Updated: Mar 22
Mississippi State Baseball has announced three selectees for induction into the prestigious Ron Polk Ring of Honor during the 2023 season. The Bulldogs reached back to the pre-Polk era for two-time Southeastern Conference (SEC) Champion and Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher Ken Tatum, to the early Polk years for Omaha, NE native and College World Series (CWS) participant Mark Gillaspie, and to the mid-Polk era for three-time SEC Champion, fellow CWS participant, and long-time assistant coach Tommy Raffo, now the Head Baseball Coach at Arkansas State.
The Ring of Honor, currently with its fifth class, is a yearly installment of past Bulldog diamond greats and includes a plaque on one of the brick columns in the baseball-shaped plaza that greets fans entering the “Carnegie Hall of College Baseball” through the Right Field Gate at Dudy Noble Field. A plethora of accolades and honors, both athletic and academic, records, and other superlatives accompany the list of honorees each season, from conference Player of the Week all the way to Major League Baseball status and All-Star Games.
While selection announcements and coverage of the Ring of Honor ceremony will rightfully include the career performance statistics of the three former Bulldogs, College Baseball Central spoke with each one to share a different side of their story: favorite personal remembrances, family moments, and other facets of their life that in many ways were as equally shaped by being a Mississippi State baseball player as their numbers and trophies reflect from the field of play.
We’re also pleased to welcome and introduce to our reading audience and followers Mr. Bo Carter, an icon in the sports information and administration field, and the current Executive Director of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA). Bo interviewed Mark Gillaspie, whom he covered during his years as Sports Information Director (SID) at Mississippi State, and we look forward to publishing his biweekly columns during College Baseball Season 2023, beginning February 1. Bo’s story on Mark is interspersed between those of Ken Tatum and Tommy Raffo from writer/videographer Doug Kyle, as we chronologically follow each player’s years in the program.
Remember the time a Bulldog became a Workhorse?
by Doug Kyle
When Ken Tatum was asked to be on an online video call “podcast” October 25 with folks from the Mississippi State Athletic Department, he wasn’t completely sure why he was invited. But, he certainly didn’t expect what ensued. When he was told he had been selected to be in the 2023 Ron Polk Ring of Honor, it was an occasion he’d wished for before, as he saw fellow MSU teammates Del Unser and Frank Montgomery go in. But, the realization was still so momentous and euphoric, he was overcome with joy and almost speechless except for a heartfelt “Thank you!” It was a time of merit rewarded, one he’s immensely proud to receive, and in his own words, “I earned this one.”
Ken Tatum was a freshman baseball player at Mississippi State in 1963, back when that class wasn’t eligible to play in varsity games. But, he practiced and was friends with fellow Bulldog pitcher Frank Montgomery, whose 10-0 record that year remained the best in the SEC for decades to come. The two are still close, stay in touch, and help comprise a group of former Bulldog baseball players who hold a reunion each year in nearby West Point, MS, at the home of former catcher Frank Portera.
Tatum’s sophomore season, 1964, also happened to be the year following the announcement that the current baseball field, near the center of campus, was being dismantled in favor of a new academic building, Dorman Hall. Tatum doesn’t remember much about hearing the news, other than it being a fait accompli and the urgency of finding another place to play and practice. That fell on Assistant Coach Tom D’Armi, he says.
And the solution? The team would play their games at Redbird Park in nearby Columbus, MS, still more than 20 miles away on two-lane Highway 82. They also held some practices in Columbus, Tatum recalls, and some days, they would just practice in some open fields down the hill from Freeman Hall, later the site of constructed dormitories. And at times, they even practiced at the football stadium, Scott Field. “I can remember Coach (Paul) Gregory hitting fungo for the pitchers out there,” he said. “Coach Gregory worked a lot with the pitchers on fundamentals, such as fielding your position.”
So, displaced from your longtime field, forced to drill on sandlots, and playing a half hour away is not a formula you’d purposely choose. But, by darn, it worked. Boy, did it work!
