The plan for UM baseball continues to grow

Ole Miss baseball continues to blossom into an event of major proportions with each passing season. The past two weekends were spectacles among themselves, but those type situations are becoming more frequent as the program moves ahead from year to year.

I saw a thread on the message board this morning concerning the crowds at the baseball stadium the last two weekends. They were massive by college baseball standards.

Along the lines of 7,500 for each of Ole Miss' games in the Regional and 9,000, except for the Monday finale, in the Super Regional, which drew about a thousand less.

Huge crowds. For college baseball. But it's the type crowds I knew we could see in Oxford for baseball given some time and the development of a thing called "The System." And there will be larger crowds in the future.

That system came from LSU AD and former head coach Skip Bertman, who actually got the system, ironically, during his years as an assistant under legendary Miami head coach Ron Fraser, basically the father of modern college baseball in the south and east U.S.

Fraser's replacement in 1994 was Jim Morris, the current Hurricanes head coach, and the Fraser family tree actually trickles down through Ron Polk, who coached under him at Miami for a while before taking the job in Starkville, and also Mike Bianco: Fraser, Bertman, Bianco.

A lot of coaches have grown through the Fraser family tree, including John Cohen at Kentucky, who played at MSU; Jim Wells at Alabama, who coached under Bertman at LSU; and Georgia's Dave Perno, who was an assistant under Polk when the MSU head man coached the SEC East's Bulldogs.

There are others, like Mitch Gaspard at Northwestern (La.) State, a Wells protégé, and Daron Schoenrock at Memphis, a former Polk assistant. The Miami movement throughout college baseball continues as it has for 30-plus years.

Mike Bianco has the blueprint to success that he brought with him from Bertman. We're seeing that move into place here with each passing season.

It's what makes fans arrive early to get their spot, stay late enjoying themselves at the ballpark, and some not leaving at all for a whole weekend (or at least taking turns sitting with their stuff).

I've talked to at least a couple of people (and there were more) who camped out near the stadium from Friday afternoon through Monday night. They didn't actually stay with their chairs and belongings the entire time. There were shifts among friends and fans, fathers and sons who wanted "their usual spot" in the outfield or on the hill. Or maybe they were newcomers to the scene and just wanted to get a place where they could see the game. Whatever their reasoning, they arrived early, some of them hours or days early.

I wasn't in the stadium for the 4 p.m. opening of the gates on Saturday and Sunday. I was on Monday. I watched as the Hurricane players stopped what they were doing and took in the activities that included fans throwing their chairs and other items over the fence to those who had already gotten in, which lasted several minutes as those who had waited tried to get the location they wanted.

Gotta admit, it was a sight. It looked like the Miami players thought so, too. They finally got back to warming up for the game.

So Ole Miss baseball's gold rush or land rush now joins the Grove's opening each football gameday as a couple of college athletics' most interesting moments. Sure, the Grove is an old and cherished football tradition here, but this new baseball deal is amazing as well.

But I always knew it could be this way, given the plan, the fact that Ole Miss people are hungry for a winner, and that college baseball is a sport that thrives in this part of the country.

As I was able to walk around the facility Thursday with Pete Boone and Mike Bianco, I listened to many of their comments on what they want to do. Ever since Bianco arrived in 2000, he has been adamant in his quest to make Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field the finest family environment possible.

The kids' playground just beyond the home bullpen was his idea (well, actually one he brought with him along with the Bertman blueprint. I've seen a couple of those type playgrounds at Alex Box Stadium at LSU). Bianco wants more of those type activities for kids and families.

Some coaches don't worry about anything but their actual teams, their assistants, recruiting, and the games themselves. Other than those things, some can't find time or won't take time. That's not always the case, but it sometimes can be.

Bianco makes sure he takes time to check over every detail. It's part of the system. Bertman said in his book - appropriately called "The Man and The System" - that he wanted to make sure the coffee is hot and there's mustard for the hot dogs.

Bianco and Boone bounced around a lot of ideas. It was an "off the record" and casual conversation. It was about what both men want: for Ole Miss baseball to continue to become even more fan-friendly in every way, and that is what they are striving for.

So when Bianco, the coach, talks about winning, he means it in every sense, from recruiting players, to the games themselves, to the fans in the stands, to the kids who attend.

He understands it's important to allow media the access they need to his players so more attention can be brought to his program, to the players, and to Ole Miss. It's called P.R.

He doesn't mind if a media person shows up late and needs a quick moment with a player, even during practice (provided it doesn't become a habit). He tries to work with those type situations in every area to make sure all concerned get what they need – from attention to the player and the program to the person there for the interview.

Bianco likes the fans involved as well. That's why Ernie Labarge and the Bullpen Club are so important to the program. It's why he takes a player or two with him to the Bullpen Club tent prior to selected games so they can speak with fans and interact with them. He likes his players signing autographs after games and getting their pictures made with fans and supporters. He likes kids running the bases on Sundays.

As someone pointed out to me a day or so ago, the kids who were say eight or ten years old when Bianco got here six years ago are 14 or 16 years old now and about to start thinking more about college. For many, their experiences with Rebel baseball will have an influence on their decision because of the fun they've had there.

You know what I'm talking about. Don't tell me the Grove, or Ole Miss football, or basketball in the early 80s or late 90s didn't tug at you a little when it came time to make a decision for college. Baseball does that for kids now.

So the program and the system move ahead. The current plan for Ole Miss baseball is now six years in the making. That we have fans posting back and forth about the number of people at the games or when the gates should open or the rules pertaining to all the above prove once again a healthy baseball program with a bright future.

And as I watched and listened to Boone and Bianco Thursday, I knew before long some of that would be resolved. Stadium expansion, both in the grandstands and the outfield terrace areas, is on the way soon.

The System continues.

OM Spirit Top Stories