Rafael Palmeiro remembers his first trip to Mississippi State clearly.
“I came up here in the spring of ’82,” Palmeiro said, standing in the ballroom of the Palmeiro Center on MSU’s campus. “They were playing Ole Miss that weekend and there were 8,000 people for a night game and they had the Left Field Lounge going and people cooking and drinking and partying – I’d never seen anything like it. Miami had just won a national championship. I had just been to Miami on a recruiting trip and it was night and day. It’s like the big leagues vs. the minor leagues.”
Palmeiro was one of many big leaguers on campus last weekend as MSU’s baseball program hosted an alumni party, and it was his 1985 College World Series team who was the center of attention, 30 players, staff and assistants back in town, the largest reunion of that group since they left Omaha in June of 1985.
“I think it was really a special moment for them,” current head coach John Cohen said, a high schooler in Alabama at the time of that run. “It was wonderful to have Coach Polk and that whole ’85 team come back. Really a team that, in my opinion, just changed the whole ballgame in terms of college baseball and the attention it’s gotten.”
Said Palmeiro, “It brings back memories … Seeing Will Clark here and Bobby Thigpen, guys that had long careers. It’s special.”
What type of memories, Palmeiro was asked? The answer was easy for one of the heroes of the No. 1 team in the country.
“Just winning,” he said. “Winning a lot. Dominating the league. Getting to the World Series and coming up short a little bit.”
Therein lies the story of that team and the duality of its tale. They were so, so good. One of the most talented teams in the history of college baseball. And they were so, so close, but came up just short. A great team who had a great deal of success, but couldn’t quite get the one thing they wanted: a National Championship. Seemingly the one thing MSU’s historic program doesn’t yet have.
Yet being the key word, Palmeiro said. He thinks it’s coming.
Though it’s not the first time he’s thought that. And not just in 1985, either. Those Bulldog teams he was on were stacked in 1983 and 1984, too.
“In fact, I think the ’84 team was probably better than the ’85 team,” Palmeiro said.
But it’s that ’85 group who gets remembered so fondly. Legendary head coach Ron Polk. Thunder and Lightning Palmeiro and Clark. Thigpen, Jeff Brantley, and a long list of outstanding college players, regardless of professional futures.
The fact that they were SEC Champions is a borderline footnote to the essay they wrote all season.
They started the season No. 1 and, despite the fact that teams like Florida State and Miami started playing and winning games before MSU could even begin its schedule, the Bulldogs stayed at the top of the rankings without even doing anything.
A team with that much respect, talent and expectation surely made MSU a club other teams wanted to take down.
“Target?” Palmeiro asked as he shot a quizzical look at the reporter asking him Friday night about playing with said target on their backs. “We went out and kicked everybody’s ass. Target…”
Though that team did have some struggles early on, he conceded. They took a trip to play Hawaii in Hawaii early on and lost their last game of the trip (“I think it was the last game,” Palmeiro says), then returned and lost three-straight to Auburn and got beat by Ole Miss in Jackson.
It was a horrid skid for such a talented crew.
“We never had meetings,” Palmeiro said, “But I remember Coach Polk having a team meeting and said, ‘Hey, put all that behind us and start over again.’ And we ran the table, just about.”
Just about. But not quite.
It took almost 30 years for another State team to get closer than those ’85 Diamond Dawgs. Fittingly, many members of that 2013 College World Series squad were under the same roof as their 1985 predecessors Friday night.
It’s a weird feeling for those guys, as some expressed. Somewhere in your mind you know how great MSU’s baseball tradition is and the legends who have played at Dudy-Noble Field. It certainly was part of the reason they chose State, most say. But when you’re so immersed, when you spend every day at that same field and see the trophies week in and week out in the Hall of Champions, you can forget. Or at least, it’s not quite as remarkable for a time.
But it’s one thing to see the name Palmeiro on the wall when practicing in the facility he paid for. It’s quite another to see the actual Rafael Palmeiro standing inside of it.
Pitchers and hitters, infielders and outfielders who took that same trip to Omaha, and made it even farther, never thought of themselves as being on the same level of the men they were now on an even plane with. But there they were, all in their jackets, chatting as alumni of the same program.
They spent their childhoods watching those former Bulldogs in the pros. What’s funny, though, is that those former Bulldogs then spent their retired lives watching their old college team and cheering them on. Especially when they made it Omaha in 2013.
“We followed it. We followed it all the way through,” Palmeiro said. “It was surprising because, I think they would tell you, as well, that they didn’t have their best team, but they put it together. They got hot at the right time and had all the right pieces. Obviously, John pulled all the right strings. Once they got to that championship series, I thought they were going to win.”
It was an incredible stretch for that club. If 1985 was The Team, 2013 was The Run. Both, sadly, fell just short.
Back on campus, Palmeiro saw a program he thinks has everything. Facilities, he said. Those are there. The best stadium in the country – they’ve already got it and they’re about it to make it better, he told a small group of reporters. A smart coach who recruits well? That, too, Palmeiro confirmed.
All-Americans, first-round picks, SEC Championships, attendance records and impressive academic performances. MSU has it all.
“The thing we don’t have yet is that National Championship,” Palmeiro said as he finished his chat. “But I think it’s coming. It’s just a matter of time.”