“We won the SEC both years we played in Columbus,” Tatum recalls. “And, the park was packed every time we played. The business people and residents of Columbus loving watching us without having to drive to Starkville, and the students who wanted to see our games, they found their way there, too.”
The team had managed to overcome its venue and fan attendance challenges en route to winning the SEC Western Division each season, but there was still the little matter of the Eastern Division opponents in the 1965 and 1966 Conference Championship Playoffs--Auburn (still in the East back then) and Tennessee, respectively. The playoff formula was best two out of three, with the teams splitting the host role for Games 1 and 2, then remaining at the latter home field for Game 3 if necessary.
When the going gets tough, sometimes you need a hoss to get you through, and Tatum filled the bill wonderfully, as the winning pitcher twice, twice. “The first year, I won Game 1 in Columbus, then after a travel day, we lost Game 2 at Auburn, but I came back and won Game 3. The second year, 1966, I won at Tennessee for Game 1, we had an off day for travel, then a rained out day, so I got to pitch and win the second game too. Coach Gregory had a lot of faith in me, and he knew I had enough rest to do it.”
But, Tatum is quick to point out the team was more than just himself. “Del Unser and I were the only two to make the Major Leagues, but we had other solid players. There was Bobby Bragan, Jr., whose dad was the Manager of the Atlanta Braves, and Claude Passeau, his dad played in the Major Leagues; and overall, we had nine players who were drafted or signed professional baseball contracts at some level.”
Tatum, who wound up being drafted three times, was eventually rewarded with a second-round pick following the 1966 season and signed with the California Angels of the American League. Tatum benefitted from the greater training and instruction that professional baseball has over college, and he improved his push off the pitching mound to increase the velocity of his favorite pitch, the fastball.
Even not yet totally refined as a pitcher, Tatum had something of a natural advantage that his teammates saw early on, even in practice. “We were just soft tossing one day when I noticed it,” says Montgomery. “I was a senior and he was just a freshman, but he threw what we called in baseball circles a ‘heavy’ ball.” Portera, Tatum’s catcher, noticed it even more and often lamented the sore glove hand he usually got after nine innings of receiving Tatum’s throws.
It was no surprise then that in three short years out of college ball, Ken Tatum was pitching in the Major Leagues, trying to get out a veritable Who’s Who of baseball, such as Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, Frank Robinson, Luis Aparicio, and Harmon Killebrew.
Yes, Harmon Killebrew. The Killer. Hammerin’ Harmon. One of Tatum’s favorite memories from his early MLB days is a game in which he struck out Killebrew on a close-pitch called third strike. “He stood there for a few seconds, just for someone of his stature to show their disbelief and disapproval. He didn’t like being called out, but a lot of players were like that on the field, and off the field, they were nice guys.”
Tatum’s career in the Major Leagues took off quickly, capped off following his first season by finishing fourth in the 1969 American League Rookie of the Year voting, an award won by Lou Piniella. Then, in May of the next season, an obstacle made an appearance, in the form of an injury. Except, it wasn’t Tatum who was injured, it was Paul Blair of the Baltimore Orioles, to whom he was pitching.
Tatum recalls details now that he wisely held back then and didn’t say much after his pitch hit Blair and sent him to the hospital, Blair eventually missing three weeks before returning to the lineup. “I was told later that he said he was expecting a breaking ball. But, I relied mostly on my fast ball, so the ball didn’t break away from his body as he might have expected when leaning over the plate, it was a fast ball that tailed in and hit him right underneath his left eye.”
Tatum had also grazed the previous batter, Boog Powell, and he recalls a similar situation in his first game facing the Baltimore lineup. “My catcher had told me to pitch Boog inside, to keep him from extending his arms. I came inside, and it wound up knocking him down. And, it did raise a little dust when his huge frame hit the dirt. We exchanged glances, and a couple pitches later, that advice came true. I went away, and he lined it straight back, right underneath my rib cage. When he reached first, I asked if he was okay, but I suppose he hadn’t thought my smile and concern were genuine.”
