It struck me like a fouled-off liner that there was no more college baseball to watch at all this month. None. The 2013 season ended on Mississippi State's final out.
Think on this for a moment. Every other year, ever, when the Bulldogs finished there was the remaining matter of watching the College World Series finals. Not this year. This national championship was concluded, and the entire NCAA sports-year completed, with the last Bulldog game.
Best I can recall the only other time something like this happened in our or state-of-Mississippi history for that matter was the 1993 Peach Bowl, played the evening after the BCS title game. And related to that other outdoor sport, a certain scribe nearly got hisself chucked through the press box window for pointing out last Wednesday that we were exactly a month away from Mississippi State's turn at SEC Media Days. Hey fellows, I didn't say I LIKED it!
In fact I might use making the Omaha finals as an excuse to skip what is increasingly a useless event for beat writers anyway. Checking the calendar I realized since leaving for Charlottesville I'd spent one, repeat one, complete day in Starkville since June 5. In fact in the dugout I was joking with Scott Stricklin about our length of stay. He said he'd voted in one Omaha municipal election already and was paying property taxes; I said I'd gotten a jury duty summons. I darned nearly spent my birthday (no, ain't telling which) in Nebraska.
And I wouldn't trade the trips for anything. Well, besides winning the last game of a college baseball season.
Which was Mississippi State's entire point of the trip.
I've made Omaha visits before of course, with other Diamond Dog squads that were special in their own ways; always entertaining to cover and rewarding to work with. Realistically though they and we saw the Series as an end in itself. As the ultimate achievement. Only State 1985 could truly be said to have had a going-there-to-win-it attitude which nothing else or less would satisfy.
That is why these Bulldogs can enjoy what they accomplished. They can accept the well-won cheers of fans. They can wear the CWS gear with pride until the last tee-shirt is in tatters. They can even come back to campus in years ahead and smile at the fine trophy brought back from the last game of college baseball's 2013 season.
And they'll never be free of some degree of regret, just like '85 still makes all what-if wistful. This I say is the greatest feat of 2013.
That a Mississippi State team can play for the National Championship and not come away satisfied, I mean. It is also the greatest credit on a gang (or Mob as that wild Bench bunch will be memorialized) of guys who came closer than any of their predecessors to the true Ultimate Achievement.
Prior to the Monday game, grabbing a very fast media meal—seriously I've lost ten pounds since going to Hoover—a late-arriving member of MSU's press corps asked, did I forsee this team making it to Omaha? Yes, I said, which raised his eyebrows and required explanation. I'm not claiming I predicted the team WOULD play in the Series, though I do now note with some pride and more relief the cover of the preseason magazine where I said ‘Next Year Is Here'. At the time I thought it might put too much pressure on, yet also the potential appeared there.
What I meant was, given the nature of college baseball as a post-season sport, the potential to make a May/June run was obvious. Not least because John Cohen's teams have proven they can win tournaments of all sorts. They, along with fellow Mississippi and Alabama programs, may remain hampered in regular seasons by the still-factoring scholarship disadvantages. But no foe in their right mind wants to have Mississippi State in their tournament or bracket, with obvious good reason.
Funny though, the season played out along a different track than you and I figured. Not least the pitching. We really thought starting pitching would be the squad's strength, remember? Instead it was a simply-astounding bullpen that became the club's core. Though, at the very end, lack of sufficient starters did show up against a team State really, really needed a strong opener to set the tone. Up to then though pitching was the strong point, just in an incredibly different manner than anyone foresaw.
The offense also surprised me, in a good way. True, I expected better batting than 2012, and it woulda been hard not to be better that a team whose feats deserve fonder memory than they now will get. Still this squad's swinging was much more successful than hoped. Let me point to one example that in a perverse way points up the progress.
During the SEC Tournament, I started tracking Hunter Renfroe's hitting. To my amazement the stats showed that during his best 24-game sizzling streak the team was 15-9; and during the ensuing 20-game slump the record was 13-7. Meaning, there was no direct correlation! Whether he was hot or cold the team won at about the same rate!
