It's time for our annual year-end awards, named in honor of John "Hi" Simmons' signature gesture.
The highlight and climax of the 2007 MU Baseball season was the first-ever NCAA Regional hosted at Taylor Stadium / Simmons Field.
In the weeks and days leading up to the regional, fans and followers debated whether the MU Athletic Department would show their support of the baseball program by submitting a serious bid to the NCAA (and by finding a way to move the MSHSAA Baseball championships away from Taylor Stadium); then there was some doubt that fans would actually show up in large numbers, given the average attendance during the regular season of just 574, last in the Big XII.
As Tim Jamieson said, "From everything we’re feeling around town, it’s going to happen. It’s almost overwhelming. We’ve played in front of some big, big crowds. But never here.”
And it did happen. A new record was set on Friday night. Then Saturday night's crowd broke that record (see attendance totals at right).
And so our first tips of the cap are for those involved in that weekend:
A tip of the cap to Tim Jamieson, who, as the Tigers continued to roll toward their best win total in TJ's tenure, gained confidence to speak his mind about the questionable level of support given to baseball from the Athletic Department:
“There’s a lot of support,” he said. “But in terms of getting the word out and marketing our sport, we need to do a better job. . . We wanted everybody, including the people within the university, to see things through our eyes. To see things the way they could be." (Kansas City Star)
A tip of the cap to Mike Alden, Tim Hickman and the rest of the athletic department, for defying the cynicism of long-time fans and moving heaven earth and the MSHSAA in order to bring the Regional to Columbia. And for their great job in organizing the weekend to be a great experience for everyone. Mike Alden himself was in attendance for the full 9 innings of nearly every game, sitting in the stands, absorbed in the game when he wasn't shaking hands with MU supporters.
A tip of the cap to the people of Columbia, and to MU fans from all over the state, who shelled out more money than a season tickets cost to buy tickets for the weekend series in record numbers. Many of them expressed their enjoyment to me, and their surprise at how nice the stadium is, how exciting the games were, and how much they would like to come back again next season.
And most of all, a tip of the cap to the Tiger nine, a bunch of guys who were picked to finish 8th in the Big XII, a team that had to see article after article in the news well into the season, one after another mentioning the names of Scherzer and Culp before ever mentioning the players of 2007.
This was the scrappiest, gutsiest, most determined Mizzou baseball team I've watched in my time as a serious fan. They found ways to win games when it seemed impossible.
Like the Friday night game at Texas on May 4th, when the Longhorn catcher overthrew when tossing the ball back to the pitcher, sent it flying over his head, and Kurt Calvert stole home for the winning run.
The season was full of moments like that, with the Tigers taking advantage of every opportunity - no matter how unlikely - to score runs and win games.
Thanks for a great ride, guys!
For someone who learned to cheer and heckle in order to make up for the fact that the 100 fans who would show up at the old Simmons Field to cheer for the visiting team would invariably outnumber the 30 or so parents and girlfriends, plus Larry, myself, my son and at best 10 or 12 other fans . . . tonight was like opening up a Christmas present from the aunt who always sends hand-crocheted underwear, and instead finding in the box the keys to a new sports car.
For Love of the Game
A big tip of my cap goes to Christina Walden, MU student and baseball fan, who offered before this season began to write a blog on SimmonsField.com. I was happy to let her have some blog space, since I have found less and less time to devote the website in the past few years.
Her comments and musings have garnered a lot of attention and comments from fans at the ballpark, and have added a different flavor to the website.
She also received an e-mail from a certain nationally known sportswriter for a national magazine, complimenting her on her 108 Stitches of Passion piece.
I look forward to more of her thoughts at the Inside Corner through the off-season and into the 2008 season.
"A nudge helped me push myself back into a world I did not realize how much I missed. It's the area between the chalk lines, a place where history and tradition are as much a part of the game as the present and future of the sport. It is the place where instant replay does not affect an official's decision and where we all learned as kids that there are always 90 feet to first and a diamond is the best geometric shape. Baseball made its way back to me, or I guess I should say I made my way back to baseball."
The Jay Bell Award
Our annual award for the best performance against the Kansas Jayhawks was really no contest this season.
"How do you like your Jayhawks cooked? Evan Frey’d," quipped Matt Nestor in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
The Chickenhawks came to Simmons field on a rainy weekend at the end of March this year, and left having given up the series to the Tigers, 2-1.
