It took 129 years of playing college baseball and 12 trips to the College World Series, but Mississippi State’s Bulldogs are national champions. Tyler Cleveland interviews his pops, Rick Cleveland, on State’s incredible run to a national title and what it means to the most passionate fan base in America.
Stream all episodes here, and read the transcript below.
Tyler: Hello, and welcome to the Crooked Letter Sports podcast with your hosts, me, Tyler Cleveland, and my old man, Ricky, who is fresh off the plane from Omaha. Dad, glad to have you back.
Rick: Good to be back. Sure was fun while it lasted, though.
Tyler: I can’t even imagine. I think the entire state’s still elated from Mississippi State capturing the 2021 NCAA Baseball Championship. Can you just, kind of, initial thoughts? Kinda share what you thought and your experience there?
Rick: Well, here’s the deal. I don’t think any state in the United States appreciates college baseball as much as Mississippi does. I mean, we can see in the attendance, we can see it in the fact that we had three top 25 teams in the country this year, and it just matters more here.
What’s the ole SEC thing?
Tyler: “It just means more.”
Rick: “It just means more.” Well, it means more here. And the fact that Mississippi State did it after so many years of being one of the elite programs in the country, the fact that they finally got it done… I’ve never really quite seen anything like the fan base and how electrifying the entire atmosphere was and how… The players are great. They’re terrific. But I mean, the fan base really shares in this at Mississippi State because they not only lifted, I thought, lifted the team up on the shoulders, but also maybe had an effect on the opponents. I thought Vanderbilt didn’t make some plays they usually make, you know? I think 20 or 21,000 Mississippi State fans got in their head.
Tyler: I was going to ask you about that with the fans. Obviously, there was, what, seven to one Mississippi State fans in the stadium, or maybe more? And when I talked to you, that was the constant that you kept telling me was that they’re everywhere. And it wasn’t just in the stadium, right? I mean, you go out—
Rick: Oh, in downtown Omaha, it’s like four out of every five people you saw had on maroon. It was crazy. There were a lot of people who were still coming in from Mississippi, driving in on the final day of the College World Series, and they’re coming into the hotel, and they’re carrying their pillows.
They didn’t have tickets. They were going to find tickets out on the street. Yeah, they took over Omaha. And I know I’m talking more about the crowd than I am the players, and the players are the heroes, but It was a happening. I’ve been doing this for 50 something years, and I’ve never seen — in any sporting event from baseball, basketball, football, you name it. I’ve never seen a crowd take over an event like Mississippi State people took over this year’s College World Series.
Tyler: Well, we’ll get to the players for sure. Just want to spend a little more time… Cause like you mentioned, we have three top 25 programs. And perennial top 25 programs in Mississippi.
But it seemed like Mississippi State. I mean, you know what I mean? They’ve been to the College World Series what? I think this was the 12th or 13th trip, and just all that heartache over the years, but it felt like they had the momentum and the fans knew it.
Rick: It was almost like that proverbial snowball, rolling down the mountain and becoming an avalanche is sort of what it was like. But you know, the one thing, and I’ve written this so many times over the years about college baseball, is the whole deal is getting hot at the right time and getting contributions from not only your guys that you count on, the stars but getting other people to contribute.
And it’s also about getting the breaks. I well remember the 1985 team. I know you don’t, but the 1985 team with Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen, which is still the best college baseball team I’ve ever seen. But then here they are, and they’re undefeated in the tournament, and all of a sudden, and they’re leading and they’re cruising and a guy hits a line drive off the pitcher’s foot. And it changed the whole complexion of the game.
I got to tell you, in the back of my mind, I kept waiting for a Vanderbilt player to hit a line drive off of Will Bednar’s ankle or foot. I mean, because that’s the kind of stuff that’s happened to state in the past.
And instead this time, You had a ball sticking the webbing of a Vanderbilt shortstops glove that turned to, you know, otherwise an easy out into a base hit, you know, I mean, you had, you know, State got some breaks this time. I mean, by no means, do I call it a lucky thing that they won the world series, but the breaks that have gone against them in the past went for them this time.
Tyler: And we had talked about it, you know, before we started recording, but with Vanderbilt, you know, I mean, State was clearly better than them. I mean, just after that first ending of that first game, just kick their ass for lack of a better term. And you, we had talked about how maybe it was. Maybe they caught a break by NC State.
You know what I mean? NC State was that team. They look like that team. They looked like they were the hot team that was going to ride it to the championship series and you know, had already beaten Vandy and you know, for, for better or worse, it turned out well for the Bulldogs.
Rick: Well it did, but I think if you ask Chris Lemonis, he would prefer that North Carolina State had not been eliminated like they were.
I mean, besides everything else, he’s real close friends with the North Carolina State coaching staff. I don’t, you know, I don’t think anybody’s happy about the way that happened, but at the same time, in my opinion, it made it harder for Mississippi State to win the championship because then they had to face Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker to win the college world series, they were going to have to beat, you know, a top-five draft choice, to win the College World Series.
