The plan seemed a sound one to this wizened sports writer. Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum had pulled to within four hits of the all-time Southeastern Conference hits record. The Bulldogs had a three-game weekend series coming up with Georgia.
Previous commitments wouldn’t allow me to make Friday or Saturday games. That’s OK, I figured, Sunday was probably the day he would break it. He needed five. He’d get close on Friday and Saturday and probably break it on Sunday. He was averaging about 1.7 hits a game, just right. I planned to be there on the big day.
You know what happened. Mangum rapped out three hits (and walked twice) in State’s Friday night victory, bringing him within two of breaking Eddie Furniss’ record. Saturday afternoon, he wasted no time.
It took him two innings, two at bats, to get the needed hits.
There is a lesson here: Never, ever underestimate Jake Mangum.
He added a third hit Saturday. He added another on Sunday when he also stole a base and scored two runs in a one-run victory.
Every time he gets a hit, he breaks his own SEC record. No telling how high he’ll raise that mark before he is done.
State has 10 regular season games remaining and then the SEC Tournament. The way the Bulldogs are playing, this looks like it could be a long post-season. Mangum finished the weekend with 355 career hits. If he stays healthy, the hits will keep on coming. The guy is a line drive machine.
Chances are, he will break his own record so many times that his final total will be a record that lasts for a long, long time if not forever. Records, the saying goes, are made to be broken. And that’s true. But some are much more difficult to break than others. This one definitely fits that category.
For one thing, anybody who is proficient enough a hitter to threaten Mangum’s record would likely turn pro after his third season. Most great college hitters do.
Furniss, the LSU slugger who became a doctor, stayed the full four seasons. So did Jeffrey Rea, the former Mississippi State standout whose MSU record Mangum broke earlier in the month.
I talked with Mangum last week about Jeffrey Rea, the little guy who preceded Mangum as State’s hits king, playing from 2004 to 2007. Mangum knew all about him, followed him as a youngster.
“Rea was a great, great hitter and player, a great Bulldog – what this program is all about,” Mangum said.
I told Mangum that Rea had told me that he didn’t really consider going pro after his junior season even though he was drafted. In fact, Rea told me, “I would have paid them to have come back and play my senior season.”
Said Mangum, “I would have, too. In fact, in a way, I did.”
It’s a well-known fact – and a travesty – that hardly any college baseball players are on full scholarships. Most are paying a percentage of their college tuition.
Mangum laughed. “The truth is, I’ve been paying to play for the last two years.”
It’s true. Because of his age, Mangum could have gone pro after his sophomore season.
Count this writer among those glad he did not. Few college baseball players, if any, have been more fun to watch. He honors the game every time out. He plays with maximum effort, does all the little things right. Rare is the game when his uniform isn’t filthy by the second or third inning. He hits, he fields, he steals. He could pitch – and has in the past. He is at his best when it matters most.
Says Chris Lemonis, Mangum’s fourth coach in four years (think about that): “The bigger the moment, the better he is.”
Mangum comes from one of Mississippi’s great sports families. His late grandfather, Big John Mangum, was a great defensive lineman at Southern Miss. His father, John, was Mr. Mississippi Football in high school and then a great defensive back at Alabama and then for the Chicago Bears. His uncle, Kris, was a standout tight end at Ole Miss and in the pros.
Jake Mangum has blazed a different trail, at a different school, in a different sport. But, oh my, what a legacy he will leave behind when this trail ends.
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is a Jackson-based, syndicated columnist.