The hero of the weekend was centerfielder Evan Frey. Frey had been hot for most of March and carried this streak into the MU-KU series.
Frey hit at a .438 clip for the weekend, with 4 runs, 9 RBI, 1 double and two home runs.
Both homeruns were big ones. The first, in the Saturday victory, was Frey's first homerun as a Tiger.
Frey's second career homer came a day later in the bottom of the ninth inning, with 2 outs and Brock Bond on base, Frey connected. The ball over the wall, the Tiger players and fans went crazy, and the poor Jayhawks went home with a series loss.
A quote from KU Coatch Ritch Price: “That’s about as tough of a loss as I’ve ever had,” coach Ritch Price said. “Especially when you’re down 8-0 and you play that hard to get back in the thing. We had some huge clutch hits along the way. Obviously it isn’t over until the final guy’s out.”
Comments from Tigerboard.com about the April 1st, 2007 game:
bolivartiger: Just wow. Probably the most exciting college baseball game that I have ever seen.
kegger: The look on Smith's face as the Tigers celebrated at home plate after his pitch wound up on the other side of the fence was one I will remember for quite some time. The way their whole team stayed at their positions as if the homer was going to be waved off or something was quite as enjoyable as well.
Our Tigers beat Kansas in the most cruel way possible. Not only taking the Friday night game and reversing it, but to do so with a deserving celebration at home plate after the one in the top of the inning... That had to be the baseball equivalent of ripping someone's heart out and showing it to them while it was still beating.
MySpace.com meets HeckleDepot.com
The award for the Easiest Player to Heckle goes to A.J. Ramos, Texas Tech's "Ace" pitcher. He made himself an easy target for heckling by failing to protect his MySpace page from the non-"friends".
That page revealed lots of information about A.J., including "Occupation: student/part time stripper". It also revealed his nickname for himself, "Papi Chulo Baby" (translation).
Armed with this info, the Simmons Field fans greeted the pitcher on Friday night with near constant cries of "Papi Chulo!" as well as a few other choice heckles based on his MySpace bio.
Poor Papi Chulo didn't do very well in that game, lasting just 2-1/3 innings, surrendering seven earned runs on 5 hits, 5 walks, 2 wild pitches and a hit batsman.
I suppose his coach thought he would be fresh on Sunday, having spent so little time on the mound Friday night, so with the game on the line in the 9th inning, Ramos was brought in to close the game.
The moment I saw him exit the bullpen, I knew the Tigers had the game won. As he approached the mound, the hecklers in the crowd went wild, chanting "Papi Culo! Papi Chulo!".
Ramos intentionally walked Priday, unintentionally walked Coleman, struck out Senne, then threw a trio of wild pitches that moved the runners around the bases, finally allowing Lollis to score from third.
And so, a tip of the cap goes to Papi Chulo for entertaining the animals in the Zou.
Hot Streak & Hot Tempers
Boo-ing is a practice not heard often at all at Simmons Field. Heckling - sure. But a Boo is reserved for the worst offenders.
An all-or-nothing third baseman from Los Angeles by way of Louisville, Dominguez had compiled a lowly .250 average with only 9 home runs during the course of his season.
Through the first two days of the Regional, he was noticed most when he stood next to (or, during one play, ran into) Louisville shortstop Chris Cates. Cates, generously listed on the roster at 5'3" was over a foot shorter than the 6'4" Dominguez.
Dominguez made himself known in the Sunday Missouri-Louisville game, though, when he hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning that went on to be the game-winner. (He would hit two more home runs on Monday to help the Cardinals win the championship game).
But it was what happened AFTER the homer that really grabbed attention. After standing and admiring his homer, he mouthed some unidentified trash-talk in the direction of MU Catcher Trevor Coleman, then proceed to run the bases, tossing more trash, grins and finger-pointing at the Tiger infielders as he passed.
This created quite an uproar on the field, with MU players and coaches demanding the umpires discipline Dominguez, the U of L coach doing a lot of shoulder shrugging, and a large percentage of the 3,400 fans shouting and screaming and Boo-ing.
I'd like to give a tip of the cap to the umpires for following through on the guidelines laid down by the NCAA before the tournament began, to the effect that no sort of trash talk or disrespectful actions would be tolerated.
