Thursday, June 2, 2005

Fielder’s Choice
By Barry Burleson

Foul balls

An LSU right-handed hitter swung the bat late Thursday morning, and fouled the pitch toward the stands just past first base. I was sitting on the front row.

I stood up, reached out and made the catch, with two hands and no glove. A few fans around me applauded. A couple shouted, “Good catch.” A small youngster moved over to me and asked, “Did that hurt your hands?”

I carried Andy and one of his best friends, Miles Moore, to the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Ala., for a couple of days. We saw four games, including the LSU vs. Tennessee contest in the losers’ bracket, and all from great seats.

It was a birthday gift for Andy, but his dad planned the trip for himself just as well as for the kids. When it comes to baseball, I’m a child at heart.

It was my first trip ever to the tournament, and one I’d make again in a heartbeat.

One of the most fun things for kids and adults at any college or professional baseball game is the foul balls that reach the stands and the scramble for them. We were in the perfect spot Wednesday and Thursday at the SEC tourney for foul balls.

They were being hit all around us, but only the one came right to me, and thank goodness I didn’t make an error.

Andy and Miles actually got a couple more foul balls while standing out on the grassy hill adjacent to left field, including one in the last inning of the last game we attended. It was a pretty good tournament for us. I bet not too many folks left with three SEC baseballs from the competition on the diamond.

The games we saw had plenty of excitement, too.

The first one on Wednesday evening pitted number-one-seed Florida against eighth-seeded Arkansas. There had been upsets in the first two games of the tourney (Mississippi State over LSU and South Carolina over Tennessee), and this one appeared headed the same route. Florida, trailing 8-2 entering the eighth inning, rallied for the dramatic 9-8 victory.

It was a long game, too. The Wednesday night contest scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., started at 9:50 p.m., and the temperatures were surprisingly chilly. Folks were pulling out blankets. We had on t-shirts and shorts, like most of the other fans.

We gave it up at midnight, with Ole Miss leading Alabama 3-0. The Rebels, we found out the next day, won 3-1.

There were 11,318 fans in attendance for the Florida-Arkansas and Ole Miss-Bama games, setting an SEC Tournament record for evening session attendance.

We were back at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium the next morning at 9:30 a.m. Tennessee eliminated LSU 5-1, and Alabama stayed alive and ousted Arkansas with a 5-4 victory in the second game that day.

Andy and Miles were all smiles after each got the signatures of 18 Ole Miss Rebels on their baseballs. They were there in support of the Rebels. I was there cheering for the Crimson Tide. Needless to say, their team did better.

Just prior to leaving the tournament and heading back to Holly Springs, Andy asked Mississippi State Head Coach Ron Polk, one of the greatest college baseball coaches ever, to sign his tournament program, and Coach Polk kindly obliged. And Mississippi State went on to take the crown.

We did see other SEC baseball fans from the area we knew – like Charles Crain, Christopher Hedglin, Gary Hickman, Evan Hickman, Kirby Jones and Neil Murphy. A fellow newspaper editor from Mississippi, Russell Turner of the Greene County Herald in Leakesville, sat behind us Wednesday evening with several friends and children.

No way could I play a nine-inning or even a seven-inning baseball game these days, like I could 20 years ago. But I can still catch, and bare-handed, too.

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