"I love it," said Ole Miss centerfielder Logan Power as he walked into Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field for practice earlier this week.
Thousands join the Rebel sophomore with those same sentiments. It's an event that's become easy to love, these NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals Ole Miss and Oxford now so superbly host.
There was never a doubt in my mind that if this program could just get to this point – and there was never a doubt in my mind that it could – then folks would indeed begin a love affair with baseball in June in Oxford.
There's so much passion involved. Everything from the warm weather of late spring/early summer to the green grass and red dirt of the field to the excitement of the fans and participants, not only from Ole Miss but from all the schools involved.
There's the mad dash of the fans as soon as the gates open to get their chosen spot - or at least one that's still available. One of the most memorable moments of these postseason games in Oxford was just last year as the Miami Hurricanes stopped on-the-field drills to watch Rebel fans move in and stake their claim. It is indeed an amazing spectacle in collegiate athletics.
And those plastic chairs for hillside seating with their back legs cut off shorter than the ones in front. I wonder if the stores order more for this time of year, more than they used to before Ole Miss began hosting? I'll bet they do.
I hear some stores around the area will even custom fit those plastic heirlooms for you if you wish. Something like, "You buying these for the baseball games? Here, I'll cut the legs for you."
Yes, there will come a time when fans won't need those sawed-off chairs. We'll try to find out more of what's going on with the stadium expansion project this weekend. It's certainly an important subject that's on the minds of most.
I remember when Mike Bianco came to coach at Ole Miss seven years ago at a young 33. He'd been head coach at McNeese State for three seasons and an assistant coach and player at LSU before that. He said he had a plan, a system, that he would implement to win big at Ole Miss.
I asked him last summer after he had signed to stay on at Ole Miss and reject the overtures from his alma mater, LSU, if he knew this program could reach the heights that it has from fan interest and large crowds and hosting year after year to plans for doubling the size of the stadium. He looked surprised that I would even ask as he told me without a doubt he knew it could be done here.
I knew that too, but I guess I just wanted to hear it from him.
But we hear it from others too, if not in those same words, in other words.
I remember Texas AD DeLoss Dodds standing behind home plate and talking about the beauty of the ballpark and the event that was the Super Regional of 2005. We heard the Bethune-Cookman entourage say last year it was the best place they'd been for postseason, and its head coach Mervyl Melendez say he had never gone back to watch games at Regionals if his team wasn't playing. But he did at Oxford just to be a part of the crowd and the atmosphere.
And Maine. Gosh, the Black Bears jumped at an invitation to come back for more baseball just eight months after their first visit in the 2005 Regional. The bond between Ole Miss and Maine surpassed anything I've seen in sports here where the Rebels and an opponent are concerned.
And Tulane head coach Rick Jones, whose Green Wave won the 2004 Oxford Regional, returning with his ballclub last year, just months after their world was rocked by Katrina. He talked of how they bonded, how they stuck together through a fall semester of being displaced to Texas Tech, and how they'd come home again to a different New Orleans that they desperately wanted to be like it was before. And we felt deeply with them and for them but hoped they finished second. Sports and dreams will do that to even the most compassionate and humane among us.
I listened to the words of Mark Johnson on Thursday as he talked about his trip from Texas through Louisiana and up I-55 toward Oxford with his new team, Sam Houston State. The former Texas A&M head coach talked about his time in Mississippi back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when he was an assistant to Ron Polk at State. He mentioned going to football games in Jackson back then, and recruiting in the small towns and schools of the Magnolia State, and baseball games at Jackson's Smith-Wills.
He talked about Jake Gibbs, how he was a legendary figure at this school, and how much he thought of the two-sport Rebel All-American and former head baseball coach. His comments carried with them a nostalgia and a reflection from a man who has been in the coaching business for 38 years. He said he felt a rush of baseball seasons past when he and his team drove into Oxford on Wednesday.
All the above and more are what baseball in June at Ole Miss is all about. That, and another opportunity for the Rebels to try to get back to the promised land – the College World Series.
When the Rebels last made that trip, way back in 1972 under Gibbs, it was the fourth time for Ole Miss to be a part of that elite field of eight in college baseball. No other SEC program – not State, not LSU, not Florida, not any of them – had ever been to the CWS more than once.
Tonight, the Rebels look toward Omaha again as thousands come to their collective feet at 7 o'clock and the players race to their respective starting positions pushed by the roar.
There'll be an announcement from PA man Glen Waddle. It will be in the form of a question so familiar.
"Are you ready?!?!?!" Glen will yell, and the crowd will give its patented response in the form of a rousing Hotty Toddy.
But the real answer is this: Ole Miss and Oxford are always ready for more baseball in June. It was that way before 2004, but only since then have folks here had the chance to prove just how much they mean it.
Mike Bianco said he knew all along it could be this way here. Without a doubt, so did I.
It's baseball in June in Oxford. On to Omaha.
Postseason baseball special here
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