Professional baseball will return to Mississippi in 2021. Presumably. The Double-A Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers are selling season tickets, though the Southern League doesn’t have a schedule up yet. The cancelled 2020 minor league season left central Mississippi without a pro team for the first time since 2001 and just the second time since 1975, when the old Jackson Mets moved into Smith-Wills Stadium. The Texas League franchise departed in 1999 and the independent DiamondKats played just one season (2000) before folding. The indy Senators began their four-year run at Smith-Wills in 2002. But there was a pro team playing in the state 20 years ago. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the swan song of the Greenville Bluesmen. The independent team played at Legion Field from 1996-2001 in first the Big South League and then the Texas-Louisiana League (along with the DiamondKats). The Bluesmen are remembered in some circles as the team that made a 1998 trade for a pitcher involving 10 pounds of catfish. (You can look it up.) They also won back-to-back Big South titles in 1996 and ’97. Alas, their Texas-Louisiana League years weren’t so good. They finished last every season, going 34-62 overall in 2001. Patrick O’Sullivan was the best player on that team; the former New York Mets draft pick, who played many years of pro ball, hit .323 with 18 homers. Tunica native Keith Dunn won 11 games. Southern Miss alum Danny Stout and Jackson native Sim Shanks also played on that club. There’s rich baseball history in Greenville. It’s the birthplace of former MLB stars George Scott and Frank White, and the city hosted minor league clubs in various leagues going back to 1902.
The way Mississippi State is playing, it’s unlikely the Bulldogs are going to be intimidated by anyone. But if any team in the country has a fear factor on its side, it’s Vanderbilt, State’s opponent tonight in the College World Series. Vandy, the SEC regular season and tournament champion, is the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, is ranked No. 1 in one national poll, has won 15 of its last 16 games, has set a school record with 55 victories and, most significantly for tonight, is sending to the mound a touted freshman right-hander who appears to be peaking. Kumar Rocker is an imposing 6 feet 4, 255 pounds and can touch 98 mph with his fastball. He has won his last three starts, beating LSU in the SEC Tournament, Indiana State in the Nashville Regional and Duke in a must-win Super Regional game. That was the 19-strikeout no-hitter you might’ve heard about. Rocker, son of former Auburn and NFL star Tracy Rocker, was one of the top recruits – and pro prospects — in the country last year. He was not an immediate success at Vandy. He got shelled in his college debut and lost his first SEC start. He has had other rough spots, as his 10-5 record and 3.50 ERA would suggest. But the Super Regional no-no generated national fame and certainly raised expectations. As Vandy coach Tim Corbin told the Nashville Tennessean: “I know when you pitch like that one time there’s a certain level of anticipation. But he’ll handle it well.” The Bulldogs are one of the best hitting teams in the country, making for a most intriguing matchup. P.S. Here’s an obscure Mississippi connection in Omaha (as noted by Doug Shanks): Michigan coach Erik Bakich played for the Greenville Bluesmen in the old Texas-Louisiana League. A third baseman, Bakich played nine games for the independent club in 2001 during his brief pro career. His Wolverines are 2-0 in the bracket opposite State’s.