Play ball! (And pack your blankets)

Posted on: February 14,2013

It didn’t feel like it when we got up this morning, but college baseball is here. Delta State already is winning, as usual. Belhaven already has played 11 games, all at home. Hall of Famer Hill Denson knows how to schedule.
And Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss, all nationally ranked, are about to play their first weekend series. Pack your coats and blankets.
Longtime readers know this: I love baseball — any kind of baseball — and especially college baseball.
It remains the purest of our sports at the college level. It is mostly played by real student-athletes, many of whom pay for large parts of their educations. They often have GPAs higher than than their batting averages and their ERAs.
In Mississippi, our teams traditionally play the sport especially well.
It has been amazing to watch the evolution of college baseball during my lifetime.
My first job — as a 6-year-old — was to chase down foul balls at the old baseball park at USM, which now serves as a football practice field. Reed Green, the Hall of Fame athletic director, would give my brother and me a 50-cent piece and a Coke after every game we spent retrieving foul balls. Baseballs were treated like gold then. Fans couldn’t keep foul balls, unless they ran away with them, and some did.
Matter of fact, there weren’t many fans and the fans who were there didn’t pay any admission. There were a few moms and dads and girlfriends, and as my daddy used to put it, “Some folks who just lost their away around campus.”
They played with wooden bats and by season’s end some of those bats were nailed together. They only had a certain number and once they were all broken, they had to be fixed.
That wasn’t just true at USM. I remember the first games I spent covering baseball at Ole Miss when they played at a ballpark with a few wooden bleachers and no bathrooms. Between innings, you’d see players sprinting out of the dugout to a classroom building down the street to relieve themselves.
Now, fans by the thousands do pay admission and they even pay thousands for skyboxes. Ole Miss, State and USM rank annually in the Top 15 in attendance nationally.
Our baseball history is rich. Hall of Famer Boo Ferriss, the first fully scholarshipped baseball player at Mississippi State, two decades later cut a diamond out of a soybean field in Cleveland and created a small college powerhouse at Delta State. Ron Polk, at State, was the first to make baseball really matter in the SEC. Denson not only coached baseball but promoted it and sold the season tickets himself at USM. When Denson first told Hall of Fame athletic director Roland Dale he wanted to charge for tickets to his the new ballpark, Dale told him he was crazy. “Hill, nobody comes when it’s free,” Dale said.
But they did pay. And they are still paying.
One aspect has not changed.
Archie Manning, a shortstop when he wasn’t a quarterback at Ole Miss, once told me this.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved college football,” Manning said. “But I really, really enjoyed playing college baseball. It was just fun. Football was work and it was sometimes painful, but baseball was fun. Some of my best college memories are of playing baseball for Coach (Tom) Swayze.”
Some of my best sports memories are of watching college baseball. Can’t wait for more.

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