Saturday, April 1, 2023

COLUMN: Baseball team captains are chosen for a reason – they lead

By Jeff Roberson

Ole Miss beat South Carolina three times this weekend in baseball, and the sweep of the Gamecocks means the Rebels are still in position to accomplish their goals. They’re now 31-12 overall and 13-8 in league play.

How could things shift so quickly that the Rebels could make a run at even a league title when only a week ago they were doubted by so many? That’s because 10-8 is a record that still has a team within reach of some major accomplishments in a lengthy season, especially if that team sweeps to get to 13-8.

Ole Miss played good baseball all weekend. Get into the analytics and statistics and who did what and why scenarios if you want. I always prefer to focus on the human moments in time, the ones we all remember, maybe forget, but something comes along to remind us.

I texted Charlie Babineaux before game two of the Rebels-Gamecocks series. Most Ole Miss people know that name immediately. A lot of young Rebels and current students may not but they should.

It was not long after the Mike Bianco at Ole Miss era began that I met Charlie. He was in the baseball office and then assistant Dan McDonnell introduced me to this kid from New Iberia, La., a transfer from Blinn Junior College in Texas and before that the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. At the time the Rebels were building a program under a new staff and Charlie, the coaches felt, would be an important piece of that construction.

They were right. For two seasons Babineaux was a part of it as a talented player, leader, and a good quote for the media. But there was one more thing Babineaux was before he became part of the first NCAA Baseball Regional to ever be played on Lafayette County, Miss., soil.

He was their captain.

I texted the 2004 team captain this past Saturday because there was a group of us who randomly met at Taylor Grocery on Sunday nights after home baseball series back in those early years of the current program. I thought it was time to see if we could get the group together again.

In the text conversation, Charlie mentioned the home run the Rebels hit to beat LSU in game three the week before. You know, Kemp Alderman’s improbable shot to the beverage showers in right, the one that moments later had his teammates mobbing him in a sea of powder blue, his shirt ripped completely off in the process, with even a hug from his head coach.

It was a “moment” and moments are fun to watch or be a part of, and of course to write about.

I actually thought of a Babineaux moment from 17 years earlier as Alderman’s recent scene unfolded live. It was 2004 in the series opener against LSU. Charlie sent a game-winning ball out of Swayze vs. his homestate school to the delight of a massive crowd of Ole Miss fans in a then much smaller Oxford-University Stadium, with something like 7,600 fans there that night, listed at the time as one of the largest crowds ever in the ballpark that opened in 1989.

Charlie mentioned Saturday that he hoped the comeback against LSU a weekend ago would prompt a resurgence for this year’s team. Apparently it did. Ole Miss now has four SEC victories in a row and heads into May with a lot more steam than just a few days ago.
But it was late in game three vs. USC this weekend which was the most inspirational moment. That’s when this year’s team captain, Tim Elko – the last time we’d seen him he was writhing in pain on the ground near first base on April 5 in a non-conference game – made an appearance for the first time since his injury.

The cheers from Ole Miss fans, who were standing, went on for a couple of minutes or more, much longer than for a regular introduction of a player.

Elko’s quiet pop up moments later was shown instant appreciation by those same fans, certainly not because of the out but because he was playing again, doing what he could, and being his team’s captain. Elko took to social media after the game to thank Rebel Nation for the reception he got late in game three.

Ole Miss did indeed finish off South Carolina as pitcher Taylor Broadway completed a busy weekend by closing out all three victories.

And in south Louisiana another Ole Miss baseball team captain, the one from 2004, was paying attention and hoping this May and June bring more wins for the program he and his teammates helped build in those formative years of the Mike Bianco era. For sure, a dramatic comeback win against LSU and the sweep of USC have made a lot of important goals possible again.