STARKVILLE – So much Mississippi baseball history – and so much of the future – were on display here Saturday at the new, $68 million version of Dudy Noble Field, AKA The New Dude.
The history? Between games of a chilly doubleheader with Youngstown (Ohio) State, Mississippi State inducted the first five members of the Ron Polk Ring of Honor in a ceremony in the elegant Adkerson Plaza beyond the right field wall.
There, elaborate plaques were revealed honoring the late Dudy Noble, the late Boo Ferriss, Will Clark, Raphael Palmeiro and Jeff Brantley. You want history? You can trace the history of State’s uncommon emphasis on baseball back to Noble (1893-1963), the stadium’s namesake, and an athletic director who doubled as the school’s baseball coach. (Having an athletic director as your baseball coach pretty much ensures that baseball gets its share of the budgetary pie.)
Coach Dudy in 1939 awarded Dave “Boo” Ferriss, from Shaw, the first full baseball scholarship in State history, a wise investment if there ever was one. Ferriss went on to become perhaps the best pitcher in Major League baseball before an shoulder injury ended his career prematurely. Ferriss eventually became a remarkably successful baseball coach at Delta State. His coaching tree – former players who went on to become coaches – has positively influenced baseball in this state and beyond.
Indeed, Ferriss, along with Polk, are the two men most responsible for high school baseball becoming a relevant sport in the Magnolia State. And Polk, along with Skip Bertman at LSU, are the two men most responsible for baseball becoming something much, much more than a sparsely attended spring pastime in the Southeastern Conference. I am wagering Dudy Noble could never have imagined the scene here Saturday when 9,157 attended a non-conference doubleheader, many of them seated in luxury suites in college baseball’s version of a palace. Said Polk: “This is college baseball’s Taj Mahal.”
Three of the best achievements of Polk’s career were his recruitment of Palmeiro (from Cuba, by way of Florida), Clark (from New Orleans) and Brantley (from Alabama). All were record-setting All Americans who became Major League stars.
If you were going to start with six (including Polk), these were the right first six to go into a State baseball Ring of Honor, although I would lobby hard for Willie Mitchell to go in before everyone forgets. Most already have. One hundred and ten springs ago, Mitchell, a 19-year-old senior left-hander, pitched perhaps the most perfect game ever at LSU, striking out 26 of 27 batters. (One Tiger grounded out weakly to second base.) Later, that same year, he pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the Major Leagues at the beginning of a successful 12-year Major League career. Yeah, I’d say Willie belongs, as do so many more.
But now then, let’s get to the future. The New Dude, itself, is part of that, almost sure to spark another baseball arms race in SEC, where big bucks are plentiful and everyone wants to have the biggest and best. The new stadium features every bell and whistle imaginable, including a a new two-tiered grandstand, three stadium clubs, 20 luxury suits, 96 outfield lounges, replete with barbecue rigs, a capacity of more than 15,000 and 12 (lofts) condos beyond the left field lounge area. As impressive as all that is, the attention to detail in telling the story of State’s rich baseball history throughout the stadium is every bit as impressive.
Clark shook his head when asked about the New Dude. “It’s like I told the (State) players. Those of you who sign and go on to play professional baseball, you just need to know that, facility-wise, you will be going down, not up.”
More about the future: Jake Mangum grows ever closer to setting the Mississippi State and SEC all-time hits record. Mangum ripped three hits, including two doubles, in the first game. That left the Rankin County native 74 hits short of the SEC record (LSU’s Eddie Furniss, 352) and 57 hits shy of Jeffrey Rea’s State record of 335.
More future: Right-handed freshman JT Ginn, State’s most prized baseball recruit in recent history if not ever, made his first college start. He hit the second Youngstown batter and the fourth slammed a two-run home run. And then Ginn proceeded to show why the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the first round and reportedly offered him $2.4 million to sign out of Brandon High. He struck out seven and walked one over five innings, allowing just two hits. He makes throwing 92-94 mph fastballs look effort-less. His ball moves.
Brantley, who once won 18 games in a single college season for State, watched Ginn with much interest.
“He’s got a great arm,” Brantley said. “He’s gets the competitive part you have to have. He is really competitive and really confident and a pitcher is nothing if he doesn’t have those two factors. I’ve seen Big Leaguers who don’t have it and he’s just a freshman.
“What JT will learn over the next two or three years are how to use his lower half (legs and rear) to save his arm,” Brantley continued. “And he’ll learn more how to pitch. For a freshman, he’s already way ahead.”
With Ginn’s arm – and if he has even close to the tenacity of Brantley – his plaque may someday join these others at Dudy Noble Field.
Mississippi State swept the doubleheader Saturday and the three-game series from Youngstown State. The Bulldogs won the first game Saturday 14-2 and completed the sweep with a 8-0 victory in the nightcap.