On Monday, the most important part of the offseason for Mississippi State baseball began in the silliest of fashions. The Bulldog World Series, held every fall, is the final chance for players to shine.
Some are hoping to make an impression on coaches leading to more opportunities in the spring. Many of the walk-ons and hopefuls are walking a tightrope knowing that 10 of those playing this weekend won’t be on the team come first pitch in February, fighting in what amounts to a baseball Hunger Games, their baseball lives at MSU on the line in every pitch, swing and catch.
Dressed as The Commissioner, and looking at room full of people dressed as bananas, kings and court jesters, John Cohen told his team as the draft party began just how serious the coming five games are.
“I do evaluations before the World Series, and then I do them again after,” Cohen announced. “This may be the toughest group in my 22 years of coaching. So I need you to know, this matters. This absolutely matters.”
The process began earlier that afternoon, when the four captains of the Maroon team and the four captains of the White team gathered to draft the players each team would play with.
Derrick Armstrong, Ross Mitchell, C.T. Bradford and Alex Detz represented the Maroon, while Brett Pirtle, Ben Bracewell, Demarcus Henderson and Wes Rea were in charge of White.
Outside of the injured Mitchell, each player will play for their respective team, meaning the players they draft are based on each other and the needed positions remaining.
Not having Mitchell available, the Maroon team was awarded first pick of positional players, though the draft didn’t come without limitations. Whatever position someone had practiced at all fall is the position they must play in the World Series.
For example, White had planned on picking Reid Humphreys early on moving Detz from third to first. But, because both Humphreys and Detz played third all fall, they weren’t allowed to be on the same team, meaning Humphreys was put on the Maroon team without even being selected.
“I can’t play first?” Detz exclaimed. “That was our whole strategy picking Reid early.”
“C.T. counts as two because he pitches and plays outfield,” draft mediator and assistant coach Nick Mingione reminded him as a means of saying they do have at least that one advantage over White.
Before positional players were picked, however, the starting pitchers and relievers were selected, with the knowledge that Bracewell would start Friday for White and Bradford on Friday for Maroon.
But, here’s the catch: the winner of a coin toss gets to pick – either you get first pick and the other teams gets both the second and third choices, or you get second and third while the other team gets first.
“These are the toughest choices,” Cohen said as he watched from the back of the room.
The Maroon team, winners of the toss, chose to let White pick first (Preston Brown was the choice), while they were given the second and third selections.
Ultimately, Maroon ended up with Brandon Woodruff, Trevor Fitts and John Marc Shelly, in addition to Bradford, while White finished their roster with Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton next to Bracewell and Brown.
While it only took a few paragraphs to explain, the actual process took up over half the draft.
Rea, the main voice of the White team, took it as seriously as a surgeon does the operating table, constantly checking with pitching coach Butch Thompson on pitch counts, how often pitchers could throw and seeking injury updates.
At one point, Rea even left the room to call a player about drafting him, presumably to ask some questions and get the answers he needed.
It’s a fun event, but the seriousness and gravity of what happens in the Bulldog World Series is not lost on anyone, captain or walk-on.
“I’m going down with the guy throwing strikes,” Rea told his teammates as he campaigned for one pitcher to be drafted, “and not the one walking people.”
When Maroon again won the toss for relievers and closers, they elected to pick first after much debate, giving White the second and third picks.
“This one is so easy,” Cohen said.
Cohen continued to whisper in the background about the obvious choice out of MSU’s bullpen.
Apparently, the Maroon team didn’t agree with him as they then took Jacob Lindgren with their first pick of the relievers.
Cohen made a noise of exclamation, having expected Jonathan Holder to be the easy selection.
“They just passed on the guy that’s gonna be the all-time leader in saves in SEC history,” Cohen said with arms wide open and a bewildered look on his face. “Our league has been in existence for 81 years, and we have the guy.
“I’m just the Commissioner back here,” he finished with a smile and shake of the head.
Holder, as would be expected, was immediately scooped up by White with the next pick.
“I’m shocked that you’re so shocked at the Lindgren thing,” Detz told Cohen.
“I think that’s a steal,” Bradford added.
As the pitchers were all selected, the draft turned to its finishing point, the positional players, which led Rea to realize the error he had made.
“We should’ve drafted positions first,” he told Mingione, “so we could match-up pitchers with batters once we knew who they had.”
Rea’s attention to detail and need for answers was unending.
But, the positional picks were made, building teams around the players already on the roster, filling out starting lineups, making choices based on requirements of how much each man selected must play over the course of the five-game series.
Pros and cons were reviewed, whether the team needed offense or a steady glove at a certain point in the draft, who had been playing well lately, who had struggled and nearly anything else imaginable was dissected.
“His bat,” Rea told his fellow captains as he made a case for them to pick Daniel Garner, “you can’t pass that up right now. He hasn’t missed a barrel in three weeks.”
Following the actual draft, the entire team gathered together in Halloween costumes for the draft party, where picks were announced (though their order was not) and each player was brought to the front of the room for a picture with their jersey, Commissioner Cohen and the captains responsible for selecting them.
Music and Power Point slides with pictures were included for each pick, as well as occasional “interviews” by Kyle Niblett, the emcee of the event.
In a vacuum, it’s just five games of baseball scrimmages, teammates vs. teammates. But behind it is a huge production, both serious and silly, fun and nerve-racking.
The final chance of fall, winners receiving a steak dinner, pride is on the line for all, and for many more, the opportunity to wear the Maroon and White is decided in what happens over the next six days.
The Bulldog World Series is fun, and its importance is understood by all.
“I’ve played in three of these,” Detz said at the end of the initial draft, “and I’m 0-9.”
“No wonder you didn’t take Holder,” Cohen cracked. “Keep the record intact.”