The Bulldog Baseball Perspective

Beginning in 1996 the Mississippi State Bulldog baseball team participated in eleven NCAA regionals, three super regionals and earned a spot in the eight team field at Omaha three times. The most recent trip came just three seasons ago when the Diamond Dawgs caught fire and won the NCAA regional at Florida State and won the super regional over Clemson before NCAA record crowds.

Some would say, "My how things have changed."

That would be a fair statement to make because certainly the on the field results this season have fallen short of expectations.

Expectations are something the folks in Starkville have had no problem with over the past thirty years when in comes to college baseball.

You come to places like Mississippi State because you are prepared to play with expectations and the demands that go along with them. When you fail to live up to those expectations the criticism will be severe.

Bulldog fans are used to winning and certainly if there is any sport State fans can poke their chests out about it's baseball.

That is what makes the past few seasons all the more difficult. Those who wear the Maroon and White have always looked forward to baseball season. No matter how the other programs on campus preformed, Dog fans lived for baseball. Most everything else was just a bonus.

Despite the building projects at Davis Wade and a new practice facility for basketball and Sweet Sixteen in women's hoops, Mississippi State is still a baseball school. I suspect it always will be.

Names like Mike Kelley, Del Unser, Boo Ferris and Nat Showalter still carry a lot of weight with Bulldog alums, but a younger generation knows little about their contributions to the MSU tradition.

Perhaps Ron Polk's best chance at a National Championship came in 1985 when one of the best teams in SEC history came up a pitch short of playing for it all.

I can still see the look in Rafael Palmerio's eyes as he watched the Miami Hurricanes celebrate their berth into the national title game.

It all seemed to be set up perfect. Jeff Brantley was on the hill for the Bulldogs and State was wearing their lucky uniforms. The only game they lost all year in those unis was the final game to Miami. The following year's recruiting class was ranked as the nation's 5th best. That group would go on to form what was considered the best MSU baseball team to never make it to Omaha.

The 1989 squad finished their four year careers with a 171-77 record and the program's last regular season SEC championship.

Bobby Reed, Chris George and Chuck Holly were always solid on the hill leading the team to a 54-14 season.

With Barry Winford catching, Pete Young at third, Brad Hildreth at short, Burke Masters at second and Tommy Raffo at first the infield was solid.

Cohen, Hurst and Echols made up the outfield and joined DH Richie Grayum as the big sticks in the line-up.

That team had an air about them. You expected them to win every time out and they expected to win every time out.

Fans of other programs hated them. They carried themselves with just enough confidence to come off cocky without being overly arrogant, but trust me they had their moments.

Pete Young was about the closest thing to superman there was at the time. Pete could close down the bar on Friday night or Saturday morning depending on your perspective and then close out both ends of a Saturday double dip like it was nothing.

He was about as automatic as they came. Only once in his career did #1 have to go fetch him from the bump and that was in the 1989 regional against North Carolina.

Everybody talks about the "Grand Slam for Masters, a Grand Slam for Masters," but it was Cohen, Echols, Grayum, Hurst, Raffo and Young who did the heavy lifting.

There simply weren't any easy outs in that line-up.

The following year was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but some how the boys made it back to Omaha. It might have been Ron Polk's best season as far as managing the team in his career at State.

The recruiting class the following year was ranked 3rd nationally and that group went on to win 159 games, but never made it to Omaha.

That group did lay the ground work for some of the best seasons in the program's history.

The 1995 recruiting class was ranked #1 in the nation by collegiate baseball.

To say they made the most of it would be putting it mildly. This group led by Richard Lee made back to back appearances in Omaha in 1997 and 1998.

Seven players in that class were drafted out of high school, four of them in the first ten rounds.

A few years later things changed and as painful as it may be to read this, the Bulldogs didn't change with the times.

In the 1980s and 1990s prospects hoped for that Mississippi State offer. The program was having a lot of success and some of the nation's best talent made their way to Starkville to be a part of it all.

Baseball recruiting changed as travel team baseball became more popular. Twenty years ago there were just a handful of teams that played travel ball, one of the most notable was the Jackson 96ers.

Now travel team baseball has exploded. July 4th weekend hundreds of teams will attend the big East Cobb, Georgia baseball tournament in hopes of catching the eye of a college scout.

As parents, coaches and players began to invest their time and money into showcases and summer travel teams the importance of summer college camps diminished to some extent.

