort of quip-and-run Polk is famous for in our circles. And if he should choose to stay in Starkville as most hope, Sylvester Croom and Rick Stansbury better install permanent seats in their offices for regular visits from the new unpaid assistant coach on their staffs. Near a window, too, to let the smoke out.
Well. It's getting on into the afternoon. I've rambled on so long the battery in my laptop is fading and from here in the dugout the campus wireless system seems to be on vacation already. So I'd best wrap this epic up and go…start my summer. While being ready for Byrne's call that a coach has been chosen of course, and don't go reading anything into my trip to Hoover this week along that line.The only benefit to not having a team to cover at tournament time, and I mean only, is a longer off-season to hopefully enjoy. And, to re-charge the batteries for a long football season to come. Tallahassee-Starkville-Omaha was wonderful last June and I wouldn't trade my third trip to the CWS for anything. Especially since it was almost surely the last time I'll ever trod the sidelines of Rosenblatt Stadium; the new home of the CWS will be open by the 2011 event, I'm told, and it's kinda fitting that Polk and Rosenblatt are retiring around the same time.
But as much fun as tourney-time was last June it sure made me one tired Doggy by December. Likely a lot of you road-Dogs know what I'm talking about, too. Still, all in all, after all these years of tournament baseball 2008 leaves a void in my year.
Just as Ron Polk's retirement leaves the rest of us here to pick up the pieces and start over with whoever Byrne hands the coach's cap. Which, I truly hope, remains the same MS that is Bulldog Baseball. Heck, I even miss the old cross-handed bat-swinging Dog that also used to serve as the baseball logo. But please, Greg, keep the cap the same. Ignore the narrow marketing minds that insist on one uniform logo for all State sports and leave us that lone piece of a long, lasting memory of what Bulldog baseball once was.
And with the right coach and guaranteed time and just some "That's Baseball" luck, it can be again.
One final note. For 15 years, really, I've been mulling over a special ‘fantasy' piece about the Ron Polk era at MSU. I'd always intended it to be the last thing I ever wrote for Dawgs' Bite, but in light of the man's retirement I went ahead and did it. The piece will appear in the Summer 2008 issue of the magazine, which will have #1 on the cover. I heartily advise all who don't subscribe to the magazine to at least sign-up for a copy when it comes out, in June. I think you'll like a story that was almost two decades in the writing and has an ending…well, better not spoil it here.