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Taking the next step: MSU hopes to surpass 1985 team


Matthew Stevens



OMAHA, Neb. -- The last Mississippi State University baseball team to advance this far in the College World Series is watching, encouraging, and hoping the 2013 Bulldogs can keep moving forward.  


Before this season, MSU used a two-word marketing campaign -- "We're back" -- to highlight the potential of coach John Cohen's team. Not only have fans packed Dudy Noble Field and traveled with the Bulldogs in record numbers, several famous former MSU baseball players also have returned to Starkville or have supported the program from afar. 


As soon as Cohen returned from a sweep of the No. 6 national seed University of Virginia in the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional in Charlottesville, Va., his phone began to buzz non-stop with congratulations and well wishes. Most of the messages were from friends and family, but some were from former MSU players he played with or players who are at the top of MSU record books.  


"Guys like Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Jay Powell, Bobby Thigpen," Cohen said. "I'm going to leave people out, which is what happens when you've got as many big leaguers come through the program as we do. That's the first thing I do in the morning. I get on the bike and start returning texts. I'm returning texts a lot longer than I can run on that bike. It's really nice. It's neat to have that many people reach out." 


Clark, who was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, spoke to the team May 1 before its three-game set against the University of Alabama. In 1985, The Sporting News named Clark an All-American. He later won the Golden Spikes Award from USA Baseball. A teammate of Palmeiro, the two were known by the nickname "Thunder and Lightning."  


"I know that when Will Clark, a six-time All-Star and a man who hit .300 in the big leagues, opens his mouth to say something to us as a group, you listen," MSU senior pitcher Kendall Graveman said. "That's somebody I grew up watching and idolizing the hard work he put into his craft, and that's the mentality I take pride in when I go to the park with a Mississippi State jersey on." 


Clark's stressed working hard and playing the game with passion. He also talked about how special it is to wear the MSU jersey, especially when thousands pack Dudy Noble Field to support the program. This season, MSU drew 281,840 fans for its home games, eclipsing the previous home attendance record by nearly 50,000. It was the nation's second-highest paid total. MSU's school-record average home attendance of 7,617 (37 dates) was the fourth-highest in the nation. 


"When Will Clark comes and shakes hands with your players, that gets your adrenaline going," Cohen said. "There's some tradition there, and our kids want to live up to that tradition. The only thing that hasn't been done at Mississippi State is to win a national championship in baseball. We've had All-Americans, we've had Gold Spikes Award winners. The only thing we haven't done is win a national championship. I think that's great motivation for our players." 


Jeff Brantley talked to Cohen the week before Omaha. Brantley, a former All-Star and a 14-year Major League Baseball veteran, is still MSU's single-season leader for wins (18 in 1985). Now, he is a father whose son won't stop talking about MSU's postseason run. 


"My son just graduated from Mississippi State, and I'm here to tell you he's glued to what this program is doing," Brantley said. "I'm following it, but even in my broadcasting duties, my son is texting me things like, 'Did you see that ball Wes Rea hit in the trees in Virginia?.' " 


Brantley, who is in his sixth season with the Cincinnati Reds radio and television broadcast team, pitched for the Reds, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, and Texas Rangers. He had 172 saves and a 3.39 ERA in 615 games. In Mississippi, Brantley is remembered as a four-year letterwinner at MSU and a first-team All-American in 1985. During the winter, Brantley often can be seen at Humphrey Coliseum. He is a consistent season ticket holder of the MSU men's basketball team, and lives in Jackson.  


During a recent television broadcast with play-by-play man Marty Brenneman, Brantley was asked about the most fun he had playing the game. Brantley didn't hesitate.  


"It was easy because no matter what you do at the next level, you never forget the sweat, exhilaration in that exact moment during the final out of the game and you know you're headed to the College World Series in Omaha," Brantley said. "I remember every drop of sweat, blood, and the pounding of my heart right before that moment because the nerves are similar to watching your child being born or getting married." 


Brantley said Monday in a phone interview before a Reds telecast that he and Brenneman have a special interest in the College World Series. Brenneman, who was awarded the Ford C. Frick Award by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, is a graduate of the University of the North Carolina, the No. 1 national seed, which stayed alive Tuesday with a 4-2 victory against No. 4 national seed LSU. 


"He just called me this morning nervous over the fact that his Tar Heels are already in a elimination-game situation against one of the nation's better programs in LSU," Brantley said.  


At 2 p.m. Friday (ESPN), MSU will play the winner of today's game between Oregon State University and Indiana University. A victory Friday or Saturday would help MSU pass the 1985 Bulldogs and help it become the only team in school history to qualify for the CWS championship series. 


Brantley, who was the grand marshal of the 2010 Dudy Gras Parade, the annual celebration at the start of a MSU baseball season, said he is not "surprised at all" at what Cohen and his staff have done to transform the program after several sub-.500 seasons. Despite the lack of success at the end of Ron Polk's tenure and early in Cohen's career, Brantley knew tradition and enthusiasm for the program was still alive. 


"I know there's a tremendous amount of pride in everybody that has put on the uniform at Mississippi State that the program is back to where it deserves, and rightfully should be," Brantley said. "When you talk about championship baseball at MSU, people still come out in droves to watch it. Not only at Dudy Noble Field, but this is why the crowds at Omaha have been what they've been this year, too." 




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