Thursday, June 29, 2006

Tip of the Cap: 2006

It's time for our annual year-end awards, named in honor of John "Hi" Simmons' signature gesture.

Bloody good tune

Without a doubt the most memorable tune to come out of the Taylor Stadium speakers in years was The Blood of CuChulainn.

An obscure song from the movie "The Boondock Saints", Senior Outfielder Zane Taylor chose it to be his at-bat intro song. The Irish jig caught the attention and the fancy of the Simmons Field crowds, inspiring an outburst of dancing and foot-stomping that majored in enthusiasm even if it lacked in dancing skill (or even rhythm).

A couple of times during the season, the opposing coach was kind enough to come out to the mound to make a pitching change after Zane stepped up to the plate, prompting the guys up in the booth to leave the song playing for more of its considerable length.

The Jay Bell Award

I'll never forget March 24, 1998, the day when senior pitcher Jay Bell took the mound against the Jayhawks in a mid-week game and pitched one of the quickest, most dominating shutouts I've ever seen. (Read the Columbia Daily Tribune's account of the game) When the game was over and everyone was celebrating, my son asked me why it was such a big deal.

"It's just a shut-out," he said.

"No, Cody," I explained. "It's not just a shut-out. It's a shut-out of the Jayhawks."

I proceeded to explain to him the depth of the rivalry between MU and KU. He's been a diehard Beaker-hater ever since (Just ask his cousins, who live in Kansas).

And so, we honor Jay Bell by invoking his memory as we honor the best performance against the Jayhawks.

Unfortunately, the Tigers were 1-2 against the Jayhawgs at Hawglund Field back on April Fool's weekend, and lost their contest with the 'Hawgs in the Big XII Tournament.

The one performance definitely worthy of the Jay Bell award in that series was Nathan Culp's complete-game victory on Friday night of that series. that performance was typical of Culp's gutsy leadership on the mound in 2006.

Special notice does have to be awarded, though, to Brock Bond. His {ahem} aggressive play against KU during that Tourney game may have, in the end, cost the Tigers the game, but not too many Tiger fans looked down on Brock for his anti-Jayhawk zeal, exacting a "Price" from the "Beakers".

Jay Bell would be proud.

Take me out to the ballgame

2006 brought a notable increase in attendance at Simmons Field.

The total home attendance was 23,906, for an average attendance of 885.

This compares to 16,965 in 2005, a 707 average (the 2004 average was 637).

The 41% increase could be attributed to any number of causes. Certainly the preseason expectations (and hype) surrounding the team's prospects for success helped early on. Also, the attention in the media given to Max Scherzer helped.

And yet, even when the team showed definite signs of struggling to live up to those expectations, and even when Max was out with injuries for several weeks, the attendance still was improved from 2005.

In part, it can be attributed to the efforts of people like Lance Edwards (see below, "Promoter of the Year") to bring more students out to the ballpark. Longtime denizens of "Johnny Hi" noted an obvious increase in the student body representation.

The temperatures cooperated for much of the season as well, offering a number of pleasant baseball-weather weekends.

Whatever the reasons, it was great to see the stands rocking.

I personally talked to a number of non-student first-time fans who came because of the hype and stayed around because they discovered how much fun a trip to Simmons Field can be, and what a great game is played at the Division I college level.

Take me out to the ballgame: The bad news

Missouri is still in last place in the conference, both in total attendance and average attendance.

Two reasons often given for poor attendance at Simmons Field are (a) the weather, and (b) lack of a dominant winning team.

I notice, though that the #2 team in attendance is Texas A&M, which finished dead last in the Big XII standings. And the #3 team in attendance is Nebraska, a team which undoubtedly has the worst location for weather.

So now how do we explain it?

Mizzou does not have any significantly smaller student body than the other Big XII schools. Columbia is not a significantly smaller town than the other Big XII cities (larger than some).

Is it just a matter of tradition? True, Texas A&M has a long-standing tradition of supporting Aggie Baseball.

