By Rick Cleveland
JACKSON – We Mississippians often consider ourselves as a football state and for good reason.
Friday nights and Saturday afternoons and nights are special. Our state has produced far more than its share of the greatest football players in the history of the sport.
But you could make a case – and I will – that baseball has made a Magnolia State case for itself in recent years. In particular, Mississippi’s college baseball teams have far surpassed their football counterparts’ success rate in recent seasons.
This spring serves as a perfect example. Mississippi State and Ole Miss have spent much of the spring in the Division I Top 20. Southern Miss leads Conference USA. Delta State has been ranked No. 1 nationally in Division II much of the season.
And I know what many will say: Yeah, but who cares? College football still reigns supreme so far as fan interest goes.
My answer to that: It’s all relative. Ole Miss, State and USM all rank in the Top 15 in the nation in home baseball attendance. The football teams have never been able to make claim.
In my four-plus decades of covering Mississippi sports, the rise of college baseball on Mississippi’s sporting landscape has been the most dramatic change I’ve witnessed. Baseball has gone from a sport played in front of a smattering of fans sitting in wooden bleaches to a sport played to packed houses in modern ballparks, replete with luxury suites that have waiting lists.
Boo Ferriss at Delta State and Ron Polk at Mississippi State started the baseball renaissance. When Polk took the job as baseball coach at State in 1976, news of his hiring ran on Page 4 of the sports section of the state’s largest newspaper. After he took State to 18 NCAA Regionals and four College World Series, his retirement was the lead story on the front page.
The contributions by Ferriss are of a different nature. At Delta State, he produced so many coaches who have fanned out and become high school and junior college coaches throughout the state. They have, in turn, dramatically upgraded Mississippi high school baseball, using his teaching methods and his attention to detail in everything from pitching mechanics, to cut-off throws, to taking precious care of the baseball diamonds.
On May 20, the C Spire Ferriss Trophy, named in honor of the great Boo, will be awarded to Mississippi’s most outstanding college baseball player.
Get this: Four of the prime candidates are also on the list of finalists for the Golden Spikes Award as the most outstanding player in college baseball. Those four: Mississippi State outfielder Hunter Renfroe, Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner, and pitchers Bobby Wahl of Ole Miss and Andrew Pierce of USM.
No doubt, Delta State pitching ace Josh Branstetter and outfielder Ben Kingsley will receive strong consideration for national Division II player of the year.
In Mississippi, college baseball has come a long, long way, baby.
As this regular season draws to a close in mid-May, don’t be surprised if some of these teams are still playing when the postseason moves into June.
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@ msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His column will appear in the Daily Journal on Wednesdays.