In the inaugural episode of Crooked Letter Sports, hosts Rick and Tyler Cleveland caught up with former Mississippi State Bulldog, reigning SEC hits king and the pride of the Binghampton Rumble Ponies, Jake Mangum, about his transition to AA ball and his take on what makes Mississippi baseball so much fun.

Stream all episodes here, and read the transcript below and here.

Read the full transcript for this episode:

Tyler: Hello, and welcome to the Crooked Letter Sports podcast, a show about Mississippi sports and the folks who play them. I’m Tyler Cleveland with Scorebook Live Mississippi. I’m here with the person I’ve always wanted to co-host a podcast with, my dad, Mississippi Today columnist Rick Cleveland. 

Rick: Yeah, Tyler, this is gonna be a lot of fun.

I’ve always wanted to do a project, some journalism project with you, and this promises to be a fun one. 

Tyler: Yeah, I hope so. We’re going to, you know, we’re going to talk to guests. We’re gonna banter back and forth. I’m really looking forward to it, but we want to cover everything. We want to cover from high school sports on up to the, you know, the pro level.

And I think, you know, there’s definitely no shortage of things in Mississippi for us to talk about. 

Rick: Yeah, and we’re going to talk a lot about Mississippi sports history, something that’s near and dear to me. And speaking of Mississippi sports history, we’re going to begin the podcast today with Jake Mangum, who’s possibly one of the most popular, not possibly. He is one of the most popular college baseball players in Mississippi history.

Tyler: Yeah. And loved to play. Obviously, just from watching him, you can tell right off the bat that he loves the game, respects the game. And I think that kind of connected with fans. 

Rick: Yeah, and as popular as he was with Mississippi State fans, fans of the other schools, they had different feelings about it. 

Tyler: They might’ve had different opinions, but I think he always had their respect, you know. Maybe, maybe not enough. It’s at a couple of times, different times when they could have pitched around him. But you know, when a guy who gave back, you know, you remember at the College World Series, his, you know, his final parting press conference was about college baseball and how important it was, and you know, I’ve always respected him. 

Rick: Yes, sir. So without any further ado, let’s get into our interview with Jake Mangum. He’s coming to us from Binghamton, New York, where he’s playing AA baseball now in the New York Mets organization. Jake, welcome to the pod. We are so happy to have you, and thank you for being with us from Binghamton. 

Jake: Binghamton, New York! That’s right.

Rick: Yeah.  Last time, the three of us, Tyler and you and I, were together was—

Jake: Good, good place to be. Hopefully, the dogs can get back there.

Rick: Yeah. Tyler had a… tell him. 

Tyler: Oh, yeah. I was just… We were talking about it this morning, and I remember. We were sitting outside one of those bars in the market district, and I was having a drink with a couple of TV reporters and—

Jake: Y’all were at the German place, right? 

Tyler: Yeah. Yeah. And we… I remember one of the TV reporters was talking about your perfect jawline when you walked up behind us, I think with your girlfriend in tow. And I don’t know if you heard her or not, but man, she turned blood red, and we had a laugh about that for the rest of the day.

I mean, it was probably the highlight of my Omaha adventure that year. I know it wasn’t for you. But it was a, it was a blast for me. 

Jake: That’s pretty fun. It’s a good city to be, man. It’s a lot more districts, a lot of fun. It’s a lot of stuff to do, a lot of good places to eat. Yeah. It’s fun, man. I miss Omaha.

Rick: Yeah, well, we’re recording this on June the ninth, and I’m hoping I’ll be in Omaha next week. For I’d love for it to be both State and Ole Miss. 

Jake: I know. I was about to say if you’re there it’s 50/50 if my team made it or not, but you know, I’m, I’m pulling for both. It’d be cool to see Ole Miss and Mississippi State in Omaha. 

Rick: Well, let’s talk about your career right now. You’ve already been promoted once this season, and you are now playing for the AA Binghamton Rumble Ponies in the Mets organization. What exactly is a rumble pony? 

Jake: Binghamton, it’s known for a few things, but one thing it’s known for, well, first off, IBM started here. Fun fact. IBM started here, but number two: Binghamton is known for, like, a bunch of merry-go-rounds, like, carousels.

So they were, whenever they changed the name from the Binghamton Mets, they, it was the Rumble Ponies to the Stud Muffins. So Rumble Ponies won because I guess the city, you know, has some ties with ponies. I’m driving home last night. I see a little, just a little, you know, one pole sticking out around the front yard and it’s one of those merry-go-round ponies. So there’s something going on with Binghamton and merry-go-round ponies. Not sure what it is. I guess it’s been around for a year for a while now. Just excited to be a Rumble Pony. Couldn’t be more excited.

