My first paying job in life came early. I was 6 years old. Reed Green, the athletic director at then-Mississippi Southern College, paid me to chase down foul balls at baseball games at the old ballpark, now a football practice field.
There was a lot running involved, some dodging of traffic. And it definitely required some people skills. Think not? You try talking a college student out of a shiny, new baseball that he just picked up on his way to class.
At game’s end, Green would hand me a silver dollar. I thought I was rich. No telling how much money my work saved the penny-pinching MSC baseball program.
I well remember those games. All were day games because there were no lights. The few fans who attended sat in one small stand of wooden bleachers. There was no charge for admission. There were a few moms and dads and girlfriends, and as my daddy used to put it, “Some folks who just lost their away and wondered by.”
The “press box” was a card table behind the chicken wire screen at home plate. By season’s end, many of the Southern players hit with bats that were nailed together. (Yes, young readers, there was a time when college baseball was played with wooden bats. At Southern, when all the bats were broken, they just started nailing them back together.)
You might wonder why Green didn’t use that old trick of having fans return foul balls to the concession stand for a free snow cone or soft drink. It’s simple. There was no concession stand.
It wasn’t that much different elsewhere in Mississippi. I rode with my dad to baseball games in Oxford, Starkville and Cleveland. The college baseball scenes in those locales were spartan. (I well remember covering games at the old ballpark at Ole Miss, where you would see the players sprinting down the street between innings to get to a bathroom. There were no facilities at the ballpark.)
College baseball, back in 1960s, was something mostly basketball and football players did for the fun of it. They scheduled about 24-25 games a year and often didn’t play that many because of rainouts. (There were no tarps to cover the fields.)
Now, college baseball is a happening, and our Mississippi schools are quite proficient at it.
I bring all this up because we are embarking on a new baseball season in Mississippi. And, man oh man, how the college game has changed over the past half century.
First and foremost, you have to pay to get in the games these days. If you are lucky enough to get a foul ball, you have yourself a souvenir. If you have the bucks – big bucks – you can sit in luxury suites and watch the replays on TVs.
This past weekend I was in Oxford for basketball games Saturday and Sunday and stopped by the ballpark early on a cool, damp Sunday afternoon. There were more folks, sitting in a drizzling rain, watching a scrimmage game than you would sometimes see at real games 50 years ago. (And they didn’t have to run elsewhere between innings to use the bathroom.)
Ole Miss, with the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, will open the season at home this weekend against No. 2 ranked East Carolina. Rebel coach Mike Bianco, asked why he would break in so many young players against such a good team, smiled. “Well, they weren’t that good when we scheduled them three years ago,” he said.
Mississippi State, under new coach Andy Cannizaro, will play four home games in three days against Texas Tech and Western Illinois.
Southern Miss, where nobody is paid to chase down foul balls these days, will play a three-game set against Northeastern.
All three teams expect to be really good and challenge for NCAA Tournament bids. Division II power Delta State is already off to a 5-1 start.
All the Mississippi schools have been boosted by mostly spring-like weather in January and early February. So in the words of the immortal (and often chided) umpire, let’s “Play ball.”
And just keep it if they happen to hit it to you.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.