Baseball Rebs start the real stuff Monday

The Rebels hit the field at 2 p.m. Monday for the first "official" baseball practice of 2006.

The baseball team has been continuing its individual workouts this week (four on ones with the coaches, as we still call them). The real stuff starts Monday, official preseason team practice, that is. Lord willin' and that creek don't rise deal, I'll be out there to see what's happening.

I don't think there's ever been a more anticipated baseball season than this one. That's because of last season. Nobody who was a part of it has forgotten it. Nobody who was a part of it wants to miss out on this one. Those who missed out last spring want in on it this time around.

That's why every day for more than a month season tickets have been sold by the boatload, sometimes as many as 100 a day. The record of 2,653 has already been broken. Today's total will surpass 2,800. By early next week, I'll bet I get to post on the Spirit site that the 3,000 mark has been topped. That'll be sweet.

I remember Mike Bianco's first year or two, when the program hadn't generated a lot of excitement in a while, that getting to the 1,000 mark was a challenge. To triple that in basically five years is quite a feat. And we're not done. It's still growing.

Bianco says this year's team is not as talented as last year's. I would agree with that. He also says last year's was the best team he's ever been around that didn't get to Omaha. I'll have to agree with him on that too, although I wasn't around those teams he was with before he got here, just watched from afar.

He said Augie Garrido, the Texas coach, spoke recently at the baseball coaches' convention in Chicago. The veteran of national championships said the best team in the country last year was the one his team played in Oxford.

I asked Mike if that meant Ole Miss was better than Texas. Mike said he was just repeating what Garrido said, and you'd have to take it at face value and figure it out for yourself.

No doubt, the Rebels and the Longhorns were the best two. Heck, the Rebs beat national runnerup Florida four out of the five times they faced each other last season.

Back to the not quite as talented as last year's statement from Mike. Here's the whole deal. That team last year was loaded as we all know. It had been built for three or four years and was prepared for months and months to make a strong run at a national title. And it did. It just fell one game short of getting to baseball's Elite Eight in Omaha.

This year's team. Here's Mike's direct quote from an interview last week for our magazine which comes out in February. Maybe you will understand more and agree.

"We're not as talented as last year's team physically. Person for person this year's team is not as good as last year's team. There's no way. You can try to spin it however you want. We're not. But that doesn't mean we can't be better or even win a national championship. This team is talented enough to compete."

It has more to do with the talent that was lost than the talent that it is here now. The talent here now is solid, above average, able to compete for championships, deep, etc. The talent that was lost, as Garrido said, was part of the best team in the country.

Including his own? Take it for what it's worth. Read into it whatever you want. More than 3,000 coaches across the country heard him say it, and that's good and positive PR for Ole Miss, often better than we give out ourselves.

The fun starts for Rebel fans four weeks from today. Should be a larger than ever opening day crowd, weather cooperating, creeks not risin', sleet not fallin', things of that nature. It will be mid-February in northern Mississippi after all.

The work continues Monday as team practice starts. Who will join senior LHP Tommy Baumgardner, almost a cinch for a weekend start, as, well, weekend starters? Cody Satterwhite? Lance Lynn? Garrett White? Nick Hetland?

Who will be the ace reliever? Stoney? Kline? Two pitchers who might have helped this season are recovering from Tommy John surgery – RHP Phillip Irwin and RHP Justin Cryer.

Where does new pitcher Jesse Simpson fit into the picture? Met Jesse yesterday; said I'd interview him Monday so we can all get to know him better.

Is Justin Brashear the next Barry Gunther? How about Mark Wright potentially moving from left to right. Will that be allright? Mark says so. It's where he played in high school.

With Alex Presley in center, who's in left since Wright will likely be in right? Is there a better third base-shortstop combo in the whole country than Coghlan and Cozart? Will Justin Henry be as comfortable and effective at second as Coop? I think so, but Osteen was basically in the "amazing" category game in and game out.

Will C.J. Ketchum be the next Stephen Head at first? I introduced C.J. to someone at the workouts Thursday, "This is C.J. Ketchum, this year's Stephen Head."

We all laughed but I immediately told C.J. I'd never do that to him again, introduce him that way. No way I want to put pressure on the kid for trying to live up to The Great One's accomplishments. C.J., a senior and confident Rebel, will do fine.

But he, like others, will have to prove himself during the next month to make sure he is the man at first. Others are in the mix as well – like Brett Bukvich and Peyton Farr and maybe more.

This team proved in the fall it will hit, maybe not with the power of last year's team with the likes of Head and Pettway gone. But they'll be offensive with Wright and Coghlan and Cozart and Presley and Hancock and some other special hitters you've yet to see, like Brett Basham and Kyle Mills and Bukvich and Alex Kliman, who was here last year but we rarely saw in games. In the fall, Kliman hit .375 with a team-high four home runs.

The leadership on this team is evident. I like to think it's leftovers from last year, that the terrific kids who were the older guys on last year's team were great leaders. I've seen some teams in this and other sports at Ole Miss that have had to develop or work at finding its leaders. Last year it came so natural for that bunch of guys, many who are not here now.

But some of them are back, and certainly the younger guys – Cozart, Hancock, Kliman, Henry - already know. They understand.

Bianco says it was the best fall, all things considered, since he's been here. I think that's because the program's built now, and everybody knows what's expected of them, what it takes to be a player on the national scene.

Other staffers, both coaches and support staff, have told me the same thing about the fall – best yet.

I truly believe that all goes back to the chemistry that this program has now. These players just know how to go about their business, work hard, keep it fun, compete for titles.

The coaching staff – Bianco, Dan McDonnell, Stuart Lake, Kyle Bunn, and Carl Lafferty – returns intact for another season. The longer we keep that bunch together, the more likely it is for more early summer weekends like the Regional and Super Regional when Texas, Oklahoma, Maine, and Southern Miss found out a little more what Ole Miss baseball is all about.

Heck, even some of our own fans found that out last year. That's why the phone lines have been lit up lately at the UMAA ticket office, why the internet orders are more abundant than usual, why folks have been talking about opening day for months.

First pitch, Friday, Feb. 17, at 3 p.m. against Saint Louis U.

First "official" practice, Monday at 2 p.m. at Oxford-University Stadium-Swayze Field.

Play ball.

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