Before record-setting Jake Mangum, there was Jeffrey Rea, another relentless hitter

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Mississippi State media relations

Jeffrey Rea, like Jake Mangum who broke his Mississippi State hits record, was a line drive waiting to happen.

Jake Mangum, a line drive waiting to happen, recently passed Jeffrey Rea to become Mississippi State’s all-time hits leader. Soon, he will become the SEC’s all-time hits leader passing LSU’s Eddy Furniss.

With two more hits Sunday in State’s sweep of Alabama, Mangum moved to a whopping 344 for his career, eight short of Furniss’s SEC record 352. The Bulldogs play Texas Southern Tuesday night before a three-game series against Arkansas at Fayetteville Thursday through Saturday.

Rick Cleveland

Mangum could conceivably break Furniss’s record at Arkansas. If not, the Bulldogs play Ole Miss next Tuesday night (April 23, 6 p.m.) in Mangum’s hometown of Pearl. Now wouldn’t that be something? With Mangum’s history against the Rebels – he really has been the Rebel killer – that seems a natural.

But before we get to the SEC record, we should look back at Rea, the man whose Mississippi State record he broke. And who better to compare the two than Ron Polk, who coached Rea four years at State and has coached Mangum in the Cape Cod League?

“Two peas in a pod,” Polk called them in a phone conversation last week. “Neither one of them is a big physical presence, but both are ultra-competitive. Both have a great work ethic. Both could run very well and both of them could flat-out hit.

“As a coach you love to have players like Jeffrey and Jake, because their motors are running all the time.”

Rea, recruited to State out of tiny Nettleton, played for the Bulldogs from 2004 to 2007. Sometimes, he played second base. Sometimes, he played the outfield. He always hit.

Mike Strasinger, Associated Press

Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum rounds third base on his way to score another State run.

He hit .324 as a freshman, .308 as a sophomore and .372 as a junior. And that brings up another similarity between Rea and Mangum. Jeffrey could have gone pro after his junior year when he was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the 2006 draft. He chose to play his senior season at State, just as Mangum did.

Said Polk, “I think in both Jeffrey’s case and Jake’s case, they love college baseball and they love Mississippi State. Being small guys that don’t hit for power, they weren’t going to get life-changing money.”

Besides, as Rea told me during his senior season, “I would have paid money to come back and play at State.” He hit .343 as a senior.

As college baseball stars go, Rea was tiny – smaller than the 6-1, 179-pound Mangum. As a State senior, Rea stood just 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 155. Rea’s older brother, Brian Rea, had been a Hall of Fame player at Delta State. Hitting ran in the family. So despite his size, Jeffrey was heavily recruited by both State and Ole Miss.

MSU media relations

Jeffrey Rea, shown here throwing out a runner from second base, also played center field for the Bulldogs.

Jeffrey chose State, much to the chagrin of Dan McDonnell, who was then an assistant at Ole Miss and would become Louisville’s head coach. And that brings us to an episode from four years later in 2007, when Jeffrey Rea was playing what would be his final Bulldog game in the College World Series – against Louisville and McDonnell. Few scenes in this reporter’s sports writing career stand out more than this one: State had lost a heartbreaker in its first game in the 2007 CWS to North Carolina and was playing Louisville in an elimination game.

The Bulldogs trailed Louisville 12-4. Rea already had two hits in the game when he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning. Like Mangum, Rea was a line drive waiting to happen, and it happened on the first pitch of his last collegiate at bat – a line drive that whizzed past the pitcher into center field.

The hundreds of State fans in attendance stood and cheered – and then most of the rest of the crowd at old Rosenblatt Stadium stood and cheered as well. Who gets a standing O on the losing end of a 12-4 game? Jeffrey Rea, that’s who.

McDonnell sought out Rea after the game, gave him a big hug and told him he couldn’t wait to watch him into the Major Leagues.

That never happened. Drafted by the Chicago Cubs, Rea hit .337 at two different levels of minor league ball later in 2007. Just as spring training of 2008 was ending in Mesa, Arizona, Rea hit a routine ground ball, but as always was running, full blast, for first base when he tore the quadriceps in one of his legs.

After two months of rehab, he tried running again.

“Just wasn’t the same,” he says, and doctors told him they couldn’t guarantee that surgery wouldn’t help either.

Speed was his game, and he couldn’t run as he had before.

“It was tough but when it’s your time, it’s your time,” he says.

Jake Mangum

Now a father, Rea works as an agency manager for Mississippi Farm Bureau in Pontotoc. Yes, he says, he still watches Mississippi State baseball, mostly on TV these days. And, yes, he says, he admires Jake Mangum.

“I feel like I know Jake despite not having a close personal relationship with him,” Rea says. “I was happy to see a Mississippi guy break my record, especially a guy who plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s 100 percent, all-out, every game. And it’s kind of neat that the guy who broke my school record is going to break the Southeastern Conference record. I hope he breaks them all.”