But Mizzou once had a strong tradition of supporting Tiger baseball, as well. In researching the history of MU Baseball, I found several references in the past 100+years of Tiger baseball referring to much larger crowds and a greater level of excitement and support from the University and from Columbia.

Somewhere along the line, that support dwindled.

Hopefully someone will come up with the ideas and the energy to rebuild that tradition, and thus beef up the attendance.

Speaking of which . . .

Promoter of the Year

Toward the conclusion of the 2005 season a Mizzou student from the state of Texas was bemoaning the sub-par attendance and lack of enthusiasm at MU Baseball games, especially as compared to the college baseball atmosphere he had grown up with at schools in his home state. And so he decided to do something about it.

Lance Edwards, a journalism student at MU, went to the Athletic Department offices and talked to the people in charge of promoting Mizzou Baseball and shared his enthusiasm and his ideas with them.

At least one suggestion became a reality. Read Lance's comments from on February 27th (he posts under the board-name of Quadrupleplay, a friendly dig at some guy who goes by the name Trripleplay):

"Today, the marketing department handed me 1500 student vouchers and the Tiger Crew (aka diamond darlings 'hey bat girl') an additional 500 free tickets to this weekend's games. The idea behind these vouchers is to push students, especially the younger ones living on campus in the dorms, to attend as many baseball games as possible. The 2000 are only used once, but if we get 600 students each day, that would be amazing. Who knows how this will go but it is an attempt placed in my hands so I'm trying to push attendance and hopefully the team can wake up at the plate and put together a nice home-stand before going to Aggieland.

"Also beware, Coach J suggested that our new student section sit behind the visitors dugout (which kind of opens up the flood gates) for the reason of making team support visible to the player in the dugout, to get them more pumped. I agree, most student sections are behind opponents dugouts in colleges around the nation. So if your particular seat on the first base side is your favorite in the house, then I warn you that the rowdy Friday night crowds will be right beside you hopefully all season. The goal is to fill one lower chairback section and the entire upper GA section."

Rowdy they were indeed, sometimes even more than us old fogies could believe (fortunately I do NOT have a photo of Lance at the Texas series with his shirt off, displaying Zane Taylor's Number 18 shaved into his back). But the atmosphere at Simmons Field ratcheted up a notch this season, as did the attendance, with so many students around.

Here's to you, Lance and Friends, for spicing up the old ballpark.

Missing Max

The Tigers missed Max Scherzer for much of the 2006 season, due to his injuries. No one can really say whether Max's travails were the instigator that trickled down into the rest of the team, resulting in an uneven and less-than-expected performance this season.

I can say, however, with great confidence, that we will all miss Max now that he is gone.

Tim Jamieson put it well in a Baseball America back in January: "For me he's a once in a lifetime type of guy. You can't think that you'll ever coach another player like this."

For fans and followers of the Missouri Tigers, the sentiment is the same. I've not seen any player - even those on the visiting teams - that impressed me like Max. I will especially remember the April Fool's Party Max threw for the Texas Tech Red Raiders last year.

The thing that I will remember the most, though, is that Max is just Max. You expect a guy who is a potential superstar, a stud athlete, a future millionaire, to be arrogant and aloof, keeping himself separate from the common folk.

But not Max, he is just a goofy young guy who loves to throw a baseball and loves to hang out and have fun with his friends.

I got to know his parents, Brad and Jan Scherzer, better over the past three years than I did Max, It's easy to see where Max got that easy-going personality. His dad and mom deserve kudos for raising a down-to-earth son.

We won't be seeing them or their son around Simmons Field much anymore. We do, though, expect to see Max in the future, his goofy smile and mismatched eyes looking out from an Upper Deck baseball card sometime in the near future, his intensity and fastball lighting up the TV screen.

I never bothered to get an autographed official Big XII ball from Max, to place next to my Ian Kinsler ball. But a lot of people have autographs.

