Bulldog baseball legend Rafael Palmeiro stands next to the statue named “lightening” dedicated for his time spent playing baseball at Mississippi State and in the major leagues. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch
February 16, 2019 11:43:59 PM
Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, also known as "Thunder and Lightning," have been larger-than-life figures among Mississippi State baseball fans since their memorable playing days for the Bulldogs in the 1980s.
On Friday, that became literally true during a pre-game ceremony unveiling a pair of 15-foot bronze sculptures of the players.
A crowd well more than 1,000 swarmed around the Jordan Plaza at the main entrance of Dudy Noble Field/Polk Dement Stadium, where Clark and Palmeiro were honored with their sculptures.
"Right now, I don't even know what to say," said Palmeiro, moments after the black tarps were lifted from the towering statues amid a thunderous roar of spectators. "I'm in a state of shock."
The ceremony, which took place 2-1/2 hours before the season-opening first pitch, was the biggest of several opening-weekend events to coincide with the christening of the $68-million renovation and expansion of the Bulldogs' baseball stadium.
Ron Polk, widely considered as the architect of the MSU baseball program during his 29 years as the MSU coach, threw out the first pitch of Friday's game, then returned Saturday to unveil the inaugural inductees of the Ron Polk Ring of Honor in Adkinson Plaza at the right field entrance the park. The Ring of Honor inductees included Clark, Palmeiro and their teammate, pitcher Jeff Brantley. Joining that trio of stars from the '80s was the late Dave "Boo" Ferris, a star player at State in the early 1940s who became a colllege coaching legend at Delta State, and the late C.R. "Dudy" Noble, a four-sport standout at MSU in the early 1900s who later served as MSU's athletics director.
But Friday's spotlight was fixed solely on the two players who, from 1983 until 1985, captured the imagination of the college baseball world.
MSU Director of Athletics John Cohen, who arrived at State as a baseball player in 1987, addressed the crowd by promising to settle an argument he said has raged since he and his MSU teammates debated the question: Who was better? Clark or Palmeiro.
"This debate has gone on forever," said Cohen. "So I'm going to tell you who the winner is: It's all of us. We got to see greatness on a level never before displayed in college baseball."
To emphasize his point, Cohen noted the combined achievements of the two players.
"Never before or since has college baseball had a dynamic duo like this one," Cohen said. "To give you an idea, in three short years, Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro combined for 477 hits, a combined batting average of .382, 438 combined RBI and 128 combined home runs, which is an average of one home run for every 9.79 at-bats. Just to put that in perspective, the great Babe Ruth hit a home run once every 11.76 at-bats. Pretty impressive stuff."
Although the relationship between the two players was strained later in their professional careers, particularly after the two were traded for each other in 1994, on Friday Clark and Palmeiro spoke in deferentially and warmly about their old MSU teammate.
"Who was Thunder and who was Lightning? This guy right here was both of them," Palmeiro said, pointing toward Clark.
"It was so much fun standing in the batter's box after that man right there," Clark said, gesturing toward Palmeiro.
Both players said their three years at MSU were transformational moments in their major league careers that included All-Star appearances, Silver Slugger Awards and Gold Gloves. Clark played 15 seasons in the majors with a career batting average of .303. Palmeiro played 19 seasons, collected 3,020 hits and hit 569 homers, but was caught up in the steroid scandal that has, to date, denied him entry into baseball's Hall of Fame.
"In 1982, Coach Polk came to my house and invited me to come to Starkville, Mississippi," Palmeiro recalled. "I was a Cuban kid out of Miami and scared to death. By the time I left here, I knew this was my home. Out of my whole career, this was the best three years of my baseball career."
"We walked into Mississippi State out of high school as green freshmen and we trusted Ron Polk," Clark said. "He led us down the right path. The three years we were here flew by. There were so many great things that happened. All we had to do was just do what we had been doing our whole lives. It was you guys, the fans, that took it to the next level. ... What an unbelievable honor this is. It's one of the top things that's ever happened to me."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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