I'd like to give a tip of the cap to Dan McDonnell, the Louisville head coach, for removing Dominguez from the game and voluntarily sitting him out of the next game.
Instead, I'll keep my cap on this time.
Hit the showers
It was a great idea - market Big XII Baseball to the people in Kansas City by playing a "non-conference" game between the Tigers and Jayhawks, and put on the show in Kauffman Stadium.
Unfortunately, this game fell victim to the same fate as three other midweek Mizzou games, being rained out.
Hopefully, the idea will be resurrected again, so the folks in KC can see how fun it can be to watch MU beat the ChickenHawks.
Rainfall on Mid-Week Game Days
April 3rd, Southern Illinois @ Sauget, IL
April 10th, St. Louis U @ St. Louis
April 25th, Kansas @ Kauffman Stadium
May 2nd, Missouri State @ Simmons Field
Bad Call of the Year
While Bill Speck did everything he possibly could to earn this award by refusing to exercise his authority in reagrd to Chris Dominguez of Louisville, even that see-no-evil approach leaves him a distant second.
The worst call of the year took place in Austin, TX, when Jim Garman called Evan Frey out at first base. In the 6th inning, Garman ended a Tiger rally prematurely by disagreeing with nearly everyone in the ballpark, all of whom saw clearly that Frey beat the throw by a Texas mile.
"We taught him how to do that!"
One of the small highlights of the season for me was the weekend when Jim Senne introduced to me a young man who had driven all the way to Columbia from Rochester, MN to watch Aaron Senne play ball. Turns out this was one of Aaron's coaches along the way, in Legion ball (I did not catch his name).
As the team played Texas Tech that weekend, I was not sitting far from Aaron's old coach, who had claimed a front row seat for himself. At one point, when Aaron hit a long ball that he stretched into a double, the coach's face lit up like the 4th of July. He turned around to Aaron's dad and I could easily read his lips amid the crowd noise as he shouted, "We taught him to do that! You and I taught him to do that!"
A tip of the cap to Aaron Senne's Legion coach - and to all the coaches in Little League, High School, American Legion, summer leagues, and wherever they toil, patiently training young boys in how to play the game. And they do it simply for the love of the game, which is where the boys learn to love the game so much.
John McKee made a name for himself by being a magnet for baseballs, setting a new MU single season record in 2006 of 35 HBP. He got hit 23 times in 2007, matching his HBP numbers of both '04 and '05, for a career total of 104.
This season, though, he carried on a season-long competition of sorts with fellow masochist Brock Bond, who wound up with 24 HBP in the end. (In the end of the season, not . . . well, never mind).
Base Cadet of the Year
Brock Bond continues his streak of "Base Cadet" awards for his adventurous approach to baserunning.
In spite of finding himself stranded off base several times during the season, he showed that his aggressive baserunning could have good results, too.
For example, in the Tigers' April 17 game against the Missouri State Bears, Brock took off from second on a Kyle Mach base hit and aggressively laid claim to 3rd in spite of the presence of MSU SS Tanner Mattson in the basepath. While the collision brought back memories of Brock's 2006 run toward 3rd during the Kansas series, at the cost of a Price, this battle turned out better when the umpire awarded Mr. Bond not only 3rd but home, ruling fielder interference.
If and when Brock Bond gets drafted and works his way toward the Big Leagues, we'll miss the fun of watching him on the basepaths.
He'll have company if he makes it to the bigs, though, since one past winner of our Base Cadet award is Ian Kinsler, another 2nd baseman.
Talking head of the year
J.C. Field stepped into the broadcast booth this season, sharing the booth with the veteran Tex Little. After the usual breaking-in period for a Tex Little side-kick (learning to do more than read from the Press Guide, learning when not to interrupt Tex), J.C. turned out to be a knowledgable and enjoyable color commentator. His knowledge of the individual players, plus his experience as a catcher dealing with pitchers, gave him an insight that was invaluable.
The one moment I remember most was when J.C. accurately predicted a certain play (I think it was a hit-and-run), and Tex turned to J.C. and quipped, "So, I take it the coaches are using the same signs as last year?"
J.C. admitted that maybe that was the case.
