Mike Kinnison’s Delta State Statesmen defeated West Alabama 6-3 Tuesday night to win the Gulf South Conference baseball championship and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Thus, the Statesmen write one more chapter in the remarkable Delta State baseball story, and we’ll get to that.
But, first, some numbers:
The victory was DSU’s 41st of the season against 11 losses. That’s not quite the norm – yet – for Kinnison’s teams. They have averaged 42 victories in his previous 20 DSU season.
That’s right. Kinnison’s teams have won 896 games, lost 286. Kinnison’s teams have won 76 percent of the times they have taken the field over 21 years. For comparison sake, the 1927 New York Yankees, considered by many the greatest team in baseball history, won 71 percent of their games over one season.
Kinnison’s teams have won 50 games or more in five seasons, 40 or more in 13 seasons and 35 or more 18 times.
It’s hard to imagine that any of those highly successful seasons were more of a surprise than this one, one in which Kinnison replaced his entire everyday lineup and much of his pitching staff.
The Statesmen must now wait until Sunday at 9 p.m. to learn where – and against whom – they will play in the NCAA South Region Tournament May 18-22. The goal, as always is the case at Delta State, is to reach the Division II World Series, which this year will be played in Grand Prairie, Texas, near Dallas.
Looking at all those gaudy victory numbers, one might wonder: What provides the fire for such sustained success?
Those familiar with Delta State baseball know the answer, but it is a story worth retelling for those who don’t know.
Before Kinnison was the Delta State coach, he was a Delta State player. And before he was a Delta State player, he was a Delta State manager. Before that, he was cut from the Delta State team by the father of Delta State baseball, Boo Ferriss. You really couldn’t make this one up.
This was 1975. Kinnison had spent two years playing at Holmes Community College and decided to “walk on” to play baseball at Delta State. Ferriss had a powerhouse team returning, so there weren’t many roster spots available. Complicating matters, Kinnison worked off-shore that summer to earn the money for tuition, room and board at DSU. You can’t take much batting practice on a oil rig.
Kinnison was rusty. The team was really good. On cut down day, Ferriss had to tell Kinnison he didn’t make the team. Kinnison was crushed. To tell the truth, so was Ferriss, who appreciated Kinnison’s relentless effort.
Days later, Kinnison was walking to class when Ferriss pulled his car over on the road beside him. Ferriss told Kinnison he could help him some with tuition if he would serve as manager of the team, that is, wash the uniforms, rake the fields, make sure there was plenty of water on hand, etc.
Instead of fielding ground balls, Kinnison smoothed the infield so others could. Instead of taking batting practice, Kinnison shagged balls for others. Instead of wearing a uniform, Kinnison washed them.
All these years later, Kinnison will tell you, as much as it hurt at the time, it was the turning point of his life. He watched Ferriss, the former Major Leaguer, teach and manage the game. He learned more about baseball and managing people in one spring than he ever knew possible. And then he played summer ball and did about a million pushups, making himself bigger and stronger. Reports of his summer ball success made it back to Ferriss, who had a surprise for Kinnison when he returned to campus.
Ferriss called Kinnison and told him to meet him at the field. Kinnison expected to work. Instead, Ferriss gave him a uniform and told him he was a player. Kinnison cried that day. He’ll cry now if you talk to him about it.
So, of course, Kinnison became one of the most productive players in Delta State history, an All American as a senior. He has become a Hall of Fame coach, using many of the lessons he learned watching Ferriss for one spring as a manager.
As Kinnison once told me, “I think about this all the time. Coach could have just driven on by me that day, but he stopped. And it changed my life.”
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Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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