From that and with the initial uncertainty of the extent of Blair’s injury, Tatum was vilified by some, which even included a somewhat tense and bittersweet moment at the hospital later. “We were playing at home, so I went to the local hospital emergency room, where they were treating him. I wanted to let him know it was an accident. I’m from the South, and back when I played, some of the unwritten rules were that you could play the game aggressively, but you didn’t show up anyone without expecting consequences; and you also never intentionally tried to hurt anyone. In college, one year a habit developed where on-deck hitters would crowd up close to the plate trying to time my pitches. A few of my warmups sometimes wound up near their ankles, sort of a reminder I didn’t like that, and if you wanted to time my pitches, as some have said, that opportunity is when you step in the box, not when I’m warming up. We were playing Tulane once, and they responded by throwing all kinds of stuff in my direction--water coolers, bats, whatever they could find! But, fortunately, it went away after that year.”
As Tatum exited the emergency room after visiting Blair and stepped into the hospital lobby, he encountered some of Blair’s family and friends, who were upset and reacted to his well-meant visit somewhat predictably, by yelling at Tatum as he made his way toward the elevator.
Tatum was heading up to a higher floor, ironically, because his wife Becky was also a patient there, delivering the couple’s second child. After enduring the unpleasant confrontation (first, as Tatum had wisely chosen) downstairs, Tatum got to somewhat enjoy the polar opposite feelings of welcoming a son into the world, with his wife to whom he was married 58 years; all the while having to conceal the news and his reaction to the controversial game incident, of which she had no idea.
“I felt kinda’ bad that I was seen as the villain, and it bothered me personally for a while,” Tatum said. “There were some who thought I didn’t throw inside as much after that,” he adds, “but after a while, I got over that too. I continued to do the best I could, and what bothered me more, and ultimately led me out of the game, were some situations I thought were influenced by politics, and I felt I wasn’t treated right. But, I realize those kinds of things happen everywhere, whatever you do.”
Still, Tatum is grateful, both for the career he had and for the recognition he’s receiving even this late in his life. “First of all, I was given a gift from God to be able to play ball, and sometimes at that point in life, it’s easy to take that for granted, not put forth the effort that you should. There’s probably things I could have done better, but you’ve got to appreciate it when you’re like me, and it’s your whole life, everything I’ve gotten has been through baseball.”
Ken Tatum looks forward to the weekend of March 25, 2023, the weekend when he’ll have his annual reunion with former Mississippi State players and teammates. And, oh yeah, he’ll also be inducted into the Ron Polk Ring of Honor! He’s already planning his remarks for that day, including a wonderful story from his Major League days for which we won’t steal the thunder. But, he has plenty more stories. Old ballplayers always do, and like Tatum, most are grateful for the talent and opportunity to play baseball like they did.
When one asks Ken Tatum what it means to be selected for the Ring of Honor, he immediately responds with what it means to him personally. But, he is quick to add that it may actually mean more to his family than it does to him. And that’s saying something, when you consider his accomplishments in baseball. “I want my family to be able to go to Mississippi State and see that I was inducted into the Hall of Fame (1994) and now the Ron Polk Ring of Honor,” he says, as he also fondly recalls the time his son and grandson went to his old stomping ground at Boston’s Fenway Park, where they sent him a photo standing next to a plaque in the legendary ballpark, commemorating the 1960-1975 period during which Tatum pitched for the Red Sox.
“It means a lot for all of us that there’s some players already in that Ring of Honor who had even better careers than I did,” he says, and with a nod perhaps to the 2021 National Champions team, “and there’ll be more players in the future who were better. But, I earned what I have, and I’m very proud of it. When I left Major League Baseball, I didn’t really take many friends with me, nearly all of my friends are Mississippi State people. And, for them to recognize me this way, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me in a long time.”
Back Home In Omaha
by Bo Carter
When he arrived at Mississippi State in August 1979 from his hometown of Omaha, NE, standout outfielder Mark Gillaspie established a quiet and confident way of getting things accomplished.