Rick: That’s great. What’s better, though, is the fact that you’re hitting, you’re hitting a lot of… You’re hitting better at AA than you hit at single-A, average-wise, at least. And the other thing is you’re hitting for more power. 

Jake: Yeah. Just, I spent a lot of work in 2020, trying to change some things in my game that I felt I needed to change for pro ball. Pro ball is a different beast, man. This is, you know, high school to college. It was a jump in, regardless of the arms I faced.

Don’t get me wrong. I saw great arms in college. I’m seeing great arms now, but the difference is the defense is a lot crisper, man. The ground balls don’t find as many holes. You’re not always playing on fields that are allowing the ball to just skip through, and no one values that. And that’s the big thing.

And no one values, just a ground ball base hit, really, in pro ball. And all. So I spent the entire 2020 year just trying to backspin a baseball and just try to hit it harder. And I’ve done that now, but there’s a lot of things I still need to progress with. The fact that I’m in AA is a blessing, first off.

I’d like you guys to know that, everybody back in Mississippi, that the fact that I’m in AA is nothing short of just a… it’s a blessing from God. Not many guys out of the 2019 draft class are in AA already. And somehow I’m here. I wasn’t putting up great numbers in high A, but they, they took a chance on me.

And since then, I’ve, I’ve kind of taken off a little bit, but you know, it, it happens quick. I tell a lot of guys that in baseball, it happens quick. It goes up or down real quick. So you better stay even keel about it. Never too high. Never too low. Because one game can, can change everything. So it’s you know, we’re right back at it tonight. I had a tough night last night.

0-4 at the plate, but you know, right back at it tonight. 

Tyler: Yeah. I was going to ask you, Jake. You hear a lot of people say that, you know, the weekend pitching in the SEC is kind of, you know, what you would see in high A or AA, what’s your impression? And does that hold true? 

Jake: Last night, I haven’t told you, we faced the number one pitching prospect in minor league baseball, and his fastball is something I’ve seen plenty of times by now. His curveball is something I’ve seen plenty of times by now. I’ll give him credit. Change up was really, really good. A different type change-up I’ve ever seen. It’s all the same stuff, man.

It really is. Like, from high A to AA, it’s the same exact type stuff you’re seeing Friday, Saturday, and the SEC, same exact stuff we saw. The only difference is, you know that every, every now and again, you’d face dude on Tuesday night and the midweek in college, that was good. But majority of the time you were facing mid-eighties with, you know, lacking secondary stuff.

But now. It’s just, it’s everyday man. It’s every day. There’s something that everyone that steps on the mound does well. There’s some, there’s one pitch that they can rely on to get you out, or at least they think, to get you out. And that’s, that’s the difference. You don’t really run into arms anymore that just don’t have anything to get you out.

Everybody has at least one pitch, and it’s similar. It’s a Friday night, Saturday night arm type deal from college, you know, the elite bullpen arms.  It’s like that.  It’s an adjustment. The big thing for me is I have to understand the strike zone’s smaller. That’s a big thing in college that, you know, to be successful, you have to protect six inches off, four inches in, six inches up, six inches down.

The zone is just bigger. And that’s not, that’s not saying the umpires are bad. It’s just kind of where the set strike zone is. Like, “Hey, we’ll give you a little off in college.” In pro ball, man, like, you know, now that I’m in AA, the strike zone has gotten smaller. Now I have to adjust to that. My entire life I’ve been a protective hitter. That’s been slap and run, but to do damage, I’ve gotta be more selective. So, that’s the process I’m in right now. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take patience, but I’m going to get to it. I know I’ll figure it out. God willing, stay healthy along the process.

Rick: You know, Jake, 50-something years of covering college baseball, I’ve never seen any player enjoy playing the game more than it always looked like you did. And I’m just wondering, is going from Mississippi State into professional baseball, is it as much fun? 

Jake: Look, is it more fun to play in Binghamton than a super-regional with 15,000 people?

Obviously, I’d be lying if I told you that, you know, a minor league, regular-season game’s more fun than playing at Dudy Noble post-season. But I truly believe God put me on this earth to play baseball like this. Like that’s my calling. That’s what I’m pursuing my life in. That’s what I spend every waking minute of the day focused on and practice like to be the best I can be to help my team/organization win.

