Writer's Note: The following commentary appears in next month's issue of The Ole Miss Spirit.
Just after 11 p.m. on Friday, my cell phone began vibrating and buzzing without significant halt for about 30 minutes. I wasn't necessarily looking at the clock, but after reading the first of many text messages, the timing of the inquisitive onslaught soon became apparent.
The first message read: "Bittle?" The second: "Yankee or Rebel?" The third through tenth pretty much the same. On the eve of the football team's Meet the Rebels Day, the main question on sports fans' minds involved baseball player Scott Bittle, the lights-out reliever who had until 11 p.m. (CST) to decide between New York and the New South.
As I relayed the news that "The Thing" would reside in Oxford for one final season, instead of in pinstripes, the feedback was of elation and excitement. However, one fact was keeping me from completely enjoying the moment.
The only Ole Miss-affiliated person possibly not immensely elated was Scott himself. Don't get me wrong here. Bittle loves Ole Miss, and he has been a great ambassador during his collegiate career. But the talented right-hander wanted to sign a professional contract. Every player has that desire, and Scott deserves it more than most others.
I watched Bittle remain poised amid severe scrutiny during his first year at Ole Miss. I watched him not shy away from the pressure when he could have bolted to the Yankees following that less-than-stellar 2007 season, and I watched him become the Rebels' savior during 2008, when Scott shutdown opponents and ensured that the game was all but over when he entered.
After accounting for all 13 outs in 4.1 innings of work against Mizzou in the Coral Gables Regional, the wide belief was that Bittle had just polished off a season, and a career, that would go down as one of the most remembered in Ole Miss baseball history.
In 2008, unhittable wasn't an opinion. It was fact. The 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings. The .145 average against. The multitude of opponents grazing in befuddlement after whiffing at his slider/cut combination.
There was nothing left to prove, and a signing bonus of approximately half a million bucks awaited in the near future. The Yankees selected Scott with the 75th overall pick and agreed on a deal worth close to the number projected.
The storybook sequence was nearing completion.
But as quick as the deal was agreed upon, a significant snag emerged. Doctors hired by the Yankees saw something they didn't like in Bittle's throwing shoulder. The front office in New York became concerned, and the automatic deal was set aside.
Put yourself in Scott's shoes at this point. You just completed arguably the best pitching season in school history. You feel no pain. You have no discomfort. However, doctors are telling you something is wrong, and the previous offer is no longer on the table.
Bittle received a second and a third opinion from independent doctors. They saw nothing of alarm. Nothing that should prevent the Yankees from inking the right-hander.
But New York remained firm. Management held its ground against the scouting department that believed in Bittle's abilities as a fast-track Big Leaguer – the type of prospect that doesn't always appear after 74 selections.
So, instead of a short season somewhere in the Northeast, Bittle is back in Oxford, and for the second year in a row, is out to prove assumptions wrong. Last time it was his ability to close out games. This time it's his health.
Adversity only makes Bittle that much more determined. He used the 2007 troubles to motivate him in 2008. I fully expect the same this time around. Scott took the mound 27 times last year, and he didn't look like a guy with an injured shoulder to me. Did he to you?
The Rebels received a gift when the clock turned to August 16th in the Eastern Time zone. Bittle is content in returning to Ole Miss, and he will be able to pursue his professional dreams next June – most likely after another season of abusing SEC hitters and maybe after leading the Rebels to someplace in the Midwest. Maybe his work in Oxford just wasn't quite finished.
And sometime in the future, I hope Bittle is the subject of another cell phone assault. This time informing me of his first MLB appearance. We joke that Bittle possesses "The Thing," but it isn't just a pitch. It's heart, determination and steadfastness.
Take advantage of this opportunity because Ole Miss did indeed get a gift.
The chance to watch Scott prove people wrong.
One more (and hopefully final) time.
Batters Beware: Bittle has Something to Prove
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