The Ole Miss coaches knew they had signed a special class last year. However, the MLB Draft has a way of eating into those classes. Ole Miss Baseball in the past has been unlucky with losing some recruits to the draft. This year, they couldn't have been more fortunate.
The Rebels have brought in 18 talented newcomers for the 2017 season. That includes seven high-school All-Americans and one junior college All-American. Five were listed in Perfect Game's top-100 high school players.
"When we signed this class back in November and a couple guys in the spring, in this talented of a class it's not likely they will all show up," Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said. "Some days start to pass and you realized that you're going to get them all. It's going to be a special class. We're really young but very talented."
The freshman class started a group text around two years ago to keep up with each other, but even the individual members didn't know how the draft was going to go for their fellow signees.
"We kept a group text going steady, checking on each other and see how everybody was doing," freshman pitcher Ryan Rolison said. "Right around the draft, we let everyone have their personal space. We didn't really talk about it. After the draft was over, we found out everyone was going to show up. We started getting pumped and chatting a little more."
One player in particular that Rolison did not expect to make it to campus is his now roommate Cooper Johnson. Johnson was ranked the No. 39 draft prospect by Perfect Game.
"We talked to each other on draft day," Rolison said. "We were going to see how it played out. After that first night, we called each other and said, 'Let's go to Ole Miss and do something big there.'"
The freshmen have been on campus since the summer, but they've already experienced some of the difference between high school baseball and major college baseball. In particular, they've learned what strength coach Ben Fleming's workouts are all about.
"It's a big change from high school," Rolison said. "I talked to some of the players here, and they tried to explain Strength Ben's workouts. You can't really explain them until you actually do it. That first week adjusting to his workouts we were sore all the time."
While Ole Miss will be extremely talented, the team consists of only eight juniors or seniors.
"We have a lot of new faces out there, so we will have to be patient," Bianco said. "It's one of those falls where we'll probably have to take an extra day when we do bunt defenses and things like that. There are a lot of new guys at different positions."
However, Ole Miss was fortunate to return two experienced bats in Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles. They'll be leaned upon to be steady hands in the batting order as well as being leaders.
"Last year at this time and into the spring, we didn't expect Colby or Tate to return," Bianco said. "To get them both back is huge, and maybe more so this year. You have so many young guys, there aren't many veterans. Those guys are significant guys that bat in the middle of the lineup and are leaders. When you return middle of the lineup guys, you feel better about your offense."
A trimmed-up Blackman is excited to see what the freshmen are all about during the intrasquads in their first fall on campus.
"We're going to challenge them," Blackman said. "Everybody is good when they get here. We're all studs when we come. We're going to test their mental toughness and see how tough they are. Strength Ben definitely challenges them in the weight room. We're going to challenge them on the field."
Bianco hopes that the freshmen continue to do what they've done all their lives, play baseball very well.
"A lot of times, the freshmen put a little too much pressure on themselves," Bianco said. "That's one of the goals, to get them to play just like they did in high school when they played with that same mindset."
I’m 16. On a recent night, while I was busy thinking about important social issues, like what to do over the weekend and who to do it with, I overheard my parents talking about my future. My dad was upset – not the usual stuff that he and Mom and, I guess, a lot of parents worry about like which college I’m going to, how far away it is from home and how much it’s going to cost. Instead, he was upset about the world his generation is turning over to mine, a world he fears has a dark and difficult future – if it has a future at all. He sounded like this:
“There will be a pandemic that kills millions, a devastating energy crisis, a horrible worldwide depression and a nuclear explosion set off in anger.”
As I lay on the living room couch, eavesdropping on their conversation, starting to worry about the future my father was describing, I found myself looking at some old family photos. There was a picture of my grandfather in his Citadel uniform. He was a member of the class of 1942, the war class. Next to his picture were photos of my great-grandparents, Ellis Island immigrants. Seeing those pictures made feel a lot better. I believe tomorrow will be better than today – that the world my generation grows into is going to get better, not worse. Those pictures helped me understand why.
I considered some of the awful things my grandparents and great-grandparents had seen in their lifetimes: two world wars, killer flu, segregation, a nuclear bomb. But they saw other things, too, better things: the end of two world wars, the polio vaccine, passage of the civil rights laws. They even saw the Red Sox win the World Series – twice.
I believe that my generation will see better things, too – that we will witness the time when AIDS is cured and cancer is defeated; when the Middle East will find peace and Africa grain, and the Cubs win the World Series – probably, only once. I will see things as inconceivable to me today as a moon shot was to my grandfather when he was 16, or the Internet to my father when he was 16.
Ever since I was a little kid, whenever I’ve had a lousy day, my dad would put his arm around me and promise me that “tomorrow will be a better day.” I challenged my father once, “How do you know that?” He said, “I just do.” I believed him. My great-grandparents believed that, and my grandparents, and so do I.
As I listened to my Dad talking that night, so worried about what the future holds for me and my generation, I wanted to put my arm around him, and tell him what he always told me, “Don’t worry Dad, tomorrow will be a better day.” This, I believe.
Josh Rittenberg is a junior at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan where he plays baseball and guitar, and sings tenor in an a cappella group. Inspired by “Law and Order," Rittenberg co-founded his school’s Mock Trial Club. Newsday recently published an essay he wrote about excessive homework.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
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