Like that’s what I feel like God finds joy in me doing and what he put me on the earth to do. I miss Mississippi State a lot, but you know, this is where I need to be right now. I’m making major strides in my game day by day, here in Binghamton. I’m continuing to get better. And, you know, someone told me, someone in the Mississippi State alumni circle told me this.

He said, “everything that’s bad about the minor leagues is all worth it once you make it,” he said. And I’m sure… he won’t… I think he said it on the air, but you know, it, it was, it was Brantley. He told me that. You know, the, the thing is, I think he’s right. You know, like, there’s a lot of stuff that is tough about the minor leagues, the travel, you know, sometimes the food. It’s gotten better.

The food’s gotten better. There’s a lot of things that if you could script it, like you would change in the minor leagues. There’s no doubt about that. But I kinda love that part of it, you know, like that’s what makes it a little harder. Cause if it, if it was easy, everybody would do it, and I’d probably be out a job, but just a difficulty level helps a lot.

You know, it kind of keeps you grounded. It keeps you humble. I just love playing ball, man.  I’ll play ball anywhere I can, but once I make it, I think it’ll all be worth it. If I make it. We’ll see. 

Tyler: Yeah, Jake, we want to… one of the things we wanted to ask you about as we were talking about this last night as we were watching the Braves, we were trying to think of athletes in Mississippi, who, while they were in college would have benefited from a name, image and likeness, you know, law so that they could, a college athlete could benefit a little bit.

And I think the consensus was that you definitely could have. I mean, we hear your commercials on the radio now. I just wanted to kind of get your take on that. And you know, whether or not you think that it would have benefited you while you were still in school? 

Jake: Yeah, sure. It, I could have had some opportunities that would have been, you know, that would have been there if it would have been legal, I guess, while I was in college, but you know, here’s, here’s the thing, man.

It’s such a gray area. There’s so many opportunities for that to be leading into cheating, leading into jealousy, leading into, you know like John Cohen said it very, very well. “Well, if you pay the quarterback, well, what about the offensive lineman? If you pay the pitcher, then what about the catcher? If you pay the four-hole hitter, what about the three-hole hitter?

There’s just a lot. There’s a lot of gray area with this, man. And I think the NCA needs to tread carefully because the game’s so pure right now, man. I tell everybody in pro ball that makes fun of me, “Well, why do you watch so much college baseball?” Because it’s so pure, man. It’s just a pure game.

Like you’re seeing dudes that just are competing for the universities. They’ve been through a whole entire fall program together. They’ve been through a whole entire regular season. Now it’s go time, back against the wall, fight or flight. It’s just a pure game, man. And that’s why a lot of people love college baseball so much, just because it’s just such a pure game.

So if, once we start getting dollar signs involved in it, that doesn’t change the fact that we need to grow the game in regards to the [unintelligible] assistant coach and the scholarship ordeal, the game does need to grow, but name, image, and likeness is just a sketchy, sketchy area, man. And the more you think about it, the more you look around, like the more you get dollar signs involved with such a pure game, it’s going to get… it’s going to open up a lot of opportunities for things that aren’t good for the game.

Rick: That brings up another thing I wanted to talk to you about. In some ways, there’s dollar signs already because college coaches have to figure out how to divide up 11.7 scholarships, you know, among a 35 man roster. 

Jake: You’re exactly right. 35 man roster, 11.7 scholarships. 

Rick: Yeah. So what’s your take on that?

I mean, it’s, it seems to me that it’s crazy that a third-string, long snapper can be on full scholarship and a high level, SEC pitcher might have a 50%. 

Jake: Yeah, man. I’ve, I’ve played with a lot of dudes that helped win us a lot of baseball games that had student loans. It’s crazy, but it is, it is a part of it. So I just think that they need to add scholarships.

It’s crazy that there’s only 11.7 scholarships in baseball.

Rick: Don’t you think college baseball’s reached the point that maybe anybody who’s on, maybe not the whole 35 man roster, but the 25 man, the travel roster, shouldn’t they be on scholarship? 

Jake: They absolutely should be on scholarship.

Without question. At least, add some scholarships at first, like we don’t have to go 11.7 to 27 off the bat. Let’s periodically start raising this bar a little bit. And if that means that not everyone wants to support the, you know, raising scholarships, then that’s fine.  Then your program, your university shows that they’re not going to take a lot of pride in baseball.

That’s fine. We’ve got like 400 Division I baseball teams, way too many. Like, football — they do it pretty right. There’s a Division I…D1-1A, D1-2A. Split it up. Like, you know what I mean? Like this is a great opportunity for… Now, I know that that means that there’s not going to be any more Cinderella 4-seed regionals teams. Sucks, but in order for the game to grow, you have to add more scholarships. You have to, you know, invest more money in the game.

And this is just an opportunity for the 400 Division I baseball teams to decide, do we value baseball? Do we value this sport on our university campus? And, you know, man, over the last year and a half we’ve already seen a lot of programs, a lot of university presidents kind of whack baseball program.

So, I’m not trying to break the hearts of the small, like, really small D1 schools, you know, their College World Series hopes. It’s just the reality of it is: the game’s growing rapidly. Some universities aren’t going to invest money into baseball, and that’s fine if that’s the route they take.

But the last thing I want is this kid that loves baseball that goes to this small D1 school, and they whack the program his junior year.  That is like the last thing you want. Like, I don’t want that to happen, but it’s really starting to get to the point. If we add scholarships, you’re going to see real quickly what universities value baseball and what universities really care about having them on campus. 

Tyler: You talked about growing the game. Can you talk about somewhere where the game is not growling? Because it’s fully growed, and that appears to be Mississippi. You know, we were talking earlier about Southern Miss fighting Ole Miss in that regional.

You know, Ole Miss, Mississippi state, you know, both advancing in the playoffs. I mean, and it, you just go level to level. I mean, Jackson State went undefeated in the SWAC this year, and Delta State is always in contention. I don’t have to tell you, but the high school scene in Mississippi is unreal right now.

Your Alma mater won another championship. Shout out to the Patriots. 

Jake: Patriots, best in the country, baby. We rolling. 

Tyler: And, you know, like Madison Central was just unbelievably good… When people ask you why you watch college baseball or anything, like, I mean, do you just kinda have to explain to them what it’s like here?

Jake: Yeah. I don’t think people realize what magnitude it is. Like you know, when I talk to all my pro ball friends, like they get it. They don’t understand, if that makes sense. You know, in the locker room, I have the regional playing on my laptop, and everybody just kinda, you know, just walks by, checks it out like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool, man.” And, like, everybody walks off, and then the guys will actually break it down with me. Like, like I just try to explain like “Man, it’s different. Like it’s just different.” It’s not 14,000 people at a baseball game. It’s 14,000 people invested into every pitch, like genuinely invested into each pitch that’s thrown. Not each batter, not each inning. It’s like each pitch they’re invested in, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s Major League Playoff atmosphere for nine innings, and it’s pretty cool. 

Rick: Jake, why do you think that Mississippi is so different in that regard? I’ll give you Arkansas.

Arkansas has maybe that kind of atmosphere for one school, but in Mississippi, I mean, it’s, it’s life or death here. People really, really care about… Why? 

Jake: Because we don’t have a Major League or professional football team. That’s it. Mississippi has to choose to rally what university, and Mississippi has this great dynamic of, you know, majority of families are pulling from Mississippi State, Ole Miss or Southern Miss, like that’s the majority of families.

And, you know, you have your pockets of Jackson State, you have pockets of Delta State, a lot of great programs. I keep going on about the programs. And the other thing is man, like Mississippi is known, like, man, we produce athletes. Like we produce really, really good athletes. You look across the board like arguably the best player from every sport ever has come from Mississippi.

It’s pretty insane, what type of talent Mississippi has. So people rally behind sports, man, and we’re an SEC country, all the SEC states love them some SEC football. So in the fall, you know, we got football and the other great thing is man, in the state of Mississippi, yeah, we don’t have a professional team, but year-round we can rally behind our university.

Like as soon as baseball ends, it’s football season. As soon as football season ends, we’re halfway through basketball season. Basketball and baseball overlap, and it’s a nonstop circle. It just keeps rolling. And then you can rally behind that all year. And that’s what people enjoy to do. 

Rick: Speaking of Mississippi sports history, you’re the third generation of Mangums that I’ve watched play and actually cover. Your granddaddy, Big John… big star.

I mean, he was a tremendous defensive lineman for Southern Miss. And of course, your dad was a high school Player of the Year in Mississippi. And then you know, 10-year pro was it? With the Chicago Bears and starred Alabama. And now you. You got to take a lot of pride in that. 

Jake: It’s pretty cool, man. I quit football after ninth grade.

My dad was cool with it, but I remember quitting, and I was like, “Dang, I’m gonna be the first person in a while that hasn’t played college football, but yeah football wasn’t for me, man. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Like I said, I think God put me on the Earth to hit a baseball. So I’m going to keep doing that for as long as he’ll allow me to do it.

