June 24, 2013 10:42:12 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb. -- The best-of-three College World Series championship series between Mississippi State University and UCLA offers plenty of social differences before the teams step on the field.
The series features two programs and individuals from distinct backgrounds. It also provides a matchup of a big-city team (Los Angeles) versus a small-town team (Starkville). There also will be a regional element that will pit West Coast players against Southeastern players bases and an opportunity for one school's most historically significant program to win its first national title and the other school's participant to win its first baseball title and to emerge from the shadow of its storied men's basketball program.
"It's two totally different worlds," said UCLA infielder Pat Valaika, who is from Valencia, Calif. "LA is a big city (where) you have the beach and a lot of things to do. Starkville is Starkville. I can't say I've ever visited, but some bass fishing does sound pretty good."
Twitter and social media have been buzzing ever since MSU (51-18) secured a shot to play for the first team national championship in school history. With most of the MSU roster coming from the states of Mississippi and Alabama, the Bulldogs understand the cultural differences between their club and their opponent.
"I don't know how much deer hunting or bass fishing they do in Los Angeles, so off the field it's probably going to be a little but different," MSU sophomore first baseman Wes Rea said. "It's two teams playing for a national championship, so they must be doing something right."
Rea told a story about a close friend who works for Sanderson Farms to describe the emotion fans in the Magnolia State felt Friday after the final out of MSU's 4-1 victory against No. 3 national seed Oregon State University.
"They work in the corn field all summer long (and) he called me after we won the game the other day and he looked across the corn field and saw everybody jumping around, going crazy," Rea said. "That is the kind of thing people are doing back home."
While many in the state of Mississippi have followed MSU's every move, UCLA has stirred emotions on a lesser scale. At a school where the 2012 student population was 27,941 undergraduates, UCLA plays in Jackie Robinson Stadium that only has a capacity of 1,820 seats. The announced attendance was 1,220 for its 6-0 victory against the University of San Diego in the NCAA Los Angeles Regional final.
In contrast to the relative obscurity UCLA baseball plays in a sports market dominated by professional teams, MSU's lowest announced home attendance, which represents tickets sold and not actual attendance, was the 2013 opener, where paid attendance was 5,817 against the University of Portland.
Even in the nation's No. 2 television market, UCLA, which has won 108 team national championships, including 11 in men's basketball, has trouble equaling the size of MSU's fan base.
"I have no idea what you're talking about because it's not like we have 11 professional sports teams just nearby right?" UCLA junior infielder Kevin Williams said. "It's kind of nice to be able to play without that microscope at UCLA and then have people look up and we're in Omaha for the third time in four years."
UCLA coach John Savage said his team's mentality and his philosophy is very much "West Coast", and involves finding a combination of pitching and speed and players who have a competitive chip on their shoulder. The Bruins' ninth-year coach is convinced the Bruins aren't going to attract enough power hitters that will move on to Major League Baseball.
"We just don't have the physicalness as I see it as compared to the Southeastern Conference kids and their bodies," Savage said. "Sometimes I look out there and say, 'Oh God' when we're stretching. It's not a real physical looking team. I think everybody in the room knows that, but they're ballplayers."
Savage turned to Rea, MSU's 272-pound first baseman, after that comment as proof that his club doesn't have a player who looks like him.
"What's not to like about Mississippi State's team?" UCLA pitcher Adam Plutko said. "Big Wes Rea gives a hug to an umpire after he punches him out and says you missed that one and walks away. There's not too many guys in the country that can do that and get away with it."
During the tournament when he had to face Oregon State University twice in his bracket, MSU coach John Cohen said he felt West Coast teams -- specifically Pacific-12 Conference teams -- did the best at adapting to the changes in the aluminum bat. The changes to the bats eliminated a lot of the power element to college baseball and made pitching and defense a priority. Those things already were hallmarks of West Coast programs with bigger ballparks such as UCLA, Oregon State, the University of Southern California, and the University of Oregon.
"It's been pitching that's kind of put our stamp on our program," said Savage, referencing past first-round MLB draft picks Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. "You have to make adjustments in this game rather than sit there and complain about what bat manufacture is making them and the size of the ballpark. That's why I think you see the teams not being in a position where they are in terms of excuses."
Cohen knew five years ago he and assistant coach Butch Thompson would have to stockpile young arms. He, Thompson, and Lane Burroughs, a former MSU assistant who is the head coach at Northwestern State University, attracted 14 pitchers in three years who could all touch 90 mph. Now MSU has the nation's deepest bullpen.
"Coach Thompson says this all the time, but he has the exact number of days we've been in Mississippi together," Cohen said. "We'll say this is day 1,500 or whatever. He'll always say it took a while to do the right thing we wanted to do. That part of the journey is really satisfying."
Tonight, the difference between teams similar in style of play will come down to UCLA's starters and MSU's bullpen, defense, and speed.
"We do the bass fishing on the video games and big-game hunting, so it's pretty similar here, too," Plutko said. "It's about style of baseball. Where you're from doesn't matter. Major leagues prove that from guys in the Dominican with nothing or guys from here that have everything."