Meridian Star

Sports

May 21, 2014

In recent weeks, MLB has taste of Mississippi

JACKSON — Don’t look now, but the guy leading the Major Leagues in scoring runs hails from Mississippi.

Don’t look now, but the same guy ranks in the top five in the Majors in home runs and stolen bases. The same guy is on pace to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases this season. The same guy seems to make an almost nightly appearance when ESPN shows the defensive plays of the day.

The guy’s name is Brian Dozier, and the rest of the baseball nation is asking the question: “Where the heck did this guy come from?”

Answer: Fulton, up in the northeast corner of Mississippi, by way of Southern Miss.

Don’t look now, Part II: The hottest player in the Major Leagues over the last couple weeks is another Mississippian. His name is Seth Smith, of Jackson and Ole Miss. Smith’s career has suddenly jump-started in San Diego after six previous Major League seasons split between Colorado and Oakland. Smith, who hit .240 and .253 the last two seasons in Oakland, began this week with a .333 average. He had hit 12 doubles, three triples and five home runs. For the week ending May 11, he was named National League Player of the Week.

Smith this season is hitting the ball with the authority many of us expected from his brilliant college career at Ole Miss where he was also, for a short time, Eli Manning’s back-up quarterback.

True story from Smith’s freshman baseball season at Ole Miss when he hit .402 and made freshman All-American. The Rebels were playing a game at Smith-Wills Stadium, and I was watching Smith take batting practice for the first time. He was smashing line drives all over the ballpark, banging balls off the fences and over them, too. His swing was a work of baseball art. The ball just seemed to shoot off his bat.

Afterward I interviewed him and asked him how serious he was about this football thing. He said he was dead serious about it. “Why do you ask?” he said. I told him that after what I had just seen, he might want to consider sticking to baseball.

Smith laughed and said he’d think about it. Eventually, he did just that.

I would love to tell you that I expected this kind of Major League production from James Brian Dozier when the Twins drafted him in the eighth round of  the 2009 amateur draft.

I did not.

Oh, I expected Dozier to make it to the big leagues and play for a long time. He was too good a fielder — too versatile and too smart a baseball player — not to make it.

But, honestly, I thought Dozier would become a classic utility player in the pros. A shortstop at USM, he could also play third base and second base and first base if necessary. He could bunt, hit behind the runner, make all the plays.

I did not expect this kind of power, this kind of production.

Frankly, neither did the Twins.

Dozier never hit more than five home runs in a season at USM. Ne never stole more than 11 bases. Through Sunday’s games, Dozier had hit 11 home runs, had stolen 12 bases. His 40 runs scored led the Major Leagues. His on base percentage was a lofty .379.

Dozier would appear a cinch to make his first All-Star team.

Smith would, too.

The two Mississippi products rank among the most pleasant surprises of this baseball season, slightly more than 25 percent of which is in the books. You should know both Smith and Dozier are class acts, as solid off the field as they are on it. That is saying something.

Rick Cleveland is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. He can be reached at rcleveland@msfame.com.

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