Tyler: What position did you play?  

Jake: Defensive back. 

Rick: Yeah, but your dad who, although his background was in football, and he was a great football player, he was integral in your becoming the baseball player you are. 

Jake: ‘Course, man. If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t have made it out of high school. And my dad’s… he’s instilled a lot of things in me that I’ve gotten from him, just like my mom.

My mom and dad both have given me a lot of traits that I’m very thankful for. And yeah, man, the amount of hours my dad spent with me hitting is…it’s crazy how much he sacrificed for, to allow me to, you know, fall in love with the game that I would have naturally fallen in love with, but he helped me do it… a better way to do it, I guess you could say. Yeah, I mean, after if it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t be here. No, there’s no if, ands or buts about it. 

Rick: Best advice he ever gave you. 

Jake: He’s given me all of my advice, if you really want to get into it, man. Like that dude, that dude don’t mess. He don’t mess. And he’ll piss me off sometimes, you know, but he’s the best, man.

The best advice he ever gave me. It’s back to this: never get too high, never get too low. You know, I’d have out of a four-for-five game in college. He’d want to talk about the out. He just wants the best for me. And he’s always challenging me. He’s always, you know, wanting me to be the best I can be.

And I’m really thankful for that, man. I’m very, very thankful for my dad.  And I never got a chance to meet my grandfather. He passed away before I was born, but Big John was… I heard he was a hit, man. A lot of people liked him. He was a big ole dude, and I wish I could have met him.

Rick: He was a big ole, strong dude. He was country strong. That’s before they lifted weights or anything. Big John didn’t need weights. 

Jake: He didn’t need weights I bet he was working in McGee, man. And, and my uncle, Chris, he’s the same thing, man. The crazy thing is my dad’s 5’10”. Uncle Chris is like 6’5″.

It’s crazy. I was hoping I would get Chris’s height, but I didn’t quite get that. I got my dad though, by a little bit. 

Rick: That’s right. Listen, Jake, we have really enjoyed having you, and we look forward to watching you play for the New York Mets.

Jake: Long way to go, Rick. Long way to go. 

Rick: Long way to go. But, and you know, Jake, I thought you were an underdog coming in because of your age and everything.

Jake: You best believe that. I’m an underdog. I’m clawing my way up there. We’ll see how it goes. 

Rick: Well, good luck to you. And we appreciate you being here with us. 

Jake: Thanks so much, guys. It’s great to see y’all 

Rick: Yeah, it was good to see you. 

Tyler: Thanks to all of you for listening in to the Crooked Letter Sports podcast. That was a lot of fun talking with Jake.

We really appreciate him being on the show, being our first guest. You know, when we were talking about putting the show together, we thought maybe he would be one of the guys that would be most willing and easy to talk to. And it turned out that way. We hope Jake the best. And Pop, what do you think? Do you think he’s got a shot?

Rick: Well, he’s an underdog. I mean, he’s, he’s a late starter in professional baseball. I mean, he’s, he’s at AA and he’s 25 years old. And there, there are, you know, younger players in that at AA and, two, the game is shifting so much to where it’s a power game, which is, you know, not Jake’s game. But the thing about Jake is I’ll just never bet against him because he, he just has a way of coming out on top.

Tyler: He does seem to be driven. And I think that he’s, you know, it’s not like he wasn’t, you know, a top prospect coming out of high school and he wasn’t a valued commodity coming out of college. I mean, obviously, there’s a whole lot of talent there. I think what you’re talking about is the intangible of just being the guy and, you know, the leader, the Mayor of Starkville, you know? 

Rick: Yeah. He’s a unique individual and, I really do wish him the best. He has always been forthcoming and always been… He was always the go-to guy in the State locker room. He was the guy you went to if you really wanted to know what was going on. And, and I’m sure that will translate well on the Major League level, if he ever, if he makes it, and I’m not betting against him.

Tyler: Well with that, we’re going to wrap up our first episode. Thanks again for listening in to the Crooked Letter Sports podcast. I’m Tyler Cleveland with Scorebook Live Mississippi. He’s Rick Cleveland with Mississippi Today. Remember to follow us online, on social media, @TylerCleveland, @rick_cleveland.

And thanks to the folks at Blue Sky Studios in Jackson for producing this podcast. Have a good one, everybody.

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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.

Tyler Cleveland is a senior reporter for Scorebook Live and the co-host of Mississippi Today's Crooked Letter Sports Podcast.