Tyler: Right. Which is what they did.
Rick: Which is what they did. They beat Kumar Rocker and they did it by sticking to their plan, which was to not chase his slider, which is hard not to do because it looks like a fast ball right over the middle of the plate till the last second.
And then it darts out of the strike zone and state players were able to be patient, wait for the fast ball, and when they got it, make him pay. It was a great, great job of hitting and my goodness, what about the pitching. Will Bednar, you know, they might want to think about putting a third statue up at Dudy Noble because what he did on three days rest, six innings of hitless baseball. Amazing. And the fact that he actually had a rocky start, walked two batters in the first inning. I was actually saying to the guy next to me, Lemonis needs to get somebody down there in the pen, this isn’t looking good. And then all of a sudden it just turns it right around . And here’s the other thing about that, Vanderbilt hitters didn’t do what State hitters did, they weren’t patient. They chased his slider all game long.
Tyler: Yeah, I noticed that. I mean, like you said, I think he threw 25 pitches in the first inning. And then after that, it was just, you know, I mean, cruising and Vanderbilt was trying to jump on these first pitch, you know, and he, and they were just flying out. And it was, you know, as we went deeper and deeper in the game, I was like, they’re going to get to Sims with a lead. Talk about another arm, what an incredible performance for him in the series. It just seemed like, you know, they say you can’t get through the series without, you know, X number of arms, but I mean, you know, Mississippi state was the high of 187 strikeouts or something like that. I mean, it’s NCAA record. I mean, they had the pitching.
Rick: Yea, they were very deep. And they had some guys come through, you know, again you know, we talk about Bednar and Sims, but they had some other guys come through in very crucial situations to get them to point, especially in game two of the championship series that that were just heroic and they had bench guys you know, like Tanner Legget, another one of the Tanners, the Tanner Boys, I call ’em, who came through so much.
It was a team, I wrote it two or three times this past week, it takes a village in college baseball and, and everybody in their village came through.
Tyler: Yeah, well, their village is celebrating I know today as well with the parade, but, you know, I was going to ask you about that because I’ve read some of what you wrote and it seemed like it was a different guy stepping up and it wasn’t, and what’s cool about it is a lot of them are from right here in Mississippi, you know. Mississippi State has done such a good job of recruiting Mississippi. And you know, they’ve got some stars, you know, from out of state, but these guys you’re talking about the guys who step up, I mean, Juco guys that have played their way into this situation to, to be on this team in this spot.
Rick: Well, it’s, you know, I think Mississippi junior college baseball is, is probably the best there is in the country. And the fact that four, four of the heroes of the championship series were what Lemonis referred to as his “Juco Bandits”, and they really came through. Players who played this past spring at the Mississippi junior college level, who would be stars on division one teams across the country. And will be, and we’ll see that. It’ll happen.
Tyler: Well, let’s talk about Lemonis for a second, because I think a conversation that we had had at one point was, you know, when we were at the College World Series in 2018, Gary Henderson takes over for Cantazaro at the beginning of the season, takes them to the College World Series and after they lost, I mean, basically finished third, you know they went two and two. We were there for two weeks or whatever, but there was a lot of pressure to go ahead and take that interim tag off of Gary Henderson, who you and I both agree was just fantastic. I mean, he—
Rick: He did a great job that year.
Tyler: Absolutely. But you know, Mississippi State and John Cohen, in particular, wanted to go in another direction and, you know what, he was right.
Rick: Well you sure can’t argue with it now. I mean, he, Chris Lemonis is kind of that steady even-keel guy who never gets too high, never gets too low. The players love to play for him.
He’s done a terrific job and also he’s recruited extremely well, which is, I think, the number one factor that John Cohen had in making the decision to hire Chris, he’s just done a terrific job there. Not much more you say about it than that. He’s, he’s been really good. Yeah.
Tyler: And Gautreaux, as well.
Rick: And here’s the other thing about Chris, he’s always, anybody talks to him about how he’s done, he always gives the credit to his assistants, without fail. And Gautreaux does deserve a lot of credit because he’s the one that, that really… the way State does it offensively of making the, making the Pitchers work, making them throw extra pitches, not giving in with two strikes, that all comes from Jake Gautreaux.
Tyler: Well, that’s what I was going to say. Their approach with two strikes is just fun to watch. I mean, they don’t strike out much, and if they do it’s after a bunch of pitches.
Rick: And after every time the batter gets two strikes on him, he turns around to the dugout, and fist pumps his chest. I mean, it is fun to watch.
Tyler: Can you tell me a little bit about what the scene was like in the stadium after they won it? And then what Omaha was like, as you know, as you’re leaving the stadium after you get finished writing.
