OMAHA, Neb. — Wes Rea never stops hearing from people who are amazed he passed on the opportunity to play major college football to indulge in his baseball passion at Mississippi State.
“When we do win this national championship,” he said after practice Thursday, “I’ve got a one-line answer for all the guys who say, ‘Why didn’t you play football?’ I can show them the ring and say, ‘That’s why.”
Rea was one of the nation’s top offensive line prospects coming out of Gulfport, Miss., in 2010. A national title in football certainly would have been possible for him considering how much interest he attracted from Southeastern Conference programs.
Rea took official football recruiting visits to Alabama and LSU, and Auburn also wooed him until he let it be known he would play baseball in college.
“That’s where my heart was,” he said. “Looking back on it, if I were to say I could win a national championship in football or baseball, I’d pick baseball every time. So that’s what we’re working for right now.”
The Bulldogs’ 6-foot-5, 272-pound first baseman hit a key home run in super regionals against Virginia and drove in the go-ahead runs in a College World Series-opening win over Oregon State. He’s batting .444 in Omaha, with two doubles, and .296 for the season. He also scooped a bouncing throw from closer Jonathan Holder for the last out against Indiana on Monday.
Mississippi State will play Oregon State on Friday, needing one win to advance to next week’s best-of-three finals. If the Bulldogs lose, they’ll play Oregon State again Saturday.
Coach John Cohen said people who know Rea best know that he’s a “baseball guy.”
“I think people, because of his size, just assume he’s this big, physical guy who has a brute-type personality. He is a baseball savant. He gets it.”
Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen is one of Rea’s biggest fans, even though he playfully continues to encourage Rea to put down his baseball glove and put on football pads.
“Coach Mullen teases him relentlessly about being a sissy,” Cohen said. “It’s all good-natured fun.”
Right fielder Hunter Renfroe, Rea’s roommate for three years, said Rea still follows football closely in the fall. When they watch games on television, Renfroe said, Rea dissects plays and talks about what he would do differently if he were on the field.
“He was a great football player, no doubt about that,” Renfroe said, “and he could have been a great one for us. He’s a great baseball player now, and that’s all he needs to worry about.”
The other guys
UCLA is in its third CWS in four years, and coach John Savage said his team feels like outsiders.
Savage isn’t complaining. It’s just that the Bruins have drawn underdogs in their bracket, like TCU in 2010 and Stony Brook last year, and fan favorite LSU this year.
“We’ve been the poster child of the team that no one wants to like or have win,” Savage said. “I think our guys like the ballpark against them a little bit. I don’t think we think the Omaha people are against us, but it’s more that everyone knows who the favorite and the Cinderellas are.”
UCLA has won so ugly in its first two games — 2-1 victories over LSU and North Carolina State — that the Bruins’ .249-batting team would almost seem lovable. Savage isn’t feeling it, though.
“We’ve fallen into place of being that ‘other’ team, and we’ve been pretty good in that role,” he said. “I think even though we’re 2-0, it doesn’t seem like people are ready to jump over that line and say these guys are legitimate. That’s kind of where we want that perception.”
Burke Masters doesn’t have the name recognition of greats Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, but he remains a beloved figure at Mississippi State for his ninth-inning grand slam against Florida State that helped send the Bulldogs to the 1990 CWS.
Masters, by happy coincidence, was able to visit with the 2013 Bulldogs at Thursday’s practice at Creighton University. Now a Roman Catholic priest in Joliet, Ill., Masters was at Creighton this week teaching a course for seminarians.
“I was watching the regionals and the super regional just hoping it would work out, and it did,” Masters said.
Masters was the Bulldogs’ third baseman and teammate of current coach John Cohen. He’s now a parish priest and Chicago Cubs team chaplain.
He said his grand slam against Florida State was his greatest sports achievement. He went 6 for 6 that day, and he was 15 for 18 to start the NCAA tournament that year.
“I wasn’t a home-run hitter, and I was remembered for hitting a home run,” Masters said. “I was known as the good student, and to be remembered for something on the baseball field is extremely humbling.”
A likeable guy
Make no mistake, Oregon State coach Pat Casey likes pitcher Matt Boyd.
“If you need someone to watch your kids, Matty’s your guy,” Casey said.
That glowing praise of Boyd came just minutes after Boyd threw a four-hitter to beat Indiana 1-0 on Wednesday.
Casey reeled off Boyd’s traits, such as his academic prowess and dedication to training.
“He’s just a fun kid to coach, and he’s a great man,” he said.
Boyd, sitting nearby, thanked his coach for the kind words.
“You’re welcome, Matt,” Casey said. Then he added, “Especially when he throws shutouts, he’s a really good guy.”