Head First

Stephen Head got a tour of the "new" Oxford-University Stadium on Monday. Is there any player whose time here meant more to the current project than his?

It arguably could be called "The House That Head Built." Of course so many others were involved in what Ole Miss baseball has become this century, so many players, head coach Mike Bianco and his staff, the thousands of fans who have caught on to college baseball and how much fun it can be.

Ole Miss historically had good baseball tradition for much of the 20th century. The Rebels were the first Southeastern Conference program to go to Omaha multiple times. When Ole Miss went for the fourth time, no other SEC school had been more than once.

Certainly the 2005 team, Head's last year with the program, came as close as any to getting back there. That team was loaded and had the work ethic and desire to reach all its goals. Texas was just a bit too much. The two best teams, Longhorn Coach Augie Garrido was reported to say more than once, played in Oxford in the Super Regional.

The program continues to flourish. This year's team is ranked as high as sixth nationally in the preseason. So when Bianco took some time Monday to show one of his former star pupils around, it was a moment in time not to be taken lightly.

That Mike Bianco and Stephen Head were checking out college baseball's newest palace is certainly noteworthy.

"Man, it's nice," said Head, who leaves for spring training in Arizona Saturday as he begins his fourth full year with the Cleveland Indians organization. "Coach Bianco took me around and we went up into the Rebel Club seats, all through the boxes, we pretty much covered every area. He took me down into the locker room, into the new meeting room, that place is awesome."

Head, currently at his parents home near Raymond, understands the part he and his teammates played in the progression of Ole Miss baseball to this point. He credits everybody involved.

"I do take pride in the fact that the stadium kind of came around because of how many people we put in there," said Head, who will marry his fiancé Ashley Hatfield, an Ole Miss alum and Miss Illinois 2007, next January. "It's special that they all enjoyed coming to watch our group of guys play. Coach Bianco said to the team the other day when I was up there that the school really did realize during those Regionals and Super Regionals that we needed to expand. A lot of people come to watch us play, and we don't have any place for them to sit. A lot more people are interested in the program now, and they've obviously done what they needed to do. That place is incredible."

Sitting isn't something Stephen Head has had to do much during his four-year pro career. Had he remained solely at first base, that perhaps might have been the case, since the Indians are stocked there. So he's become an outfielder as well as a first baseman. It's fine with Head. Anything to play.

"There are a lot of guys that play the same position I do," said Head, who was at AA Akron last year, batting .290 with 49 RBI and 13 home runs, second-best on the team. "There've been some trades, and at my position we're loaded."

So from first base he's found another home, mostly in right field, although he was in left field some last fall.

He's still first and foremost a first baseman, but his main goal is to play every day – and move up, of course.

"Moving to the outfield opened up some options," he said. "We're so deep at first base and that's a position where there's not a lot of turnover. With my skill set and speed and being able to make a lot of plays in the outfield and probably make the team a little better, that's all been big. My transition to other positions on the field has been fairly easy. And I've actually stayed in better shape playing in the outfield. You're running and getting sprints in during the game. At first base you jog out there 90 feet and don't move around as much."

Head's hitting has been mostly solid throughout his pro career. The first year wasn't quite up to his standards, and he said with some new organizational people who came in that season, he's been fighting that first-year hitting stigma ever since.

"I only had one bad year out of four," he said, mentioning that first season. "Everybody's big on on-base percentage and all that. The year I hit the lowest for average was my highest on-base percentage. That was the first year those (new organizational) guys had seen me, so I've been battling back from that since. My first half-year (right out of Ole Miss), I put up better numbers than anybody in the organization. I've tried to make them forget about that (first full season) the last couple of years."

Head wants to be at AAA Columbus this year, but he knows he might start out back in AA Akron. But he will stay the course and continue to work to move up no matter the situation.

"It's taken longer than I'd hoped, especially playing the last couple of years pretty well," he said. "There's been no real progression for me just because the Indians system is just stockpiled with guys at my position. I really wish that I was right-handed now, especially since I'm not pitching anymore. I'm athletic enough to play every position on the field a left-handed guy can play. If I was right-handed I obviously could play more positions, which would help me out a lot.

"I'm limited to three positions - left, right, and first – and we just happen to be super loaded in those positions, not only at the big-league level but because of the trades, we stocked up on first base and outfield guys. It's tough because there are a lot of talented guys working for the same job."

Head, drafted in 2005 in the second round by the Indians, the 62nd player taken, said trades are always a possibility, and most players feel they will be helped by one.

"Everybody kind of wants a trade, because everybody's situation is a lot the same," he said, mentioning that he likes the Indians organization. "There are certain teams that are a little more apt to say we know this guy's a big-league player and he may not be completely ready right now. But we know he's in our future plans."

So as he leaves for another year of pro baseball and working toward his dream of the big leagues, certainly no player in Ole Miss' past has had a bigger impact on this era of Rebel baseball than Stephen Head. He got proof of that on Monday.


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