Two games into this year’s baseball season, Louis James’ best pitcher at Humphreys County High came to him with troubling news.
“He just said I don’t like (baseball),” remembered the veteran coach and former Jackson State baseball player.
Decisions like his, coupled with other factors, coaches say, have led to a baseball drought in the Mississippi Delta.
When the St. Joseph baseball team defeated Smithville 9-7 Saturday, it was a win not only for the Fighting Irish — but for the entire Delta.
It marked the first victory for a Delta team throughout the entire Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) playoffs.
Through two rounds of playoff baseball, Delta teams have amassed a 1-27 record and have been outscored 313-30 by their opponents. Thirteen of the 28 games ended in shutouts.
St. Joe’s nine runs Saturday were the most scored all postseason.
Student-athletes don’t want to be associated with a losing program, said Hollandale Simmons baseball coach Cortez Johnson. With winning comes interest from quality athletes, he said.
“Now that we’re winning in football,” said Johnson, “kids are more interested in that. Football and basketball — kids flock to those sports. The interest level (in baseball) has gone down a little bit.”
O’Bannon coach Torrione Carter agreed.
“The majority flock to basketball and football,” he said. “But it’s going to come back around sooner or later.”
Recently, Delta area teams have found it hard to compete against teams throughout other parts of the state. In this year’s playoffs, four teams failed to score a run throughout their respective series — including Ruleville who lost by a combined score of 36-0 in two games against Alcorn Central.
Most coaches surveyed say that a lack of resources for Delta teams play a part in the lopsided scores.
“We don’t have a batting cage or pitching machine, and my field is not in good shape,” said Johnson whose Hollandale Simmons fell to East Webster in the 2A playoffs. “I’m not trying to make excuses...but if you have 16-20 guys at batting practice (with no pitching machine) it’s going to take a long time, maybe 2 1/2 or three hours.”
Carter agrees that facilities play a major role, but the lack of feeder programs for older athletes also hurts.
“Feeder programs are the key to baseball,” he said. “When they come to high school, they know the game. All you have to do is polish it.”
The last team from the Delta to win a MHSAA baseball title was Cleveland in 2000.
Over at Drew High School, getting quality players isn’t the problem; it’s finding a coach. Last year, Eagles coach Lacy Wilson was the head coach for the football, boys basketball, baseball, track and junior high boys basketball teams.
This year, the school didn’t field a track or baseball team. Wilson said he just couldn’t handle the load.
“It got to a point,” said Wilson, “where the basketball season ran long. So when basketball ended, I was behind on baseball. I just feel sorry for the kids. They’re the ones that get hurt.”
Wilson also teaches seven physical education classes and is a bus driver for the school.
The 31-year veteran coach echoed other coaches’ statements that without a quality little league program, high school teams will continue to suffer.
“You have to start from scratch,” said Wilson. “And by the time you get them going, they’re seniors.”
And it’s not just the players who are unfamiliar with the game, said James. Little league coaches have a hard time teaching the ins and outs of baseball, he said.
“All they do is argue balls and strikes,” he said.
Added Johnson, “We don’t have enough adults interested in volunteering in coaching...If (coaches) don’t have interest to push kids, they’ll go off and do their own thing...”
Another reason Delta teams suffer, some say, is that most Delta schools who compete in the MHSAA are predominately black. And according to recent reports, African-Americans are leaving baseball at record rates.
According to ESPN, the percentage of black players in Major League Baseball dropped from 9.1 percent in 2010 to 8.5 in 2011 — the lowest level since 2007 when it stood at 8.2 percent.
“(Black) kids have to have some kind of sense that baseball is relevant,” said James. “They don’t see young black men playing baseball outside of high school.”
As a result, four-year college baseball programs seem to have gone outside the area to find players. This year, Mississippi Valley State is without any players with a Delta hometown. Freshman pitcher Cody Simpson, a Tunica Academy product, is the closest Delta Devil to fit the description. Over at Delta State, Leland’s Hunter Palasini is the lone Statesmen from the Delta.
“They go everywhere except the Delta,” said James.
St. Joseph, Riverside and Cleveland all had first-round bye’s in the playoffs this season. St. Joseph is the lone team remaining and will have to win one game Monday in Greenville to advance to the next round.
Those three teams, along with Simmons, are several Delta programs who consistently field winning teams. This year, Riverside won 20 games for the fourth straight season. But the Bulldogs were bounced from the playoffs after losing to Ripley 9-4 in game one and 9-0 Saturday in game two.
Despite all the problems surrounding baseball in the Delta, a brighter day may be ahead, said James.
“Winning cures all,” he said. “It opens a lot of eyes.”
As for Drew, Wilson said their baseball program's future is still up in the air.
Said Wilson, "I'm not sure yet about next year..... But I do know we need some help here."