Let's take a look at Mississippi State's all-time starting nine in this edition of the NCAA.com series of the best possible starting lineups for some of college baseball’s most successful programs.
Here is how we picked the team: We only considered the players' college careers. Their achievements in professional baseball did not come into play. There was also consideration given to their positional fits and how well they fit into a batting order that could provide a combination of a high batting averages, speed and power.
Mississippi State is coming off a big 2018 season that ended in Omaha, chasing that elusive College World Series national championship. The Bulldogs' baseball history is filled with big names, not to mention one of the single greatest teams in college baseball history. Bobby Thigpen was slugging grand slams and closing out ball games for the 1985 Mississippi State squad and didn’t even make this list.
That says something. Now let's get to those that did make the cut.
Outfield: Dan Van Cleve (1981-1985)
Van Cleve was a member of that 1985 College World Series team, getting to hit in front of Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he is still Mississippi State’s all-time runs scored leader with 232. He also made the most of his time on base, finishing with 70 career stolen bases, second-most in program history, while swiping 38 in that magical ’85 season — still the single-season high in the record books.
We aren’t supposed to take these players professional careers into consideration, but it’s worth noting Van Cleve went on to become a cardiothoracic surgeon when his playing days were done. Now, that’s just impressive.
Shortstop: Adam Frazier (2011-13)
Frazier didn’t rack up a ton of all-time great numbers during his time with the Diamond Dawgs, but he certainly took home the accolades. The second baseman-turned-shortstop led Mississippi State with a .371 batting average in 2012, earning MVP honors of the SEC tournament that same year. The following season, he set the program single-season mark with 107 hits in a campaign that earned him a semifinalist nod for the Brooks Wallace Award, annually going to the best shortstop in the land.
First base: Will Clark (1983-85)
Bruce Castoria was a beast at the plate, and if we named a DH to these lineups, he would get the nod. His 29 home runs in 1981 — four of which were grand slams — are tied with Palmeiro for the single-season best and his 98 RBI that same year are still the best in program history. Even Richard Lee, who played first and third for the Diamond Dawgs, deserves a shout-out, with huge junior and senior campaigns, hitting .364 with 38 home runs, 167 RBI, 138 runs over those two seasons and finishing atop Mississippi State’s all-time RBI list.
But then there is The Thrill.
What didn’t Will Clark do? Part of the legendary Thunder and Lightning tandem, Clark took home the 1985 Golden Spikes Award hitting .425 with 25 home runs, 75 runs scored and 77 RBI. He was a two-time All-American and finished with an absurd .391 batting average, still tops in the record books. There are multiple collegiate Hall of Fames he is a part of, and his name is still in the top 10 of all of the run-producing statistical categories. He will be remembered as one of college baseball’s all-time greats.
Outfield: Rafael Palmeiro (1983-85)
The second half of the iconic Thunder and Lightning duo was no slouch himself. Luckily, he played a little outfield along with DH to get him in this lineup. Let’s talk about Palmeiro’s 1984 Golden Spikes finalist campaign, shall we? Sure, the 98 hits, 29 home runs, and 94 RBI are astounding, but he did it while batting .415. Palmeiro is first, second, or third in almost every offensive category that matters and a three-time All-American. The fact that he and Clark were in the same lineup was seemingly unfair.
Outfield: Brent Rooker (2015-2017)
The final outfield spot was as tough as it gets. Brian Wiese’s 1998 campaign (.412, 14 home runs, and 57 RBI) was tough to beat. Hunter Renfroe could likely take this spot and run with it, especially with his SEC All-Defensive honors adding to his allure. Even current Bulldog Jake Mangum deserves a mention, who hit .408 in 2016, saving runs with his glove.
But, despite splitting time at DH and first base, it was Rooker who gets the final spot. He turned a 2016 redshirt-sophomore campaign into an MLB Draft pick but came back for his 2017 season. Mississippi State is glad he did, as it turned into one of the most decorated campaigns in program history. Rooker earned SEC Player of the Year honors — the first in program history — as well as National Player of the Year honors from Collegiate Baseball while finishing as a finalist for both the Golden Spikes and Dick Howser Awards. His numbers were ridiculous, batting .387 with 30 doubles and 23 home runs and helped the Bulldogs reach the Super Regional.
Third base: Travis Chapman (1997-00)
Simply put, Chapman was a hitting machine for four years in Starkville. He finished his career with a .355/.439/.528 slash line, 26 home runs, 71 doubles (first all-time), 196 RBI, 327 hits (third all-time), and 221 runs scored (fourth all-time).
Catcher: Ed Easley (2005-07)
Easley’s time in Starkville didn’t fill the record books with stats, but what he did behind the plate was unmatched at the time, and still in a league of his own. Easley was the first catcher in school history to earn All-American honors in 2007, ultimately winning the Johnny Bench Award that same season as the nation’s best catcher, hitting .358 with 63 RBI and amongst the leaders in defensive numbers. He put up a solid career stat line (.331, 19 home runs, and 137 RBI) that translated into him becoming the highest-drafted catcher in school history.
Second base: Jeffrey Rea (2004-07)
Gator Thiesen from that ’85 squad certainly gets a mention, based on his name alone. Jimmy Bragan, a 1949 First-Team All-American who finished his career with a .369 batting average for Mississippi State is also worthy. Rea, a back-to-back All-SEC player himself, gets the start as the program’s all-time hit leader with 335 while also racking up 207 career runs scored.
Pitcher: Jeff Brantley (1982-85)
It’s always difficult to pick just one pitcher from a school’s history, and it was no different with Mississippi State. If we were to make a rotation, there are plenty of names to be considered. Chris Stratton’s 2012 season alone gets his name in the conversation. Mississippi State’s all-time strikeout king and two-time All-American Eric DuBose would probably be the Saturday starter. Paul Maholm was a back-to-back All-American himself. Don’t forget about Mike Proffitt and his 11 career shutouts either. And one thing we’ve never considered is a closer, but what Jonathan Holder did for the Diamond Dawgs is certainly worthy of being an all-time great.
But ultimately, we chose Brantley as our Friday night starter. His 18 wins in the 1985 season are still the single-season best and no one has started or won more games in program history. While he was never one for low ERAs and had arguably the best offenses in program history behind him, he still got the job done, earning several All-Region and All-American honors along the way. This spot is definitely up for debate, but we’re confident heading into the weekend every Friday with Brantley on the bump.
Head coach: Ron Polk (1976-97, 2002-08)
Polk was an easy choice. He racked up a 1,139-590-2 record as skipper for Mississippi State over two separate stints. His teams won three SEC titles and made six College World Series trips over that time. The Hall of Fame coach racked up wins unlike any other in SEC history, ending his career as the winningest coach in conference history. That alone speaks volumes.