And he carried that capability all the way to his final appearance as a Bulldog, in the 1981 NCAA College World Series, where State finished tied for fifth with perennial power Miami (FL).
In between, Gillaspie made history for the Bulldogs after an All-NJCAA career at Iowa Western College in Council Bluffs, IA, adjacent to his hometown and a mere stone’s throw from the place where every college player in his day wanted to perform – Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium.
In fact, after Rosenblatt was torn down to make way for the CWS moving downtown in 2011, several landmarks remained onsite to commemorate the venerable stadium’s hosting of the diamond mecca for sixty years—including the scoreboard’s iconic arch, colorful chairbacks, markers for the baselines, and plaques listing both the CWS champions and Omaha natives who reached the pinnacle of playing in the Series as local favorite sons. It was the latter that enshrined Gillaspie’s participation with his MSU team.
Gillaspie’s 1981 consensus All-America season and nomination for Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year included a team-leading .411 average (85-for-207), which still is the sixth-highest by a Bulldog in the 137-year history of this esteemed program.
But that is not the only mark the product of Omaha Central HS left on the MSU diamond record books.
He also scored 81 runs in 63 games – second by a Bulldogs player behind All-America OF Rafael Palmeiro with 87 runs in 61 games in 1984. Gillaspie also joined slugging 1B Bruce Castoria as the first two MSU batsmen to reach 20 home runs in a season. Castoria’s 29 dingers in 1981 still ranks No. 1, along with Palmeiro in 1984, and the Omaha native still is only one of six Bulldogs to reach the 20-homer milestone.
The hard-hitting left fielder drove in 78 runs in ’81 – at the time the second-best RBI total in MSU season annals behind Castoria’s 98 that same year.
Gillaspie’s eagle-eyed pitch observance also led to 66 walks in those 61 contests and a No. 2 placement to this day in MSU records.
Now the big question remains:
What took MSU administrators so long to admit the personable player into the Ron Polk Ring of Honor in 2023 at Ron Polk-Dement Stadium?
“That’s not an issue,” Gillaspie said with a chuckle. “I enjoyed every minute that I was at Mississippi State.
“Of course, the highlight was winning the 1981 NCAA Atlantic Regional (played in Clemson, SC, over host Clemson, East Tennessee State in the title game, and powerful Wichita State led by future Major Leaguer Joe Carter) and getting to the College World Series,” he continued.
And even better with a plethora of family and friends from Omaha in attendance, the “G-Man” sparked the Bulldogs to a Series-opening victory over Michigan with a key home run.
“That probably was the highlight of my MSU career,” noted the modest outfielder. “Just to get to Omaha and hit the home run in the first game meant so much, though we lost a couple of close games (to Arizona State and Barry Bonds 4-3 and to South Carolina 6-5) that ended the season.”
Still, that 46-15 breakout season with the second-most triumphs in a State campaign at the time rings loudly in the ears of Mark Gillaspie and MSU fans. In his first year as a junior in Starkville, the Bulldogs occasionally had trouble producing runs and closed 31-19 overall (10-11 SEC and just out of qualification for the conference’s postseason tourney field of four at the time).
Gillaspie’s name remains immortalized for that 15-game turnaround as well as his quiet leadership on and off the field.
And he put some icing on his MSU career “cake” with some sterling seasons in the minor leagues after ’81 and a near jaunt to the majors.
He signed with the San Diego Padres after being drafted in the 11th round in June 1981 and made the All-Rookie Team of the Northwest League while playing for Walla Walla, WA. His abbreviated season totals included 12 home runs, 44 RBI, 16 doubles, and 51 runs scored in just 49 contests.
In later seasons from 1982-88 he starred in the Texas League for the Beaumont Golden Gators in 1983 as Texas League Player of the Year with 24 home runs, 122 RBI, 35 doubles, and a league-leading .582 slugging percentage. During the 1982 campaign with Salem, VA, of the Carolina League, and Amarillo of the Texas League, he combined for a career-most 30 home runs while driving in 106 runs over a workhorse 139 total games.
