When I phoned Ron Polk this last week in May, he was addressing Christmas cards.
He had a few minutes to spare and if you know anything about Ron Polk, the former Mississippi State baseball coach, he is as organized as they come. Minutes are to be used.
“I send out about 2,000,” he says, “so I have to get a jump on things.”
He also sends birthday cards, anniversary cards, newspaper clippings and congratulatory notes to his former players — and even some he coached against.
“They were part of my life,” he explains, “so why wouldn’t I take the time to do that?”
Here is the really cool part: Polk, 76, will once again be mailing all his correspondence from Starkville, where he was recently named special assistant to athletic director John Cohen, one of his former players.
This is a great move on Cohen’s part, one he has talked with Polk about for a while. And when Polk retired from his volunteer coaching role at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, it seemed like the perfect time for Polk to come home.
He begins work at MSU on Sept. 1.
Though his role hasn’t been exactly defined, Polk sees it this way: “I’m going to volunteer my time, give back to MSU. And I’ll work hard.”
He wants to attend practices and meet with every team, from football to volleyball.
“I’m still a baseball guy, so I’ll probably go to more baseball practices than anything else,” he says. “But I’m not there to evaluate how the coaches run practice. I’m there to say, ‘Hey, I’m here. If you have any concerns or questions that you think I might can help you with, please ask.
“And I’m sure I’ll do some speaking engagements and some public relations things. I’m just here to do what I can to help Mississippi State.
“Plus, I don’t have to win any games.”
Polk already has done plenty of that.
In 29 seasons at MSU (1976-1997; 2002-2008), he won 1,139 games. His teams made it to the College World Series six times and won four SEC titles.
His overall record in 35 seasons, 1,373-702-2, includes stops at Georgia Southern and Georgia. That puts him 17th on the all-time list.
He is in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (1998) and the National College Baseball Hall of Fame (2009).
Many would say his work off the field, battling the NCAA for years to give college baseball programs more respect and more scholarships, was just as important as his coaching victories.
Understand, Polk can recall when the role of freshman head football coach was considered a major step up from head baseball or basketball coach. Most college ballparks were a joke, and so was attendance.
But Polk won at MSU, and year after year the Bulldogs drew thousands of fans. Visiting teams wondered “why can’t we do this?”
College baseball as we see it today — TV contracts, packed stadiums, state-of-the-art ballparks — would not exist without Ron Polk’s work.
And he’s still at it.
“No college sport was hit harder by COVID19 than baseball,” he says.
Here is why: Baseball teams are limited to 35 roster spots. But only 27 are allowed to share in the allotted 11.7 scholarships. Do the math. It ain’t much.
But now coaches are challenged with putting together a roster with a whole bunch of new situations.
This year’s Major League draft will consist of only five rounds, instead of the usual 40.
Meanwhile, the NCAA has ruled that 2020 seniors can return for another year. Now, factor in the incoming freshmen a coach signed and juniors who also might have been drafted.
“A lot of those juniors are going to go back to school,” Polk says. “A of the seniors, too. You have incoming freshmen who are scared to death because they see seniors coming back who play their positions.
“And you know what’s going to happen? Players are going to get dumped. It’s going to be last year’s freshmen and sophomores who didn’t play much, the coach didn’t get a real good look at them … and baseball is a sport where kids often develop late.”
The scholarship limit has been raised to 14 for next season and the roster increased to 40. But that is hardly enough to solve the problems.
“The whole thing is a mess, and I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to some of these players,” he says. “Take a look at the NCAA transfer portal. It looks like a New York City telephone directory.”
So Polk is on the phone most every day, doing what he can to help coaches figure it out.
While college baseball has grown with the times, Ron Polk admittedly has not.
He still uses a typewriter to correspond.
His cell phone is a “flip top” model.
He doesn’t text much, if at all.
He has a Twitter account with nearly 18,000 followers but never looks at it. A couple of trusted friends post things for him.
“I’m not tied to all the new gadgets,” he says. “I have people tell me, ‘I wish I could live like that.’ And I say, ‘Then why don’t you?’ They tell they couldn’t survive. Well, I have.”
He has a Zoom conference coming up next week. “My typewriter doesn’t Zoom and neither does my flip top phone,” he says. “But they’re going to set me up on a computer so I can get it done.”
And while he finds that kids are kids, they are different today than the ones he coached.
“On road trips at UAB, I’d go down for breakfast with a newspaper under my arm,” he says. “I’d wave it to all the players. ‘Look, I have my paper. My newspaper! Y’all know what this is?’ And they’d all start waving their iPhones at me.
“I ask kids in the Cape Cod League (where Polk has coached the past eight summers) if they’ve ever been to the Post Office. Never. I ask them which side of the envelope you place a stamp on. The say, ‘Can’t you just put it on either side?’
“They’re not interested in politics at all. Ask them who the vice president is and they look at me like ‘Why should I know that?’ ”
Polk is concerned about baseball in America.
“I’ve gone down to the Dominican Republic and given clinics there several times,” Polk says. “A lot of the kids have no electricity so they certainly don’t have iPhones and video games.
“No, those kids are outside playing baseball every day. Twenty-two percent of Major League rookie teams are made up of Dominicans. There is one town there of 67,000 people who have 93 players in pro ball. So how long is it going to be before most of the Major League rookie teams have very few kids from America on them?”
Before the hour-long interview is completed, I pose three questions that I wanted to make sure and ask.
1) If starting pitcher Gene Morgan doesn’t get knocked out of the game by a line drive to his ankle, does State win the 1985 College World Series, the team with future MLB All-Stars Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen?
State was 1-0 and led Texas 5-2 in the sixth inning but lost after Morgan’s exit 12-7. Miami eliminated the Bulldogs the next day 6-5 on a walk-off grand slam by Greg Ellena — I will forever remember his name.
“I could never say that we would’ve won it,” Polk says. “I don’t lose any sleep over it. We got there, had a great group of kids but it just didn’t work out.”
2) He was known for saying “that’s baseball” a lot at postgame press conferences. Where did he come up with it?
“People thought at first I was trying to be flippant,” he says, “but it’s really true. You go through hot streaks, cold streaks. That’s baseball. A pitcher is getting hit all over the ballpark, but our guys are catching the line drives. Fans applaud the pitcher. Another pitcher gives up a bloop hit, somebody commits an error, another bloop hit and the fans are screaming, ‘Get him out of there!’
“Well, that’s baseball.”
As the years passed, I adopted the saying with a slight twist. “That’s life.”
It simplifies things.
3) This is the one thing Polk and I could never agree on. He doesn’t believe in such a thing as team chemistry. I do.
“Chemistry is a class that was too hard for me to pass,” Polk says, laughing. “When you lose, you had bad chemistry. When you win, you had good chemistry. But you probably had some pretty decent ballplayers, too.
“I had teams that loved one another and lost,. I had teams that didn’t like each other and won. So you tell me.”