First Pitch

It's opening day and once again I'll look it all over in amazement. What Ole Miss baseball has grown into the past decade is what Ole Miss fans should want from all their programs.

Of course baseball may be an example of where the best of all Rebel worlds collide. It combines the playing field and the party. The Grove moves to the outfield, and people get to watch the game and enjoy pregame and postgame fun during the actual game. How great is that?

There's never a mascot or music controversy. Unless it's what type music they pipe out over the PA to try to suit everyone. From Sweet Caroline and Cheap Seats to Cotton-Eyed Joe and Centerfield, you can't please everybody. But after a Rebel bomb to the terraces, the Ying Yang Twins' Stand Up and Get Crunk would probably go over as well at Swayze as in the Superdome, where it's quite the hit.

Oh, there will be some politicking at the stadium this weekend since the mascot vote is next week. But mascots and cheerleaders and bands aren't involved at baseball games. Those are reserved for football and basketball.

Starting today, Rebel fans can wander in and hang out and be a part of Ole Miss doing something as right as anything it presents to the masses.

Facility? None better anywhere.

Coach? Look at the decade's list of accomplishments and compare them to the previous 30 years.

Winning program? Consistent and nationally respected.

Passionate players? Just watch them play.

Affordable tickets? For the product you get and the fun you'll have, best bargain in collegiate athletics.

Planning improvements year by year? The administration always has an eye out for them here, it seems.

Fan support? You've proved in baseball Ole Miss can be bigtime in whatever it chooses to be. Your attendance is one of the aspects opposing teams rave about when talking about Ole Miss baseball.

Trent Rothlin, the former Clemson pitcher turned Ole Miss pitcher, said to us this week he was looking forward to the crowds. "They're big at Clemson, but not this big," he said.

Sometime around noon today, people will start heading to the ballpark. The temperature is supposed to push toward 60, and the skies are bright blue. A fairly difficult winter here, by north Mississippi standards, is giving way to a bit of spring this weekend.

Students will be dragging coolers to their favorite places in the outfield. There's even an addition there so more of them will have a place. The grills in left field will send out smoke signals skyward and magnetic smells that will swirl the senses. If you haven't brought your own to the outfield, you might even get invited over for a burger or a brat at a fellow Rebels' setup.

It's a party that for many will last until June. We've gotten used to watching baseball around here until it gets hot. And someday there will actually be a trip to Omaha for more baseball, as hard as that is to believe for some after being so close time after time.

We discuss, often at length, on message boards and in living rooms and coffee houses, about the lack of interest among fans for Ole Miss basketball. Last night, for the first time in years, I sat through an entire game in the stands as Ben covered that important contest courtside.

No, the place wasn't full. But those there were into it and supporting. The student section, again not quite full, was passionate in helping their fellow students try to win a game they so desperately needed to win.

There is interest and even passion for basketball. Spend some time, like last night and today, on the Spirit message board and you'll see. There are more basketball threads than baseball or football right now.

Some have already given Andy Kennedy's report card a grade, some of them a final grade. Others continue to keep an open mind because they realize there are more good players coming into the program for next season, because all but DeAundre Cranston return for next year, that Ole Miss' basketball past is as dismal as any on campus, and that the playing facility is arguably the worst in the SEC.

All that doesn't give Kennedy a lifetime pass for not making it to the NCAA Tournament. Many believe now the Rebels won't make it again this season. The Rebels have to win most of their remaining games to even have a shot.

If Ole Miss doesn't make it again this season, that's a nine-year drought from one of the real barometers of success in that particular sport.

No wonder some fans have lost passion for the sport. Don't go to a bowl game for nine years and see how many fans are still on board.

If hoops doesn't make it to the NCAA tourney this time, I do believe they will next season. Plenty will obviously disagree.

It's a situation comparable to what happened in baseball through the years. In 1972, Ole Miss went to its fourth College World Series, and no other SEC team had been to that point more than once. Unlike basketball, there had been national baseball success earlier.

But until Bianco arrived for the 2001 season, Ole Miss had been to just two baseball NCAA Regionals since 1977. In Bianco's fourth season, the Rebels finally hosted an NCAA Regional. When they went 0-2 that weekend, some were questioning the program's direction and felt maybe a new one was needed.

Although Omaha remains elusive since 1972, there's no questioning the baseball program anymore. Fans have had too much fun during the course of subsequent seasons, and they are voting in the affirmative with their record purchase of season tickets.

Baseball is a sport most everybody agreed could succeed here at a high level in this era. Its past proved it. The winning landscape across the SEC West proved it. Some even had a vision that it could become what it has. Bianco was at the top of that list of those who believed.

And so today, once again, we'll watch as the gates open and the tents go up and the students rush to their section and the Diamond Club fills up with those who pay more bucks for baseball.

Yes, baseball. Oxford-University Stadium is the envy of just about every school in the country that plays the sport.

It's further proof that Ole Miss can do whatever it sets out to do. Take a look today, or whenever you're here next, and you'll agree there's just no denying that.

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