Always beloved by managers and teammates for his hustle and dedication to the game, Gillaspie had Class AAA stints with the Iowa Cubs after being traded from the Padres and finally with Las Vegas in the Padres system before finishing his career with the Memphis Chicks (now Redbirds) in 1988. That final season in pro ball yielded a .284 batting average, 10 home runs and 41 RBI and many standing ovations by River City fans.
Always a person with strong ties to his home city, he returned to Omaha in fall 1988 to begin a five-decade career in public service with the Omaha Police Department, in a number of executive roles that kept him quite busy during the month of June for many years.
“I used to try to get to as many College World Series games as I could,” he explained, “but you can tell that was a pretty busy time for our department, Still, I watched a lot of games on ESPN when I had time, and I got to see some of the 2021 Series when Mississippi State took it all. That was a great moment.”
Gillaspie also had the pleasure of watching two of his sons star in baseball – one making it all the way to the Major Leagues.
His older son Conor played for 10 seasons in the Major Leagues from 2008-17 after starring at Wichita State from 2006-08. Besides being named All-Missouri Valley Conference each year at WSU under College Baseball and ABCA Hall of Fame coach Gene Stephenson, Conor Gillaspie had a role in the San Francisco Giants successful 2010-12 seasons’ run before later playing for the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
His younger son Casey also starred under Stephenson at Wichita State with All-MVC honors and has played in the minor leagues or Mexican Leagues for 10 seasons from 2013-22. In 11 years at all baseball levels, Casey Gillaspie has hammered 162 home runs and played sterling defense at first base.
“I was able to coach Conor quite a bit in youth leagues,” Mark Gillaspie began, “but Casey was a different story. He sort of went his own way (Mark noted with a smile in his voice). I am proud of both of them, to say the least.”
Yes, as Mark Gillaspie moves toward his retirement years from both professional life and the diamond, he can look back on a large list of accomplishments and making great friendships.
“I still stay in touch with Coach Polk and (retired MSU athletics transportation coordinator) Everett Kennard on a regular basis,” he noted, “and I have stayed in touch with some teammates. That was really a great bunch of players during those two years at MSU.”
Now, with the upcoming Ron Polk Baseball Ring of Honor on the 2023 horizon, Mississippi State faithful and fans throughout the country are ready to re-connect with the fine feats of the Mark Gillaspie era with the Battling Bulldogs.
High Tech Message, Old School Honor
by Doug Kyle
Arkansas State Head Baseball Coach Tommy Raffo says that looking back on when and how he was notified of his selection to Mississippi State Baseball’s Ron Polk Ring of Honor, “I should’ve realized something was up or going on. I was told (the Zoom online video call) was for past players to share stories about Coach Polk for his statue unveiling,” Raffo recalls. “I talk to Coach Polk throughout the year, and a Zoom call was definitely unusual for him,” Raffo continued, referring to Polk’s widely-known “old school” preference for his electric typewriter and flip phone as his chief communications tools.
“I was taken back by the announcement,” Raffo shares. “I was very humbled, very surprised, very honored, so much appreciative that my time at Mississippi State as a player and a coach was recognized.”
Raffo came to Starkville, MS, in the fall of 1986, from Jacksonville, FL, and Bishop Kenny High School, which through the years has also sent names to Mississippi State Baseball like Jonathan Papelbon, Travis Chapman, and Charlie Anderson, to name a few. He was part of a class which over his four years wearing the “M over S” would have sustained success on the field that wouldn’t be equaled in the program for nearly 30 years to follow. He was a dual position player at first, with the unusual combination of pitching left handed but hitting right handed.
“It was during the fall practice of my freshman year,” Raffo remembers. “I was still trying to switch hit Division 1 pitching, but Coach Polk could see I was better hitting righty. He came to me and said ‘Let’s find your strengths, what you do well, and develop that.’ So, that’s how that happened.” Raffo eventually focused solely on his hitting and playing first base, where he became well enough known for his batting prowess to prompt author John Grisham to mention “Raffo’s monstrous shots” in a book introduction that now serves as the narration for a highlights video that plays on the scoreboard before every Mississippi State home baseball game.