There are some reasons; adjustments to the order, particularly moving C.T. Bradford and Wes Rea to mid-order and bumping Brett Pirtle up into the most unusual ‘cleanup' hitter in the country. Also, when Renfroe was at his hottest hitting #3, there wasn't anyone on base anyway too often. But when he cooled down Adam Frazier heated up, Bradford became a producer in mid-order, Alex Detz somehow got on base the way Pirtle always did. And of course Big Wes became truly ‘big' in his batting. As I told peers at Omaha, his average wouldn't raise eyes but when Rea got a hit it mattered. He to me epitomized why this offense worked, just as Ross Mitchell's ridiculous 13-0 record as a reliever epitomized the perverse pitching approach.
What I'm getting at really, I think, is that so much of what this team did was achieved ‘backwards' whether in terms of an essentially inverted pitching staff that played to finish games rather than start them; and an offense that other than Frazier in first didn't square with conventional order-wisdom. He was speaking only for his pitching, but Butch Thompson's comment how this wasn't how he wanted to do things but had to do things based on the nature of the roster rings true for the entire club.
Summarized, the Bulldogs turned their game inside-out, upside-down, whatever you wish, and rode this radical routine all the way to the championship round of college baseball. In the process they befuddled and bamboozled so many foes into frustration at how the heck it happened. Not least the one which mattered most.
It's obvious in retrospect how that Sunday in Oxford was the turning point. Yet even at the time we all thought something special had started. John Cohen can joke, if he was, about that mascot's unintended inspiration with the broom and all. The Dogs themselves say they barely noticed, it was the game they cared about even when falling behind 6-0.
Rallying for the 7-6 final began a stretch where State won 15 of 18 games. They also ended, let's see, four other team's seasons along the way…though perhaps we should count it five as Ole Miss seemed sent into a tailspin by that Bulldog comeback. O-M-A-H-A and all that, right? Also in retrospect, we ought to have seen something special on the SEC Tournament's opening evening, and wee-hours finish, with Missouri. Though assured of post-season by then the Bulldogs refused to lose, and didn't.
Which now we know was vital for another reason and something that must, must not be forgotten. This team brought Regional Baseball back to campus. Nevereverever dismiss this lightly. We elders recall when hosting NCAA play was annual, and appreciate what was missed for ten entire years here. And unlike the blip of a ‘07super regional, this experience hopefully restarts that routine. It's not nearly as easy as in the 80s and 90s I agree, the SEC is so insanely better now that we're really playing the regular schedule to host a regional more than win the league. Seriously, think about it.
By now you see this is not a ‘state of State' statement piece. That will develop in days to come as drafted Dogs depart, as health situations are clarified, and the recruiting class is finalized along with other potential departures of current roster Dogs. That is when we'll get into specifics about what percentage of the base hits or strikeouts has to be replaced, position options and moves and so on. For now let's keep celebrating what is a little longer. Or a lot longer if you wish, feel free. I've got three new tee-shirts to wear around town and on trips home, and others to fill requests received while in Omaha. Buying gas for the drive back was a little tense at times though.
Speaking of tense times… John Cohen has been very careful since June 2008 to limit comments about tough this process has been. Very careful. Not just to avoid accusations of criticizing players, which nowadays is automatically interpreted as excuses and such. Just like raising the subject of luck in baseball, something anyone with any time around the game knows is a forever-factor. For a single Omaha example, what are the odds that a dirtball will be deflected by the umpire's foot and dies near the plate, leaving the team's fastest runner on third base unable to dash home and make it a 3-2 game with the tying score up? That's not coaching or skill or anything other than plain old luck.
Which works both ways of course, just like that prevailing (and how) Midwest wind that never ever stopped all Series, blowing straight in from the South and thus from centerfield. This breeze is what kept State in the winners bracket by holding back a game-winning shot on opening day by Oregon State; it also kept the Dogs from catching up Tuesday evening when Renfroe crushed a ball to leftfield that would have left DNF, Pearl, Hoover, Virginia, anywhere but Ameritrade with a southerly gale. It goes both ways and you only shrug. Or say the words Cohen refuses to—That's Baseball.
Still in the immediate aftermath, the coach unwound just a little bit at last about the journey begun upon return to the alma mater. Such as this quote. "Many of these guys came to Mississippi State under pretty adverse conditions, in a program that was not in great condition. Five years ago we inherited a club that won 23 ball games. They climbed all the way to the top."
Only to have somebody else standing at the tip-top when the season ended. Cohen isn't shying away from that fact either. Just the opposite.
