The NCAA Baseball Super Regionals, with a huge Mississippi representation, begin Friday and run through Monday – assuming, of course, we don’t all float away with all this rain.
As this is written, there’s an 80 percent chance of rain Saturday and Sunday in Starkville, where Stanford plays Mississippi State in one of the eight Super Regional series. Best bet: The grounds crew at Dudy Noble will get a workout. Best bet No. 2: State fans will don their rain gear, turn out and cheer their Bulldogs regardless of predicted thunderstorms.
The weather looks much better in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Ole Miss plays the Razorbacks. Rain is supposed to move out of the northwest Arkansas area later Friday and the forecast is for sunshine Saturday through Monday.
Both Super Regionals involving Mississippi teams are set for Saturday and Sunday with third games played Monday, if necessary.
For this observer, the biggest news is that two of the final 16 college baseball teams still playing are from Mississippi, a state with a population of under 3 million people. California, with a population of about 40 million, also has two teams left playing: Stanford and No. 1 seed UCLA.
Only North Carolina (population 10.4 million), with three teams (Duke, East Carolina and North Carolina), has more teams still playing than Mississippi.
Given climate and population, one would think Florida (21.6 million) and Texas (28.7 million) would lead the way. No, Florida (Florida State) and Texas (Texas Tech) combine for two of the Super Regional teams – the same as, my late friend Willie Morris would say, “poor, ol’ whupped down Mississippi.”
Keep in mind, Southern Miss, a third Mississippi team, was the last team out in the Baton Rouge Regional.
Closer examination: Six of the 16 teams remaining are from the SEC. Twelve of the 16 are from the South.
Climate, which allows for nearly year-round baseball, surely accounts for much of that. But there’s more to it than that. Fan interest surely is a big factor. To borrow liberally from the SEC, down here, college baseball just means more.
When No. 1 ranked UCLA played a three-game series at then No. 2 ranked Stanford earlier this season, attendance for the three games combined was fewer than 7,000 people, fewer than 2,400 per game. When Mississippi State and Ole Miss played a neutral site game in Pearl on April 23 (with threatening skies), attendance was a standing-room-only crowd of 8,638 for a game that did not even count in the standings.
People care more about college baseball down here. It translates on the field.
In contrast, Michigan, the only northern team in the final 16, plays in a 4,000-seat facility that is rarely filled. When Michigan and Indiana played an important three-game series at Ann Arbor in early May, the combined attendance was under 4,000 with a top crowd of 1,500. I’ve seen more people show up for that in Mississippi for scrimmages.
Important for young folks to know: It wasn’t always this way.
The Deep South’s fascination with college baseball – and the meteoric rise in attendance – has happened over the past 40 years. As recently as 1988, Ole Miss played home baseball games in a stadium with wooden bleacher seats and no restroom facilities. Luxury suites? Are you kidding?
Over the last three decades, Mississippi schools have poured money into baseball. It has happened in high school baseball, which stocks the college programs, as well. Ron Polk, who spearheaded college baseball’s rapid rise in Mississippi and the SEC, once had to recruit most of his players from Florida and Georgia. That’s hardly the case for the Mississippi schools these days.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another state where a player, such as Mississippi State’s National Freshman Pitcher of the Year, J.T. Ginn, would turn down a $2.6 million signing bonus from the Los Angeles Dodgers, to go to school, attend classes and pitch baseball. Of course, you’d also be hard-pressed elsewhere to find a university that would level a perfectly functional stadium to build a $68 million college baseball Taj Mahal.
Here, college baseball does just really mean more.