And while Raffo’s freshman season in 1987 concluded with a remarkable, if improbable, SEC Championship, it was a campaign fraught with a talented influx of players learning to mesh with each other, along with several calamities along the way. In one week’s time, the starting catcher suffered a broken jaw and a starting pitcher was hit in the face by a line drive, to cite but a couple.
“We were a very young team,” Raffo said. “The recruiting process under Coach Polk back then, it was very much a high school oriented program, so a lot of people on the team had not yet experienced Division 1 baseball. We went through a season of runs, where we would win 5-7 in a row and we would lose 7-8 in a row, let alone the adversity of injuries that was devastating at times. But, what you learn when you look back is that when you play through adversity, it does help you grow. And, the timing hit just right, where it was a magical couple of weeks there near the end of the season.”
Was it ever. With the ups and downs of the season, the Bulldogs found themselves playing catchup as the end of the regular season approached. The SEC had chosen to expand the postseason conference tournament from four to six teams, but going into the final weekend series, MSU needed a sweep of visiting Alabama to even have a chance. But, with a little magic and an admirable gesture, State won a pair of seven inning games and headed into the Sunday third game needing just that one more win.
The weather didn’t cooperate, but fortunately, the opponent did. Delayed starting by hours, when the Crimson Tide could have just cranked the bus and headed back to Tuscaloosa, leaving the Bulldogs short-handed and out of the tournament, sportsmanship emerged. Alabama stuck around, and the game finally began, eventually concluding with a 7-2 State win.
So, they made it, and as their reward, MSU now faced a field of five at #1 seed Georgia’s stadium with a boat load of future major leaguers—Chris Carpenter and Derek Lilliquist from the host Bulldogs, Gregg Olson and Frank Thomas from Auburn, plus Ben McDonald and Albert “Joey” Belle from LSU. The magic was still in play, though, as Raffo and company pushed through, winning three one-run games before routing the Bayou Bengals in a Sunday afternoon game sometimes better remembered for a certain outfielder’s encounter with a heckler on the hill beyond right field. Suddenly, the #6 seed was heading back to Starkville with a shiny new SEC trophy. The NCAA rewarded them with hosting the first of four straight regionals, but the season returned to the up and down form with a 1-2 showing. The team that some fans refer to as their own MSU version of The Unforgettables had made themselves just that.
“I think back to the remarkable job the coaching staff of Polk, McMahon, and Shoop did in leading us and keeping us together, so that we could play well when it mattered. And, that was a special team to me, too. I still have a picture in my office celebrating that trophy in Athens,” Raffo says.
The next season, the 1988 Bulldogs brought back the bulk of the talent that was now a year older and a season more experienced. And then something happened. Buoyed by the late season success in 1987, fans began to find that the new stadium opened the year prior had a whole lotta’ room in there. Gone were the cramped conditions from the 60s era grandstand that had people scrambling just for a standing room glimpse of Clark and Palmeiro; they had new heroes named Raffo, Young, and Grayum, and so many more of them now had a comfortable place from which they could watch the games. So many that Mississippi State athletic officials now began to look up college baseball home attendance records and seriously discuss breaking them. When Tommy Raffo and his 1988 teammates took the field at Dudy Noble, nearly everywhere they looked were fans. Not just any fans, Raffo comments.
“As recruits, when you came in for a visit, you could see how the people, the community, knew baseball and had a passion for Bulldog Baseball,” Raffo says. “It was overwhelming, that special sense in the air of being at Dudy Noble with the people supporting that program. There was such a strong relationship between the team and the community, you could feel the intensity, it does make a difference, and you wanted to do well.”
Not surprisingly, the home attendance record for college baseball did fall that year, as 14,378 came through the gates for an April doubleheader against LSU, shattering the old record by more than 3,000. It was a record that would last…for one year, broken by…Mississippi State again.