I have memories. And you can't take those away or put a value on them.

Here's to you, Max.

"He reminds me of a predator. He can't sit still. It's almost like the movies where you see the dinosaur on the hunt. His head's never still. He's looking for something all the time."
Tim Jamieson, 3/4/06

"You need to come out when he pitches on Friday nights when he pitches, because you may never get an opportunity to experience something like that again in college baseball. It doesn’t come around very often.. It’s electric. You have the chance to watch a guy who’s going to be in the big leagues pretty soon."
Tim Jamieson, 2/6/06

"My biggest concern with this year's team are the number of draft-eligible players we have and the number of potential high-draft players we have. Frankly, we haven't been in a position like that before. So I think the attention is something we haven't had. The scouts, the number of guys that are going to be at our games, especially early in the year, we're going to have to make sure that the whole team is focused, but Max is probably the one guy that I'm not particularly concerned about."
Tim Jamieson, 1/26/06

Nickname of the Year:

Legion of Doom, also known as the relief staff. On the flag are a skull and two swords in place of the crossbones, which the group of Tigers pitchers say symbolizes the attitude of the legion.

“It’s a cocky, ‘we’re the best, we’re going to come out and get to you,’” senior left-hander Taylor Parker said. “We’re always talking about going to war, which is kind of a little extreme, I guess, but ... we’re going to attack and throw strikes to get ahead.” (Columbia Missourian, April 14, 2006)

And speaking of the Legion of Doom . . .

Most interesting career as a Tiger

In the 2003 version of our ""Tip of the Cap" awards, Travis Wendte won the "Most Interesting Pitcher to Watch": He led the team in saves with 8. He could blow batters away at times - he struck out 27 batters in 28.1 innings. He was an honorable mention to the All-Big XII team.

And he always made it "interesting" (that's not my word - it was used by a fellow Tiger player to describe Wendte's pitching appearances).

In those 28 innings he had allowed 37 hits, walked 9, threw 5 wild pitches, got called for 1 balk, allowed 2 triples and 2 home runs, and somehow finished the year with an impressive 3.45 ERA, the best on the team.

Travis Wendte has been with the Tigers now for five long years. Many fans who followed the 2006 Tigers might not even remember the names of the other "young guns" that joined Wendte in the great Freshman pitching class of 2002, part of one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, according to Collegiate Baseball: Justin James, Abel Newton, Garrett Broshuis (redshirt freshman).

Wendte has continued to be "interesting", but always for those same reasons named back in 2002. As the ring-leader of the "Legion of Doom" bullpen, Wendte was one of the most reliable arms in the relief corps in 2006. His performance in that 14-inning game against UC-Irvine in Malibu was key to the Tigers' ultimate Regional victory.

We're going to miss you, Travis.

Youth Movement

In 2005, Tim Jamieson played only one Freshman regularly (Jacob Priday), plus two others only occasionally (Evan Frey and Dan Pietroburgo). Compared to that, 2006 saw a veritable explosion of young blood on Simmons Field. Ryan Lollis, Aaron Crow, Rick Zagone and David Cales all saw significant playing time, and Kyle Mach saw some action as well.

At the Malibu Regional, the fabulous freshmen would prove to be valuable indeed, as Zagone and Crow through back-to-back complete games on Sunday, and Ryan Lollis provided what had to be the pinch hit of the year, breaking up the 14-inning marathon against UC-Irvine by delivering a pinch hit single to drive in the winning run.

And speaking of pinch hitters:

Pinch Hitters of the Year

What a joy it was to tune in to KTGR for the first game of the Pepperdine Regional and hear the voice of former catcher Ryan Pickett alongside Tex Little in the broadcast booth. "Pick" provided color commentary a few years ago (I think it was during the 2003 season) and excelled in that role.

