Thirty-four years ago, long before anyone on his current team’s roster was born, the Tougaloo College baseball coach experienced a season for the ages as a college player, one highlighted by individual awards and a team championship, followed by the thrill of being chosen in the first round of the major league draft, signing a pro contract and making his debut in the minor leagues.

Earl Sanders, the Tougaloo College baseball coach, is 54 now and not given to revel in his past. He seems surprised when asked about it. “Aww, man, you’ve brought back a lot of memories there,” he said, chuckling, in an interview with Mississippi Scoreboard.

Photo Jackson State University

In 1986, as a two-way player at Jackson State, Sanders was named the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s hitter and pitcher of the year, a rare feat. After leading the Tigers to a SWAC title and NCAA Tournament berth that season, he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays and launched a seven-year pro career that peaked at the Double-A level, including a stint with the Jackson Generals.

Yet for all the glory days Sanders knew as a player, he also knows and appreciates the simpler joys that the game can provide. That was part of what motivated Sanders to launch the Tougaloo baseball program back in 2002 and it remains the program’s overriding mission. Just let the kids play.

Tougaloo, which opened its 2020 season on Jan. 25, has one of the more obscure of the 15 four-year college baseball programs operating in Mississippi. The school, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics member located in north Jackson, offers very limited athletic scholarship aid for baseball. Its home field isn’t much above a sandlot. The team doesn’t play for a conference championship or awards. The players aren’t aiming for pro contracts.

And, yes, wins – against a schedule that typically includes Division I SWAC programs, D-II schools and strong NAIA teams from around the South — are hard to come by. The Bulldogs went 5-29 in 2019. But Sanders schedules tough opponents with his players in mind.

“I want these kids to appreciate the game for what it is,” said Sanders, the school’s Director of Student Activities who coaches baseball on the side. “We know we’re at a disadvantage against most of the teams we play. But I want to play a competitive schedule for the kids who want to come here. I want them to experience college baseball at a competitive level. 

“Believe me, we take the field for every game trying to win. But we know we’ve got to play almost a perfect game to beat a lot of these teams.”

To their credit, the Bulldogs have in recent seasons beaten Jackson State and Alcorn State, as well as William Carey, Belhaven, Blue Mountain, Mobile, Spring Hill and Arkansas-Monticello.

“The guys will never forget those wins,” Sanders said. “Those are special. The kids we recruit see the schedule and they see an opportunity to play on that level and to play against schools that didn’t recruit them.’’

Most of the players on the Tougaloo roster are from Mississippi, though kids from Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and other states occasionally get sprinkled in. Among the team’s best players this year, Sanders said, is senior shortstop D’Anthony Morrow from Atlanta. Second baseman Brandon Watson is from New Orleans. Center fielder Isaiah Rush and catcher Caleb Houston are Jackson-area products.

For Sanders and assistants Gary Anderson and Dante Benford – also part-time coaches – recruiting does have its challenges. They don’t just go out shopping for slick-fielding shortstops or left-handed power hitters.

“The beauty of it is, we always put academics first,” Sanders said. “We’re recruiting kids who are good students looking to earn a college degree and are also good athletes. Some of them get academic scholarship money.”

Tougaloo, an historically black, liberal arts college founded in 1869, has a strong academic reputation, a rich cultural history and a lovely campus. Those are selling points for recruits.

“Our (baseball) facility, that’s not an attraction,” Sanders said. “Most of these kids had high school facilities better than ours. That’s just how it is. But we stress the opportunity here to play, and there are a lot of kids who just want to play. In fact, we’re at a point now where kids seek us out. They know about the school, and they call us to ask about the baseball program. We build on what we can get.”

Sanders said he doesn’t tout his playing career when talking to recruits. He isn’t certain how many of them are even aware of his story. “I don’t tell people about that stuff. My wife always says I should, but I don’t. That’s all history now.”

Sanders, 6 feet 4, 220 pounds in his heyday, had major league ability, particularly as a pitcher with a mid-90s fastball. Former Jackson State coach Bob Braddy, whose program produced several big leaguers, said at the time Sanders was drafted by the Blue Jays that the Moss Point native was as good as any he had coached.

“He rates with the best of them,” Braddy told Roscoe Nance of Black College Sports Review in 1986. “He is a big (version of) Oil Can Boyd. He has the potential to be better. When he’s out there, he feels he’s going to win. … You can’t put him second to anyone (at JSU).

“I don’t want to sound like he’s the best thing since sugar but ….”

Sanders had some success in the minors, posting 30 wins and a 3.83 ERA in 199 games. But shoulder problems ultimately ended his quest to make the majors. His final season was 1992, when he pitched a handful of games for the Jackson Generals, the old Houston Astros farm team, before learning that he needed a second rotator cuff surgery.

“By then I was pretty frustrated,” he said. “I didn’t want to go through the rehab process again. That was my last hurrah. I was in a state of depression for a time. Baseball was my dream sport. I had no real direction for a while there, just worked odd jobs. I did some work with individual players in Clinton and with a select team.”

In 1999, Sanders landed a job at Tougaloo as Associate Director of Student Activities. In 2002, looking for a way to attract more male students to a predominantly female campus, Sanders pitched the idea of starting a baseball team. “I also missed the game and wanted to be a part of it again,” he said. “It all just sort of lined up.”

He put together a team and coached, part-time, for six years before the reins were handed to another coach. Sanders rejoined the staff as an assistant in 2012 and took over as head coach again in 2015. 

As another season approached, Sanders lamented the lack of practice time his team had gotten before the opener but sounded enthused about his cast of returning players and the club’s strength up the middle. Like every coach, he wishes he had more pitching. And he acknowledges that the team will take its share of lumps.

“A friend of mine tells me my legacy will be all of these losses,” Sanders said. “That’s OK. It’s more important that kids who probably wouldn’t have had a chance to play college ball have had that opportunity here and the opportunity to get a college degree. That’s how I measure my success.”