As the 1989 season began, Mississippi State was highly touted, with the now-veteran club ranked #1 for much of the year. Some called it the best team top to bottom that State had fielded in years, including the 1985 team which produced four Major Leaguers. That put a target on their backs sometimes when facing also-ran teams, but they made up for it by sweeping conference series against the likes of Auburn, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida, along with a doubleheader win at LSU over future big leaguers McDonald and Paul Byrd. The team clinched another SEC Championship outright during the regular season with games yet to play. But, the erratic gremlins of 1987 surfaced again, with the team falling in a winner-take-all regional final against North Carolina.
“At the very end, we did not play our best baseball,” Raffo laments. “And, we just played teams that were playing better at the time. As fun as 1987 had been to overachieve, it was devastating to not play up to expectations and make it to Omaha that season.”
As crushing as the season-ending gut punch was for fans, it was even more challenging to manage for players, some with unrelenting reminders like Tommy Raffo. “It was a tough pill to swallow, and strangely, the pitcher from North Carolina who beat us that final game, John Thoden, ended up being a teammate of mine in pro ball,” Raffo remembers. “And he told me one time, ‘Tommy, listen, that was probably one of the best games I’ve ever pitched in my life!’ And, I said, Well, that figures! Why’d you have to do it against us, we were set to go to Omaha!”
There were some departures for pro ball, but the 1990 Bulldogs returned a core of players who still had Omaha as a very attainable goal. “We lost Pete Young, Richie Grayum, and Jody Hurst, so the expectations maybe weren’t as high, but I think we had something to prove,” Raffo says. “We had a group that had played together two or three years, and we had our #1 pitcher Bobby Reed come back to school. Plus, we had some guys step up,” Raffo remembers as he rattles them off as if it were last season. David Mitchell, Scott Mitchell, Burke Masters, Jon Shave, Jim Robinson, Tracy Echols, and John Cohen, to name a few.
The team finished the regular season already a lock for the NCAA tournament and in contention for their fourth straight regional host, so when Sunday night weather delayed the final game of the Southeastern Conference tournament at its new home in Hoover, AL, Mississippi State and LSU were declared co-tournament champions, giving Raffo and his senior teammates three SEC championships of some sort for their careers. (Following the 1987 season, the SEC began to recognize its regular season and tournament as two distinct championships.)
“We might not have been the steamroller team of 1989,” Raffo says, “But it was a different team and a special one that played together well. We struggled with the Friday night conference games, but somehow we wound up winning so many of the series. So, we learned to face adversity and to play through it, overcome it. That was never more true than in the regional against Florida State. The game that everyone remembers, the famous home run by Burke Masters, was the first time we faced them, but we still had adversity. They beat us the next game, so we faced another winner-take-all game. A lot of emotions those three days, I can remember the locker room being so high one game and all the way down the next day. Those feelings we had the year before, we had to find a way to get rid of in a hurry and turn around and play. But, the fans in the stands, and the coaches, we couldn’t have done it without them. It was an unbelievable feeling, it really was. I guess you could say the adversity of 1989 helped us in 1990.”
When Raffo’s career as a player ended, he did what just about any player with his accolades and statistics does, he pursued playing in the major leagues. “Growing up, all I wanted to do was play pro ball,” he says. “I really hadn’t thought much about pursuing coaching as a life ambition. I had a business degree from Mississippi State, and as my wife likes to (lovingly) remind me and others, she didn’t marry a coach, she married a player!” Raffo laughs. “But, when pro ball ended, the coaching opportunity presented itself, and Coach Polk called. I had been trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and as they say, timing is everything.”
Raffo began as a volunteer coach, as required by NCAA rules, and soon “found out that I absolutely loved it. It was unbelievable to be in a position to continue learning from the best in baseball. It was something about being back in the competitiveness. If you can no longer beat another team as a player, the next best thing is to beat them in the recruiting process and on the field as a coach. It was a different side of the ball, but you have the opportunity to impact lives. And when you see those lives, coming through, achieving and going on to impact other lives themselves, it was really special.”