Economically speaking that made sense for the middle class family with a prospect on the go. Why spend a thousand or so dollars to attend two or three college camps, when you can use that same money to be part of a travel team that will play an entire week in front of college scouts from close to one hundred college programs?

When some of these bigger tournaments were going on, the Mississippi State coaching staff was in Starkville putting on their own summer camps.

The process of getting the top prospects into camps became more and more difficult as they all made commitments to their summer teams in hopes of showcasing their skills to a larger number of recruiters.

Add in the fact that for the better part of the fives years leading up to John Cohen's hire, Mississippi State tendered a scholarship offer to one junior player, Forrest Moore.

While many other programs were making early offers to prospects, the Bulldogs were trying to get those same players to camps the summer before their senior year to do some final evaluations.

What some prospects mistook as a lack of interest from Mississippi State was simply a different philosophy when it came to recruiting.

That being said that approach was used against State on the recruiting trail and many frustrated families elected to send their sons elsewhere because they felt other programs simply wanted them more.

Skip Butler, Jet's father, commented in an article on this website, that Mississippi State's approach to recruiting was much different than other schools. In Jet's case it worked out. He committed to MSU and canceled official visits to Miami and Florida.

Jet was one of the more highly recruited players signed in the final few years of Coach Polk's tenure at State.

Butler signed in the early signing period along with Jarred Holloway, Jared Wesson, Ryan Powers, Tyler Whitney and Jason Nappi.

Conner Powers came through later in the process as State beat out Illinois State, Iowa, Northern Illinois and Purdue.

Jet and Conner both played in Omaha as freshmen and they had their share of struggles, but I am certain their expectations for the remainder of the careers were through the roof.

While those two have stuck with the program, both returning for their senior years the roster has been turned over a good bit.

The recruiting rankings for those next few classes were not what the program had experienced in earlier years, years that were normally followed with strong seasons and post season success.

The 2006 signing class was ranked 31st, the 2007 class 26th and the 2008 group was not ranked at all by Collegiate baseball.

Four of the last five years an SEC school has signed the nation's top recruiting class.

Turning in recruiting classes outside of the top 25 on an annual basis is a recipe for disaster in this league.

Rankings are always subjective, but I have always put a lot of faith in baseball rankings because the services who compile the lists have the input of major league scouts.

Any time you have the nation's best evaluators of talent doing the ranking, you are going to have a good list to work with.

The Mississippi State signing class of 2009 finished 8th in the country. So what changed?

Coach John Cohen and his staff put more emphasis on their road work rather than putting as much stock in their summer camps.

While the previous staff had a different approach, especially when it came to camps, the current Bulldog coaches spend a lot more time at these regional tournaments like their SEC peers.

Certainly the previous regime attended some of those events as well, but many times they were expected to come off of the road to help run the camps.

This past year during the all skills camp, Coaches Butch Thompson and Lane Burroughs were on the road recruiting while Coach John Cohen and Nick Mingione facilitated the camps.

Another change in strategy has been the timing of the Bulldog offer.

Wayne County's DeMarcus Henderson recently signed with Mississippi State. He was offered a scholarship from the staff nearly a year ago.

Chase Lewallen was offered by the Bulldogs in March of 2009. They started recruiting him the year before.

C.T. Bradford received his written offer from MSU in March of 2009, but had the verbal offer months before.

The reality of the situation is that none of the prospects today were alive when Coach John Cohen hit a home run off Russ Springer to beat LSU on ESPN.

Kids today are not real big on history and tradition. Players today want to play, play early and play to win.

Gone are the days when Mississippi State signed players simply because they were Mississippi State.

What some followers of Mississippi State baseball fail to realize is that high school prospects today do not see the Bulldog program in the same light they do.

They know Paplebon, but you have to tell them who Bobby Thigpen was.

People love Dudy Noble, but everybody has a nice stadium these days. Polk-Dement does not have the same appeal it needs to especially when the grandstand is half empty.

At the end of it all, it is about the players. The top teams get the top players and that is consistent across the board in every sport.

The 2010 signing class looks to be another pretty good one, but if Mississippi State fans expect another three college world series appearances in the next ten years or so they will have to be equally committed to this baseball program as those prospects and coaches.

My advice to those on the fence about the Bulldog baseball future? Commit early!

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