Jeffrey Rea went down swinging, hustling

Rick Cleveland 2007.jpg

(Another College World Series flashback, this one from 2007. Thanks for the fond memory Jeffrey Rea.)

OMAHA, Neb. – Little Jeffrey Rea really did go down swinging. And slapping line drives. Would we have expected anything different from Rea, one of the most productive players in Mississippi State’s proud baseball history?

I think not.

With State trailing 12-4 to Louisville in the bottom of the ninth inning, Rea stepped to the plate and lined the first pitch into center field for his third hit of the game, his 84th hit of the season and his school record 335th hit as a Bulldog. That’s when the hundreds of State fans in attendance stood and applauded at length:With their team eight runs down and facing almost certain elimination, they stood and cheered in appreciation of a most deserving player – all 5 feet, 7 inches of him. Many fans, not dressed in maroon and white, followed suit.

Another fitting tribute came moments after Louisville had recorded the final out. After shaking hands with Ron Polk, Louisville coach Dan McDonnell sought out Rea, found him and gave him a big hug.

McDonnell, the former Ole Miss assistant, once lost the recruiting battle for Rea when the little guy was a senior at Nettleton. Said McDonnell, “I wanted to congratulate Jeffrey on his great career and tell him what a classy tribute that was his fans gave him in the ninth inning. I’m not surprised at anything he’s done, because he was one of my favorite high school players ever. It broke my heart when we didn’t get him at Ole Miss.

“I leaned over to my coaches the first time he came up today and told them, that little guy is going to play pro ball for a long, long time. I don’t know what position he’ll play but I know he’ll play because that guy can just flat hit. I told him I’ll be following his career in the pros.”

And here’s the deal: Rea could already have been in the pros. Drafted by the Boston Red Sox last year, Rea turned down the money to stay and play his final year at State. In so doing, he gave up any bargaining power he had. He’ll soon sign with the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him most recently, but it won’t be for as much money as he could have demanded last year. Rea knows it. He knew it then.

“But it wasn’t life-changing money, and, besides that, I would have paid money to come back and play and experience what I’ve experienced this year,” Rea said.

First team in, first out

So Mississippi State’s magical post-season run is over. The Bulldogs were the first team to qualify for the College World Series and have now become the first team eliminated. Put nicely, they didn’t distinguish themselves here.

As State’s Ron Polk put it, “You have to play your best baseball here to even have a chance.”

The Bulldogs didn’t. Perhaps they had used up all their heroics in winning the Tallahassee Regional and then sweeping Clemson in the Starkville Super Regional. They didn’t hit, pitch or field quite as well in Omaha. Yes, they had an excellent chance to beat North Carolina Friday night, but didn’t make the crucial plays they needed. And then Sunday, Louisville buried them under an avalanche of home runs and gappers.

While Rea got his three hits, the rest of the Bulldogs recorded only seven.

“We knew we were going to have to hit and score a bunch of runs here to do well, and we just didn’t get it done,” Polk said.

Rea has no regrets

Neverthless, Rea wouldn’t take anything for the experience: for the three wins at Tallahassee, playing before combined crowds of more than 26,000 at the Super Regional and for the Omaha experience as well.

“There are almost 300 schools in Division I baseball and only eight of us made it here,”Rea said. “Only one is going to really be happy at the end.

“You want to stay here and make it last as long as you can. It really stinks going two games and out, but I’m going to remember this experience forever. We’ve been through a lot together on this team and I’m glad I got to experience this with my teammates. It means a lot to finish my college career in Omaha with these guys.”

Know this:Rea will be sorely missed. Said teammate Chad Crosswhite: “He may be little, but every guy on this team looks up to Jeffrey Rea. He’s the classiest guy you’ll ever meet and I love him like a brother. Pound for pound, he’s the best athlete I’ve ever been around.”

Said Ron Polk: “For a guy his size to accomplish what he has says a lot. He’s a leader, a co-captain and a guy who does anything you ask. He’s a second baseman, and then we ask him to go play center field and he not only does it, he does a great job.”

‘For the record, Jeffrey Rea played his first game at State on Feb. 27, 2004. His first time up, he walked. His second time up he slapped a run-scoring double down the left field line. For four years, he has peppered all fields with hits. He went out the way he came in. Hittin’ and hustlin’.

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