Rick: It’s actually my favorite part of the story. I mean, we’re, we’re still, it’s still, 45 minutes after the game.
And the stands are still, half to two-thirds full. I mean, State, they didn’t want to leave. They didn’t want to leave. And then when I finally finished all my work in the press box and made my way out, the main exit, you know, where the statue is, where the road to Omaha statue is, there was a big line out there, a long line.
And I said, what are these people doing? I mean, the game’s over, the party is five blocks over this way. And they were standing in line to get their pictures made in front of the trophy. And it was all State people. And then like, 18 hours later when I’m flying out of Omaha and I’m driving to the airport, you remember you go right by the stadium on the way the airport, there were still people in maroon shirts, getting their pictures made in front of the statutes. You can’t make this stuff up.
Tyler: No. I mean, when I picked you up from the airport this would have been, let’s see, late Thursday night. I mean, you know, we’re, we’re at the baggage claim at the Jackson airport and you can hear people yelling, “Hail State!” all over. I mean, you know, just one more time before I get out of this crowd at the airport.
Rick: On my plane from Omaha to Atlanta and then from Atlanta to Jackson, it was filled with Mississippi State people. But I, you know, and, and I talked to Mississippi State people who drove including Rusty Thoms, you know, one of my old pals from back in the, he played for State in the late nineties and was the darling of Omaha for two college world series.
He drove the second time he came to Omaha, he had been to Omaha and back. And then he brought his family and drove and he said it was like a caravan from Mississippi. Every time you pulled into a gas station or every time you stopped and got coffee, he said it was Mississippi State people. All the way through Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri into Nebraska. It’s like one long caravan. It’s almost like, you know, Tom Joad stuff.
Tyler: Oh man. Well, I want to ask you this. I mean, personally, for you, you know, you’ve been covering Mississippi sports. You’ll have to tell me the year count at this point, but…
Tyler: Yeah. So you’ve just watched a Mississippi team win a national championship and I mean, a team sport, you know, this is not, you know, rifle or golf or anything like that. I mean, can you just, you know what it means to you? And, and did you think you were going to get it before you retired?
Rick: You know, in retrospect, or first of all, I was beginning to wonder. Yeah, first of all, I was beginning to wonder. But in retrospect, it’s almost, the story to me is that it hadn’t happened before, because again, college baseball in Mississippi is so good. And State’s been so good for so long that it’s almost amazing that it hasn’t happened before. But the fact that it took so long, I think has certainly made it more sweeter for, for Mississippi State people and Mississippi baseball fans, and made it, actually made it more special for me to get a chance to write it after all these years. You know, we talk about the fact that this was the first, and it was first division one, but I will remember covering Delta State, Mike Tennyson’s great Delta State team that won the first Mississippi championship, baseball championship, national division two championship at Montgomery. And you know, it obviously, it doesn’t get the national attention, but just how much it meant to those guys back then and how much it meant to, you know, Boo Farris you know, who was sitting in the stands that night. When Kennison jumped over the dugout and took the national championship trophy up to Boo Farris. Again, it wasn’t on national TV, but it was special and this was, this was special on just a larger, larger scale.
Hey, you went with me to cover the division two national football championship game. When Delta State won it with Josh Bright as quarterback and everything. You remember how special that was to those people,
Tyler: It was very special. And you know, I guess for me just to see so many people so happy, you know, my fellow Mississippians just, you know, so happy and it wasn’t just Mississippi State baseball fans.
I mean, I talked to, you know, some Ole Miss friends of mine, some Southern Miss, I think everybody was pulling for them, because you know, it just means so much, like you said, it just means more. Well, dad, I really appreciate you taking some time to you know, tell us a little bit about your experience and is there anything you want else you want to tell folks?
Rick: Yeah. I miss my golf partner. Didn’t have you out there so we could play golf every day. And I, and I go back to the eighties and nineties when I was covering it for the Clarion ledger and Rusty Hampton and I would we’d play golf. There was one year we played eight rounds in, in one visit to Omaha. We called it the Omaha open. I clipped him.
Tyler: Sure. He’ll appreciate you sharing that with everybody.
Rick: That’s all right. But I loved the experience and I’m glad to have the opportunity to do it. And I’m also glad to have the opportunity to do it for Mississippi Today. We’re an organization that exists because of people’s love for Mississippi, the people who started, and what we do, it’s because you know, we care about Mississippi and you know, obviously, we do.
Tyler: Well everybody, thanks for tuning in today. Again, I’m Tyler Cleveland. He’s Rick Cleveland. You can follow us on social media @tylercleveland @rickcleveland_ on Twitter, and be sure to keep up with what’s going on with all the latest in Mississippi news at mississippitoday.org and all that’s going on with high school sports in Mississippi at scorebooklive.com/mississippi, and a special thanks to the folks at Blue Sky Podcasting who produced this show always do an incredible job. And thanks for tuning in everybody. Have a good week.