Jake Mangum, who rarely hits home runs, is always intense. Here, he celebrates a home run against Oklahoma Monday with his trademark intensity. Mangum will lead State into its Super Regional Friday at Vanderbilt.

Let’s get this out of the way first: If I ran a Major League team’s front office, I’d draft Jake Mangum early and pay him what it takes to sign him.

I love the way Mangum plays. I love the way he competes. I love the way he wins. Can’t wait to see him play this weekend when Mississippi State takes on Vanderbilt in an NCAA Super Regional at Nashville. Mangum is at his best when it matters most, so he should be special at Vandy.

Says his former coach, John Cohen, now the Mississippi State athletic director, “When all is said and done, Jake Mangum is just a winner. He’s a ballplayer who does whatever it takes to win. At the plate and on the bases, he puts a lot of pressure on the other team’s defense. Defensively, he shrinks the field. Plus, he makes the other players around him better because of the way he approaches and plays the game.”

Rick Cleveland

That’s all true. On the one hand, Mangum produces runs with his hitting and base running. On the other hand, his defense in centerfield often keeps the other team from scoring. He turns doubles and triples into outs.

That’s why it is so amazing – at least to me – that Mangum, a 22-year-old junior, was not drafted in the recent MLB draft until the Mets took him in the 32nd round. He says he is returning to Mississippi State for his senior season.

“Definitely, 100 percent I’m coming back,” he told Mississippi Today in a phone conversation Thursday morning. “I had a number in mind of what it would take to sign. When it was obvious I wasn’t going to get that number, that was fine, too. I freaking love Mississippi State.”

You should know that Mangum would have gone much earlier in the draft had he agreed to a price with the teams that were interested. He began getting calls in the sixth round. Reps from both Philadelphia and Tampa Bay called. They would draft him if he would sign for a certain number. Mangum said no. Other teams called in later rounds. Mangum said thanks, but no thanks.

This is all just further evidence of how the sport has changed at the professional level. The pros value power above all else. Mangum has hit three home runs this season, four in his three seasons at State.

Said a pro scout, on the condition of anonymity, “Jake’s a great college player, and there’s no doubt about that. But it’s fairly clear he values himself higher than Major League teams do. There’s nothing wrong with that and there’s nothing wrong with him going back to school for another year other than he’ll be another year older when we draft again next year.”

Jake Mangum (right) with the late Boo Ferriss after Magnum won the C Spire Ferriss Trophy as a freshman in 2016

Said the same scout, “The average centerfielder in the big leagues last year hit .275 with 18 home runs and 25 stolen bases. That’s just the average centerfielder and nobody is trying to draft average players. Now I don’t have any doubt that Jake can hit .275 or even higher or that he can steal 25 bases. It’s the 18 home runs that are missing.”

But how to put a value on competitiveness or on the “it” factor – “it” being that special, almost undefinable quality of being at your best when it matters most? Mangum oozes “it.” He is a career .350 hitter at State. But against Ole Miss, the team State loves to beat more than anyone, he has hit .447 and has made enough stupendous catches to fill several episodes of ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Cohen again: “All I know is that in three seasons, he will have been to three Super Regionals and have won an SEC Championship. I can’t tell you how big a part he has been of all that. This is my opinion and just my opinion: When he makes it to the Big Leagues, and I think he will, he will be a guy that can give you 200 hits in a season plus save a whole bunch of runs in centerfield. There aren’t many guys who can do that. Jake can.”

Mangum also brings an uncommon intensity to the ballyard every day. Asked where he gets that, he doesn’t hesitate.

“That comes from my dad, no doubt about it,” he says. “My dad instilled it in my brain before I can even remember.”

John Mangum played nine seasons for the Chicago Bears.

John Mangum, Jake’s dad, played football at Alabama and then for nine years in the NFL for the Chicago Bears. A cornerback, he still holds the Bears’ career record for passes broken up. But he’s not so sure he can take credit for his son’s competitive zeal.

“Jake’s always been that way,” he says. “He loves to win, hates to lose. I can’t remember him ever not being that way.”

John Mangum, who works as a financial advisor primarily to pro football players, applauds his son’s decision to stay at State.

“He loves the place,” the father says. “It’s been great for him. Pro baseball will still be there. He says he will hit his way through the minor leagues, once he gets the chance. He believes that.”

Says Jake Mangum, “I don’t want to sound cocky but I really do believe I can hit and field at any level of this sport. I firmly believe that.”

He plans to take this summer off from baseball – no Cape Cod League, this year. He plans to devote all that extra time to work in the weight room, adding muscle while not sacrificing speed.

“I’m not going to change my game but maybe some of those line drives and fly balls will leave the park,” he says.

There’s no doubt that would heighten the interest of Major League teams – perhaps, in my mind, even more than it really should.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.