June 14, 2013 11:52:34 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Things are never the same when you go home after being away for a number of years. Somehow, things seem smaller, less vivid than the images preserved in memory.
When I returned to Mississippi after 15 years in Northern California and Arizona, I was surprised to find many things that didn't conform with the ideas I had carried in my head all those years.
One of those was the state of the Mississippi State University baseball program.
It wasn't at all as I recalled it, and it certainly wasn't what it was in its hey-day.
On Saturday, MSU returns to the College World Series for the first time since 2007. It will be the Bulldogs' ninth CWS appearance.
The excitement has returned. The crowds are again large and boisterous, the energized fan base that made MSU baseball unique in the South is emerging once more.
On Wednesday, as the Bulldogs and coach John Cohen met with the media inside Humphrey Coliseum, I spotted Joe Dier in the corner of the room.
Dier has been with the MSU sports information department for the better part of three decades.
"Is it like it used to be?" I asked, and Joe knew precisely what I was talking about.
"It's getting close," he said.
Our unspoken point of reference was the 1980s, when MSU was the unquestioned kingpin in Southeastern Conference baseball.
As I listened to the players and Cohen talk about how they weren't satisfied with just reaching the CWS -- that the goal was to win it -- it occurred to me nobody made that claim back then. In the 1980s, the talk started with winning the CWS. Making the field? While it wasn't a foregone conclusion, it was a reasonable expectation. Each year, it seemed MSU was ranked in the top four or five in the preseason polls. Quite often, the Bulldogs were the odds-on favorites.
Not reaching the CWS was something of a disaster. Not making it to a regional seemed almost beyond the realm of possibility.
When I returned to Mississippi two years ago, I found the landscape had been altered beyond what I could have imagined. Somehow, MSU baseball had gotten small. Gone were the overflow crowds on SEC weekends. Gone was the buzz, the energy that flowed through Dudy Noble Field. Gone, too, was the swagger. The Bulldogs were just another SEC team, somehow. LSU, which had been viewed as a usurper to MSU's throne in the 80s, had swept passed the Bulldogs. In truth, MSU wasn't even the reigning program in the state.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for someone who had been around when the Bulldogs were in their glory. The fixed image in my mind had always been the 1985 team that featured four future major-league stars. That group -- led by Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Jeff Brantley, and Bobby Thigpen -- finished third in the CWS. That finish was, quite frankly, a disappointment, even though it was the best finish in school history. MSU expected to win it.
But when a line drive off the leg knocked MSU starter Gene Morgan out of the game, the University of Texas rallied to send the Bulldogs to the losers' bracket. And when Thigpen, who had had little work in the CWS to that point, was touched for a three-run home run in the Bulldogs' next game against the University of Miami, the season was over. Miami went on to beat Texas twice to capture the title. The Bulldogs were back in Starkville by then, plotting for their next return trip, which they figured -- as always -- to be the next year.
MSU returned, but it took five more years to get there.
Even so, the buzz remained. The confidence remained.
MSU made three more trips to the CWS in the 1990s, but college baseball landscape slowly began to change. The Bulldogs didn't lose ground, necessarily. Other programs emerged. LSU took over as the SEC's dominant baseball program. Before long, other schools ascended as well, pumping resources into programs that had previously been little more than an afterthought.
The University of Mississippi roared into prominence in the 2000s, about the same time MSU's fortunes began to fade.
Jim Ellis, who has been doing the radio play-by-play for MSU baseball since the 1970s, has a reasonable theory.
"We stopped hosting regionals," Ellis said. "Aside from 2003, we haven't had one, although we did host a Super Regional in that span."
Ellis said hosting a regional, something the Bulldogs did regularly in the 1980s and 1990s, was the Bulldogs' greatest marketing tool. Those regionals were a reward for the dedicated fan-base and a huge recruiting tool for would-be fans. When the Bulldogs were hosting regionals every year, the fan base grew with it.
The 2000s were, for the most part, a tough decade for the Bulldogs baseball team.
Under fifth-year coach Cohen, the program shows glimpses of what it was like in the glory years.
The Bulldogs are in the CWS. But will that be enough to sustain the fan base from year to year?
It's far more difficult today.
College baseball has never been more popular, not only in the South, but across the nation. In fact, MSU's first CWS opponent, Oregon State, was hardly a blip on the college baseball radar a decade ago. Since then, the Beavers have won two national championships.
So are the Bulldogs back?
As Joe Dier observed, they are close.
Slim Smith is the managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]