To hear him again was not only a treat for his own sake, but also because it was a breath of fresh air compared to the insipid comments heard all year long from Mike Willington (or was it Wellington, or Willingham, or maybe Willing-but-not-at-all-capable). How many times can one "color" man tell us where such and such a player went to high school? Reading bio material from the Press Guide seemed to be the extent of his knowledge and insight.

His blessed departure after the Texas series (I never did hear the whole story on what happened with him that weekend), also opened the door for another pinch hitter: Mario Moccia. The Senior Associate Athletic Director is always a welcome addition to the booth, where his personally history as a player (New Mexico State MVP in 1998 and 1989; Detroit Tigers' organization, '89-'90) and his obvious love of the game make him an interesting and insightful counterpoint to the always enthusiastic Tex Little.

Easiest opponent to heckle

On the first weekend in May, someone had the brilliant idea of scheduling some gratuitous entertainment for the Simmons field Faithful, in the person of Mississippi Valley State. While the Tigers outscored the Delta Demons 50-4, we were all treated to the sight of their centerfielder hilariously misplaying easy fly balls (his coach - disguised as Santa Claus - unceremoniously pulled him from the field in the middle of the 2nd inning).

This was later followed by the even more entertaining performance of the right fielder, who lost sight of a fly ball, only to suddenly discover it heading straight for him - whereupon he threw his hands over his head and ducked, allowing the ball to hit to drop at the base of the wall.

Internet Quote of the Year

By NSUDemon on, February 12, 2006: "Here is a team with all the talent and TJ will coach them to another 4th place finish and 2-3 games and out in the regional."

Base Cadet

Our annual award for the most creative approach to base-running has to go to Brock Bond, who distinguished himself by getting picked off between 1st and 2nd two games in a row (during the Nebraska series).

We deliver this award with tongue in cheek, and with a reminder that our first ever "Base Cadet" award went to "Shortstop Ian Kinsler distinguished himself above his fellow road-kill candidates during the Texas series, and never let go of his claim to the title of Base Cadet." Mr. Kinsler has done fairly well for himself since then.

From Underdog to Top Cat

Tim Jamieson has been at the helm of Missouri Baseball for a dozen years now, and he has to be one of the most underestimated and underappreciated head coaches in Division I.

Sure, I'll grant you that his overall record over those 12 years is not in the same league as more celebrated succesful coaches, like Texas' Augie Garrido

But you cannot simply dismiss TJ's abilities by focusing on the negatives. Not when he has so many positives on his resume:

Jamieson and Garrido are the only two coaches in the Big XII who have taken their teams to the NCAA Regionals over the past four years straight. That's quite an accomplishment considering the tigers had failed to even make it to the Big XII Tournament the two years prior to the beginning of that streak. Bad coaches - even mediocre coaches - don't make that kind of turnaround and maintain it for that long.

All year long the media have put Max Scherzer under a microscope, examining his career and his potential. One thing every article mentioned was that when Max was in high school, he was erratic. As Jamieson was quoted, "he was very violent, with a lot of body parts moving in different directions."

At least one of Jamieson's critics wondered how much better Scherzer could be if he had spent his college years under a really great coach, instead of someone like Jamieson.

Apparently Max's coach was good enough to turn him into a top collegiate pitcher and a first round draft pick. Give Tim Jamieson credit where it's due.

And then there's the 2006 season. A really good coach, goes the argument, would not have taken a team ranked #10 pre-season and knocked it down so far they were unranked in the polls by the end of the regular season.

But Tim Jamieson, magician extraordinaire, pulled a rabbit our of his hat by pushing this team to peak at the right time, sweeping through Texas and on into a strong run in the Big XII Tournament, and all the way to somehow grabbing that last spot on the NCAA bracket.

And, to top it all off, Tim Jamieson put his name permanently in the NCAA Division I record books by coaching the only 4th-seeded team to ever win a Regional.

Coach J, you deserve an unreserved, long overdue tip of the cap (or perhaps, a tip of the magician's hat). We're proud to have you as the Tigers' head coach.