Bears' unlikely postseason has added spice to College World Ser

Sunday, June 15, 2003

It hasn't created quite the buzz as a midmajor program pulling off some huge upsets in the NCAA basketball tournament, but what Southwest Missouri State's baseball team has accomplished in the postseason is nothing short of remarkable in its own right.

SMS is one of the most surprising squads to reach the College World Series in some time. The Bears recorded upsets in the regional and super regional to emerge as one of eight -- out of an original field of 285 -- Division I college baseball teams still standing across the country.

Not only did the Bears rack up a host of impressive victories in the postseason, they did it all away from home by winning a regional at Nebraska and a super regional at Ohio State.

And to add even more spice to the story, Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champion SMS failed to win the MVC Tournament -- which assures an automatic NCAA regional berth -- and most of the Bears didn't think they would receive an at-large bid. So they barely snuck into the NCAA playoffs -- and now they're in the ultimate big dance for the first time in the program's 21-year Division I history.

The odds of the Bears from Springfield challenging for the national championship are slim. But after what they've already accomplished, you can bet the other teams in Omaha won't take them lightly.

One other neat sidelight to what SMS has accomplished is that it no doubt gives hope to other midmajor baseball programs across the country --Southeast Missouri State University included -- that, if things break just right, they too can pull off the almost miraculous and reach the College World Series.

Of course, the Bears might not be classified as midmajor after they move into their new $30 million stadium -- courtesy of Springfield-area developer John Q. Hammons -- next March.

Now that the area's college and high school sports seasons are totally done for the year, I've turned my attention to the local summer baseball scene.

I love following the Craftsman Union Capahas, Ford & Sons American Legion and other area squads over the summer. It's great -- and cheap -- entertainment as the teams often "pass the hat" but don't charge an actual admission fee.

If you enjoy baseball, check out some of the games. I don't think you'll be disappointed -- as long as we don't get the kind of rain we've had over the past week or so. When that happens, nobody gets to watch baseball.

Speaking of the local American Legion season, one of the big stories is the absence of three Sikeston standouts who would have made the squad perhaps the District 14 favorite.

Blake DeWitt, Jacob Priday and Lance Rhodes -- not only Sikeston's top three players but also three of the premier high-school age baseball players in the region -- are competing this summer for the St. Louis-based Midwest All-Stars.

While it's a good opportunity for the trio to showcase their skills on a regular basis for plenty of college and professional scouts, it has on paper made the District 14 race appear to be a real tossup.

Dunklin County, which has won five of the last six district titles, still should be solid, but the squad was hit hard by graduation. That should leave the door open for just about all of the six district teams -- Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Chaffee and Poplar Bluff round out the league -- to contend.

With the Cardinals having played the Red Sox this past week for the first time since the 1967 World Series -- and with all the newspaper articles and television clips about that championship meeting -- it brought back thoughts of some of my earliest and fondest baseball memories.

I was just 9, but it seemed like my whole world at the time already revolved around sports in general and the Cardinals in particular.

That World Series had my full attention. I watched every game and was fortunate that our teacher felt it was important enough to bring a TV set to class so we could follow the action (those were the old days, before every game was televised during prime time).

I loved all those Cardinals, but Bob Gibson was the favorite of mine and my brother, who was a couple of years older than me. Man, we idolized that guy.

What a World Series it was, going down to the wire. But in the seventh and deciding game, Gibson came through with a three-hitter -- he went 3-0 in the series with a 1.00 ERA -- and hit a home run to boot. The Cardinals won 7-2, and all of St. Louis rejoiced, including this young whippersnapper.

Now, turn to the current Cardinals. I'm more of an overall pro sports fan now, still loving the games in general but not having total allegiance to any one team and certainly not living and dying with every pitch as I did back then.

But one current Cardinal is every bit as dominant as Gibby was in the 1960s.

Yeah, I'm talking about Albert Pujols. It's still somewhat amazing how great a player he is, especially considering he spent the 2000 season in Class A ball and was scheduled to start the 2001 season in Class AAA.

Instead, because of a hamstring injury to Bobby Bonilla, Pujols started the 2001 campaign with the Cardinals and wound up being the National League Rookie of the Year. He's been tearing up the majors ever since.

I don't want to jinx Pujols, but if he stays healthy, he's got Hall of Fame written all over him. And with the kind of season he's having so far this year, what's up with him being only fourth in the National League All-Star balloting? That's a joke.

The NBA Finals have been far from an artistic success --some of the basketball has been plain ugly -- but at least the series contains a bit of suspense for the first time in several years, although leading 3-2 and heading back home, it's hard to imagine the Spurs not giving the Western Conference yet another title.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: