A Celebrated Career

All good things, they say, must end. For Stephen Head, this pro baseball thing actually never was as good as he had hoped.

I haven't talked to the former Ole Miss star and fan favorite since he was released by the Rockies last weekend, but I will. I hear he's finished this time. I know I join thousands who hate that.

To my eye, not trained to be a pro scout or anything close to the sort, I always figured Head would one day be like Donnie Kessinger or Jake Gibbs from the past or David Dellucci or Jeff Fassero from the more recent past. You know, those guys whose names you check on in the box scores each morning, or in this day and age, watched on TV the night before.

A lot like we've all done with Lynn and Smith, Presley and Cozart, Tolbert, Coghlan and Maloney this season. It's been quite a year to keep up with Rebels in the pros.

It's been a tough summer for some. Knock on wood for Seth Smith and Lance Lynn. They seem to be the only ones who have avoided an injury or being sent down once they made it up. Smith has been in the bigs for a while now with the Rockies. Lynn seems to have found a home on the Cards' staff.

I turned on the Braves and Reds Saturday. It was the fourth inning. The very first thing I heard the announcers say was they were checking on Cozart's injury. I couldn't believe it.

Then I saw later that Presley was scratched from the Pirates' starting lineup because of a thumb injury, and I'm thinking what kind of jinx is this for these Rebels.

And then I found out Head had been released. That he's saying that's all, folks. His days of playing organized baseball are over.

He gave it a long and serious try with the Indians, who drafted him in the second round out of Ole Miss in 2005. It just never seemed to work out for him with Cleveland. Some said he would have had a better opportunity with another organization.

I've learned from following ex-Rebels in the pros that it's not just about talent and work ethic. It's also about being in the right organization with a management group that believes in you.

And you have to have some luck. Stephen didn't have much.

I pulled a quote from a story I did with him two years ago when he was still with the Indians.

"It's taken longer than I'd hoped, especially playing the last couple of years pretty well," he said in a story dated Feb. 11, 2009.

"There's been no real progression for me just because the Indians system is just stockpiled with guys at my position. I really wish that I was right-handed now, especially since I'm not pitching anymore. If I was right-handed I obviously could play more positions, which would help me out a lot.

Stephen Head: The face of Ole Miss baseball in the 21st century
Bruce Newman
"I'm limited to three positions - left, right, and first – and we just happen to be super loaded in those positions, not only at the big-league level but because of the trades, we stocked up on first base and outfield guys. It's tough because there are a lot of talented guys working for the same job."

It might be a stretch to totally say Head got drafted by the wrong club. Then again, maybe not.

He did make it to Triple A. After his time with the Indians was over, he played in an independent league for a team in southern Illinois in 2010. That made all the sense in the world since his wife, Ashley, an Ole Miss girl and former Miss Illinois, was obviously from there.

But it was at the Rebel baseball alumni reunion this February that Head was renewed about his life in the pros. He'd decided to give it another shot, this time as a pitcher. I remember interviewing him on the radio show we did before the game. He thought maybe, just maybe, it would work out. If only a team would give him a chance, that is.

Colorado did, signing him in March. He pitched well for Asheville of the South Atlantic League, a Rockies Class A team. Then came mid-July, some arm problems, and three tough outings. And he was done.

I always had a great source when it came to Head's career, and actually all things Stephen Head. His mom, Lynn, keeps me up to date. So does his dad, Tony. They live in Hinds County near Raymond. Sometimes it was his younger sister Cassie, who lives in Oxford.

It was Lynn who emailed me the news of Stephen's departure from the pros. She says her baseball kid will probably be back in Oxford – he and Ashley – in August as he starts back to class at Ole Miss.

Stephen Head's Ole Miss bio contains, among other superlatives:

The only three-time All-American in program history. The 2003 Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year. And the 2003 National Freshman of the Year.

I remember the first time I interviewed him. He was a high school kid who had just committed to Ole Miss, and he was one of several players in a row of classes that lifted Ole Miss baseball to new highs.

I remember the 2-0 masterpiece he pitched against South Carolina, his mom's alma mater, when he was a freshman on a Sunday in Oxford. That's what we headlined it in the Spirit – Masterpiece.

I remember when he gave up a multi-run homer in the SEC Tournament also against Carolina, when he was a sophomore closer. And I remember writing after the loss that Head was a special player. Not perfect, even though we often thought that. But still special, even after giving up the home run. There were not many moments like that one in his three years at Ole Miss.

I remember riding alone to Starkville on a Sunday morning in 2004, his sophomore season, knowing he was going to start on the mound for the Rebels and absolutely certain he'd lead Ole Miss to a win. The teams had split the first two games. Ole Miss won 7-1 Friday night, and Head launched a rocket deep into the Oktibbeha County darkness over the heads of the outfield loungers, a massive home run that brought ooohs and ahhhs from the crowd.

After the Rebels lost 7-5 Saturday, the Bulldogs didn't stand a chance with Head on the mound for game three. He pitched his team, willed them as only he could do, to a 4-2 win to claim the first series for an Ole Miss ballclub at MSU since 1996.

I remember a Mayor's Trophy Game at old Smith-Wills Stadium, watching his grandmother greet her celebrated grandson after the first time she had seen him play. Tony's mother lives in England. Not an easy trip to see family play baseball. But she indeed made that one.

I remember, and so do you, the 2005 Super Regional's final game against Texas. There was Head, standing at the plate. Runners on base, and the Rebels needing some runs.

But there would be no joy in Rebelville.

There isn't a lot of joy right now among the Heads. They do, however, have the satisfaction of knowing there has been no more decorated player in Ole Miss baseball annals.

And, more importantly but admittedly arguable, no player ever meant more to the program than Stephen Head.

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