First pitch? Believe it or not, next week.

There were at least 50 fans and a handful of dogs in the outfield terraces on an unseasonably warm February Sunday afternoon to watch the Ole Miss baseball team practice. Practice. Got that? That still amazes me to some extent, but less than it once did.

I continue at times to let myself get into a short-lived head-shaking mode because of the high interest that engulfs Ole Miss baseball this century. Usually it's when I see students dragging coolers to the outfield before an early-season mid-week game against Somebody State or The U of Whomever.

Or when the streets near the baseball stadium are clogged with traffic an hour and a half before games during a pre-conference weekend series with, oh, say Maine or New York Tech.

Season ticket sales last spring were just under 4,000, which was a record. This year before all is said and done, that mark will be past 5,000.

Clearly there have been people waiting on more seats before they bought season tickets to Rebel baseball games. As I told some in the outfield Sunday, "People weren't going to pay for air space." Standing room or hillside seating wasn't worthy of purchase for some.

Who can blame them either? But now they are buying.

Some seats remain for sale in all areas of the stadium. If you want a club seat, a box seat, or just a grandstand seat, you can still get any or all of them. Less than 100 club seats out of about 900 are left, but they'd love to sell them by first pitch.

As we sat there, as close as we could get to the action given the construction zone that is Oxford-Univesity Stadium/Swayze Field these days, work continued before us – on the stadium itself and on the 2009 team, too.

The stadium continues to take shape, and by two weeks from Tuesday, it will be ready for a game. That sink in? Two weeks from Tuesday. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras.

That's when Central Arkansas and the Rebels re-christen the palace of Mississippi collegiate baseball. It's the best baseball facility in this state by a long shot - college, pro, whatever level.

The Rebels will have played three games by then, having participated in the South Alabama tourney in Mobile. Ole Miss opens with Liberty on Friday, Feb. 20, followed by games with Mercer on Saturday and the host Jaguars on Sunday.

I jokingly threw out a question to Mike Bianco last Friday.

"What can you tell us about Liberty?" I asked. He broke into a slight smile, surprised I asked, of course. But I wasn't looking for an answer, and didn't give him time to give one. Just an ice-breaker of sorts on a warm February day as his team prepared for practice. We'll learn a little more about Liberty later. For now, it's all about the Rebels.

This weekend a couple of things jumped out at me after two more intrasquads. Matt Smith can break through with a huge game on any given day. Forget the 0-for Sunday with two Ks and a walk. Saturday was his latest effort as a star in the making.

How about 3-for-5 with a home run, a triple, and a single? Three RBI. Two runs scored. First base for all nine innings. The co-captain is ready.

And righty Phillip Irwin continues to make a serious case to be a weekend starter. After having arguably the best fall on the staff, Irwin continues to pitch well and with confidence. Sunday afternoon he pitched three innings, allowing no runs on two hits with no walks and one strikeout, facing the minimum.

I talked to Irwin Friday and will have some comments from him in a story this week. He's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery he had his first year at Ole Miss, and has pitched in nine games each of the past two seasons. Now as a fourth-year junior, he appears on the verge of big things.

Teams always need players under the radar to emerge. Guys like Eric Fowler, who as a senior pitched his way into the weekend rotation on the great 2005 team after a journeyman career. And even Will Kline, who everyone knew had "sick stuff" but didn't prove it until getting past some rough and rocky moments his first couple of seasons to pitch in college.

Ironically both those guys drew headlines by beating Mississippi State in the old Mayor's Trophy game at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson in back to back seasons. Irwin appears to have a head start on any mid-season break-through by having had a good fall and preseason.

Certainly the weekend rotation isn't yet set. And normally it changes throughout a season.

But for now, the Rebels continue to use some good weather to get ready for a season that will be here before you know it.

And when it does, those fans who sat in the outfield Sunday may take their seats in the stadium, or they can stay put. There's a whole lot of room for all at Ole Miss baseball now. And the tickets continue to sell day by day.

Sometimes I continue to be amazed by it all. But I shouldn't be. It's what winning and having a vision for the future will do every time.


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