JOPLIN, Mo. – It’s sort of fitting that the Missouri Southern baseball team’s latest appearance in the MIAA tournament falls on the 50th anniversary of the team’s beginnings.
The MSSU baseball team was started by head coach Ed Wuch in 1972 with a humble list posted in a locker room. 40 potential players signed up.
“Well I didn’t know what they were like because I hadn’t met any of them before,” Wuch said. “So it was a learning process for me when we had our first practices to see what they were capable of. I needed pitchers, infielders, outfielders, catchers. We had no uniforms, no bats, no balls. We practiced on a parking lot. It was kind of primitive.”
“Back in those days we used wooden bats,” former player Joe Ketchum said. “We practiced out here at the valley just south of the campus. We played our games at Joe Becker stadium, which is a far cry from what it is now but it was a great facility for us. It was a special time.”
Joe Becker stadium was a home away from home, taking on a bigger meaning as the players moved past their playing days.
“The best way to describe the pioneers comes from Cotton Dye,” former player Roy Knight told KSN. “He was a longtime donater of his time to the Joe Becker concession stand. Before he passed away a few years ago, he said you know you guys I can explain you real well. When you played and practiced, you guys played really hard to be average. When you brought your children up to the concession stand and you ordered two Mutt Burgers, you’d become pretty darn good baseball players. Then you came and you limped up to the concession stand holding your grandchildren and you ordered two Mutt Burgers and you pointed to centerfield and said ‘and there was a day here I was world class.'”
Many of the former players from that 1972 team still follow Missouri Southern, especially as they prepare to face conference rival Pittsburg State in the opening round of the MIAA tournament. Even in the team’s early days, the rivalry with that team 45 minutes up the road was a fierce one.
“You know it’s a good rivalry,” Bob Tignor said. “It’s good for the area. It’s a little extra. We went a little extra when we played Pitt State. We don’t like getting beat by them but they’ve got a great program over there and we’ve got a great program over here obviously. But I think Southern is special, and I think our baseball team will do really well this weekend when we play Pitt State.”
“Pitching is key,” former player Michael Vaughn added. “They’ve got the hitting. I think Missouri Southern’s got like what, 84 homeruns? 85? That’s all great but you’ve got to get people on base and advance the runners. Be smart when you hit, two strike hitting. Things like that. They need to go down there and sweep them (Pittsburg State). It’s time to peak.”
“It always starts with the pitching,” former assistant Steve Luebber added. “Pitching sets the tone for sure. If you pitcher goes out and starts the game decent, the other team will lose the game to you if you let them. You don’t have to pitch great but if you pitch consistently pretty good, the other team will lose some games to you. It only takes one of your players to have a better game offensively to win the game for you.”