"I said at our press conference (June '08) we're going to win a national championship. Which my wife flinched on several times, she doesn't like it when I talk like that! (But) That's why we do it, to win the whole thing. I really appreciate the comments about this team going further than any other has. But what they have done is laid the foundation for some future teams. Because we're going to come back here and we're going to win this thing. That's what we're here to do. That's why I came to Mississippi State."
Or let's hear from one of the guys convinced to come here in fall 2010, with the program at nadir after three losing seasons; something that had never, ever happened State in a century-plus of yardball. Renfroe had plenty options, as did Bradford, Rea, Frazier, Demarcus Henderson, Evan Mitchell, Ross Mitchell, Daryl Norris, Luis Pollorena, and the rest of that pivotal recruiting class.
The first REAL recruiting class for Cohen, you also must remember; he had nothing to give out for the 2009 team as that one was already set before arrival, and the 2010 signings were necessarily fast and specific to needs without a lot of development. Never forget that baseball recruiting is a multi-year process from commit to signing to seeing the field unlike any other. And don't overlook, if you have forgotten, that Cohen and staff needed a couple of years just to get State's name at the front of most prospect lists again. I'm sorry if that comes across harsh on his old coach and predecessor and Cohen will never say it himself in public. But it's undeniable fact, this program had to be rebuilt practically from scratch and it wasn't fun.
Now? The fun is back and in a great big way. The funny thing, not amusing I mean, is that at the moment the guys who did the heavy lifting are barely able to appreciate their own achievements. It's like Renfroe said after accepting the runners-up trophy. "In all your dreams you always feel like you win. You don't dream to lose."
Yet in days and weeks and years ahead the '13 team will be remembered as winners not losers. Thought they sure as heck will be remembered as loose. Their dugout and off-field antics during the second half of the season will be recalled by us as much as Omaha, along with the beards and Bench Mob and shirtless squadmen and so on. Heavens but what a fun group this was to watch, to cover, to just plain enjoy along their wild ride. This press pass won't be hung with all the others from CWS' or tournaments of the past, it will be pinned somewhere special, probably in the elite collection of credentials from my most-memorable State sports events from 1980 to present. Might be worth a magazine story itself running through this list of just, let's see, a dozen that make the Best Of cut.
Which winds us back to the lead theme of the Baseball On My Desk. You'll recall, want to or not, how often I've re-used this lead line since the 2003 Diamond Dogs fell short of winning their home-field Regional. How many hours after the stunning loss I wandered to the empty dugout and found a box of rubbed-up game balls never used, and snagged one. It stayed on my desk for ten Junes.
Until the afternoon of this June 3. The Dogs were about to play season-nemesis Central Arkansas in a winner-take-all rematch and I confess to being hugely worried. Justifiably so given how those Bears befuddled State so thoroughly in the first five meetings…and yes, even before the College World Series finals I was already like many comparing UCLA's style to UCA, only with better pitching. Sadly it proved so.
Anyway, loading up the laptop for the Regional finals I saw the ball, and thought…why not? Ten years seemed a nice round number and maybe it would exorcise some personal frustrations of so long ago. I stuck the ball in the bag, and on arrival at DNF went out to the Bulldog bullpen. With no one watching I tossed it over the wall. No I take absolutely no psychic credit for State beating the Bears afterwards. That'd be stupid. But it's baseball and hey, you just never know right? Such silliness makes sense when you are so wrapped-up in a team and program. And try telling me YOU don't have your own game-day quirks!
What has replaced that ball? Thanks for asking. Back in February, leaving the park after a preseason practice, I saw a nice pearly-looking ball under the first base bleachers. Hit only once in BP to judge by the single scar. I tossed it in the old Bimmer and thought nothing of it…until the team opened with that winning streak. It stayed in the car until replacing the old one, and is staying here on the desk. Might get it signed, might not.
But it is not alone. I have a well-battered BP ball snagged from the bucket after a session on Ameritrade Park. I think Wes Rea's signature would look fine on it, eh? And by the way, before departing Omaha yesterday I stopped by the remains of Rosenblatt Stadium. In that little commemorative park, I tossed a 1989 penny (a couple of fans can attest to this fact) for the best darned ballclub that never got to play there. It still hurts all these years later.
Today, though, thanks, no make that endless gratitude to you Diamond Dogs of 2013. You brought post-season baseball back to Dudy Noble Field. You took your University back to Omaha. And you have put the program in far finer shape than anything you inherited two, three, four years ago.
Because the real point of a ‘legacy' is starting something which others will build a greater future upon.