Here's a tip of the cap to you, J.C. We missed your voice at the end of the season, but wish you well int he Frontier League.
Tex told me that when J.C. left for the Frontier League, he joked with the catcher that he expected he'd be back in the booth by the NCAA Tournament. No such luck. He's still calling pitches and barking at umpires.
A tip of the cap for best job in the covering MU Baseball goes to a young man who has quickly distinguished himself in being a national media voice for all of college baseball. Kendall Rogers, webmaster of CollegeBaseball.Rivals.com, has emerged in the last couple of years as one of the leading media experts on NCAA Baseball. He first started online as a high school student with Big12Baseball.com, graduated to RosenblattReport.com, and now has matured in his writing and his reach with what has become the most popular College Baseball site on the web.
Kendall scored a real coup with an interview with Tim Jamieson in mid-May in which the Coach spoke plainly and confidently for the first time in the media about the historic lack of support for MU Baseball, challenging the athletic department to step up and make a Regional hosting happen:
"If we hosted a postseason tournament, I'm pretty sure we'd have good crowds," Jamieson said. "We've had 1,500 fans at our games at times this season. That's impressive considering we've yet to devise a marketing plan to get fans out to games."
Anything less than a packed house for a Regional would be considered a disappointment for Jamieson and the Tigers.
"If we host a Regional, the stadium should be packed - no excuses," he said. "Right now, baseball is not a high priority. But if we hosted, I think that attitude would change in the postseason."
"Attendance is probably the missing ingredient for this program," he said. "We need the community to rally around the program and hosting a Regional would accomplish that. It would also help our athletic department see things through our eyes."
Here's to you, Kendall, for a great job as an ambassador and chronicler of college baseball.
Among the many local "celebrities" who showed up at the NCAA Regionals at Simmons Field (including all the various Tiger sports coaches, Mike Alden, Mario Moccia, Mayor Darwin Hindman, Chief Randy Boehm, US Rep. Kenny Hulshof) was a notable veteran of the 1954 College World Series Champion Missouri Tigers, none other than Stormin' Norman Stewart himself.
I first spied him across the aisle during the Saturday afternoon game between Miami and Kent State. Norm seemed only mildly interested in the contest - I heard later that someone in his family had told him the Tigers would be playing at 1:00, so they came to the ballpark.
Saturday evening, before game time, I met a fellow Tigerboard.com poster who had come to the game from his home in Manhattan, KS. We talked awhile and he was looking forward to the MU-UL game that night.
A few minutes later, as I was back in my own seat, here came Norm Stewart again, with his family. As they walked into the row and took their, seats, Norm in the lead, I saw my Manhattan friend look to his left to see who was sitting down next to him, and his eyes grew large as he recognized that most recognizable of Mizzou faces.
I saw later that Norm was often leaning toward his new seat-mate, chuckling and talking a lot.
The next day, when my Tigerboard friend arrived at this seat, I asked him how it was to sit with Norm during the game.
"That was worth the price of the whole weekend pass," he said. "Norm sat there and told me stories about playing for old 'Hi' Simmons, and about the Colelge World Series, and made comments on the current players and the action on the field."
He showed me the bill of his MU ballcap, which had Norm Stewart scrawled across it.
"I usually don't bug people for autographs," he explained, "but how can you pass up an opportunity like that? Norm said he was used to it."
Here's a tip of the autographed cap to Norm Stewart and all the other notables who not only put in an appearance, but actually stayed around and watched the games. Mike Alden was sitting at the far end of my row for the entirety of every game of the weekend except one, his attention on the field except whenever people would come by to talk or shake his hand (which was often). Mike Anderson also really seemed to be enjoying the game.
Gary Pinkel, who stole Cindy Stein's seat for one game, was fascinated by the little hand held scorecard gadget being used by John Thies to chart pitches. When the sprinkles began in the middle of one game, only one person in the entire lower tier of seats put up an umbrella to stay dry - Mr. Pinkel, of course. This lasted for about an inning until the temp-service event staff finally found a veteran event staffer brave enough to ask him to please put his umbrella down, as they are not allowed.
Chief Boehm sat in the cheap seats up behind home plate on Saturday evening - and returned again to watch the game the following night.
All over the ballpark were folks who showed up because Taylor Stadium was "the place to be" that weekend. And then they discovered it was a really fun place to be.