June 22, 2013 11:26:08 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb. -- Go ahead and call it a divine intervention.
Whatever you call it, Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen was going to make sure all of the religious affiliations were in his team's corner.
At a Thursday morning practice before the most important game in the program's history, Cohen turned to a former teammate and close friend to give an inspirational speech to his team. Cohen didn't turn to any teammate. He turned to a man who delivered MSU to the College World Series in 1990 with one of the most famous athletic accomplishments in school history. Cohen turned to Burke Masters, or as he's known in Joliet, Ill., Father Burke Masters.
After playing for coach Ron Polk at MSU from 1987-90, Masters felt the calling to become a priest. He is serving as vocation director for the Diocese of Joliet.
"You just think special things are going to happen, and you have kids on the club that want those things to happen, and then you bring in one of my best friends like Burke to tell them great things can happen if you believe," Cohen said. "The issue we're trying to promote is it doesn't matter what your faith is and how you believe in something. It's just that you believe in something."
Masters hit a towering grand slam out in the top of the ninth inning to help lift MSU to an 11-8 victory against Florida State University in the 1990 Starkville Regional at Dudy Noble Field. The Bulldogs went on to beat the Seminoles again to advance to the College World Series. Masters' home run is one of the most memorable calls in the long career of MSU play-by-play broadcaster Jim Ellis.
"I just consider him to be a great friend," Cohen said. "He created one of the great moments in the history of our program, maybe in the history of our school."
Cohen joked before the postseason he happily would give his seal of approval if Masters decided to become the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church.
"I'm watching the flight of his grand slam home run in 1990 from the on-deck circle, and that's when I definitely decided I was going to vote for Burke for Pope one day," Cohen said. "I think that would be the greatest thing in the world if we had a Pope who hit a game-winning home run at Dudy Noble Field. I mean, how cool would it be to have my cell phone buzz and say, 'Guys, sorry it's the Pope, so I have to take this.' "
Masters sadly had to inform Cohen that his Jewish background probably would prevent him from earning that promotion.
"I laughed because my first thought was to politely tell John I don't think the Cardinals will allow a man of Jewish faith to appoint the Pope," Masters said. "There's never been an American Pope in the history of the Catholic religion, so I don't think that's how they'd break the tradition."
Masters is in Omaha this week to teach a summer seminary class for potential future priests at Creighton University. The arrangements were made years ago. When asked if he planned the trip to coincide with a MSU baseball postseason run, Masters laughed at the timing.
"I have been following the path this team is on, and I'm loving the fact John (Cohen) has become more open to letting the guys have more fun because I think it's working," Masters said. "I can tell you, though, I'd be teaching this class just like I have been the past few years even if MSU wasn't in the College World Series. My schedule is little different, though, because now I want to go to TD Ameritrade to watch them."
Masters considers himself a little-known infielder even though he leads MSU in games played (251) and is second all-time with 227 runs scored.
"I was not a power hitter, and that's the first thing I tell people when they bring up the home run or Jim's wonderful call," Masters said. "I think that's what makes the moment so exciting and special because it was unexpected coming from my bat."
The grand slam helped Masters go 6-for-6 in the game. He received a lot of emails and well wishes after junior shortstop Adam Frazier went 6-for-6 against the University of Virginia in the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional. Masters said Frazier's performance rekindled memories of his playing days at MSU, including Ellis' famous call.
"When Adam got the six hits, I got several emails from all over and links to Jim's call, 'This reminded me of you,' " Masters said. "I have relived that a few times."
Masters is the chaplin for the Chicago Cubs organization, which helps him mix the two loves of his life.
"I always thought and tried to get on the road to being a general manager of a Major League Baseball team one day," Masters said. "Some of my teammates were not surprised I went into the priesthood, but I was. Now I get to mix my passions, which are baseball and the Lord."
While known for his joking and care-free nature on and off the field with the self proclaimed "Bench Mobb," sophomore pitcher Ross Mitchell led the team's prayer service the morning before the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional victory. It was a service players like Ben Bracewell, Kendall Graveman, and Trey Porter said they will remember for a long time.
"The message he gave our team was something we're not going to talk about because some things should be kept in the team concept and clubhouse, but that was the right passage to give us on that day," Porter said. "I'll cherish that morning forever because I saw a Ross Mitchell he doesn't always show."
While the saying goes, God probably doesn't care or has better things to control than the fate of a baseball game, Cohen and MSU aren't taking any chances. They are determined to have every force on their side before they start the CWS championship series against the UCLA at 7 p.m. Monday (ESPN).