Raffo continued to blossom and now heads his own Division 1 baseball program. He and his wife may have tied the knot when he was still hitting and fielding and not yet coaching, but he’s done alright for himself in that regard. In just his fourth year at Arkansas State, he was named Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year. And, he’s had some success outside the uniform as well, as he and wife Paula (a Mississippi native) are the proud parents of three, including daughter Claudia, who was named Miss Arkansas in 2018 and later competed in the Miss America pageant.
“I owe so much to Coach Polk,” Raffo explains about what he learned playing for and coaching under the person many consider the modern day father of SEC baseball and a pillar in that community nationwide. “I would not be the person I am today without his influence. When you’re a young ball player and you go off to college at age 17 or 18, away from your mom and dad, he becomes not only your coach but your father figure as well. Coach Polk is truly unique, no one like him, not now, not ever. He’s not just the master of teaching fundamental baseball, he instills in you the importance of details, work ethic, handshakes, the power of a hand-written note. He lives his life through the lessons of baseball: work hard, listen, be on time, play hard, be a gracious winner and learn from the mistakes you make when you lose.” Raffo estimates that for those who’ve played for or coached under Polk, not a week goes by that something learned from him doesn’t impact or improve their life or of someone close to them.
The influence of Polk on Raffo’s coaching success is paramount, but he also credits a lot of others he’s learned from or been mentored by through the years. He begins with Bob West and Damon Olinto from Bishop Kenny High School, continuing through Pat McMahon and Brian Shoop from his playing days, then coaching alongside Jim Case, Tim Parenton, Russ McNickle, Daron Schoenrock, Steve Smith, and Steve Johnigan, all of whom are household names in college baseball excellence and success.
“When you play college baseball,” Raffo explains, “it’s amazing talking to your teammates how much of an impact your coaches have on you at that point in your life. It’s a very valuable time in your life, you’re away from home, but you’re still making decisions, and you’re around the right people to help shape you,” he continues. “There’s not a time when you move on that you don’t look back, remember the influences and core values, and want to pass it yourself to someone else. It just multiplies, the lives that Coach Polk touched, that continues and it’s unbelievable how that influence is woven into anyone who’s been a part of his life.”
Tommy Raffo has been the recipient of so many accolades during his playing career, both athletic and academic. He’s been lauded for his coaching success as a Coach of the Year. He’s got a great family that includes a beauty queen who represented the state where he lives and coaches. So, what does being inducted into the Ron Polk Ring of Honor mean to him? As thousands file weekly into the stadium that’s known by many as the “Carnegie Hall of College Baseball,” his embossed metal plaque on one of the brick columns means that he no longer has to ask how do you get to Carnegie Hall, he’s made it!
“It’s truly an honor,” Raffo shares, “Something that I will personally cherish, extremely humbling, but it’s also representative of the teammates that you were with and the coaches you played for along the way. It obviously does represent some individuals, but at the same time, it’s all about the program,” he adds, remarkably reflective of the same team concept espoused by fellow honoree Ken Tatum, his Bulldog predecessor two decades prior. It’s often said that individuals excel, teams win, and Raffo confirms that philosophy prevails to this day.
“When we get together and talk, it’s not about the players, it’s about the teams. Hey, you remember when ‘we’ did this and ‘we’ did that, it’s about your teammates, how you played well together, what you learned from each other. To be the best we can, we do that by helping each other. When I look at the Ring of Honor, everybody there was in it for the benefit of the program. We remember moments of success that we shared, getting the trophy in 1987 at Athens, walking around the outfield at Dudy Noble after winning the 1990 regional to go to Omaha, shaking everybody’s hand. Baseball is a game of stats, but we really remember moments, not numbers. Those are the things you still cherish years later.”
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Photos are credited where known. Special thanks to Mississippi State University Athletics and Arkansas State University Athletics for their assistance and images, to Ken Tatum, Mark Gillaspie, and Coach Tommy Raffo for their time and sharing their stories, and to Bo Carter of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA). Check them out at ncbwa.com, and if you’re a college baseball fan, you don’t have to be a writer to be a member, join today!