May 31, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Tony Bucciferro got the message the instant Michigan State's baseball team earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 33 years.
The Spartans have an opportunity to make a statement.
Then, another message followed. Then another, and another, and another, and his cell phone likely will keep buzzing as long as No. 3-seed MSU is alive in the Stanford Regional in Palo Alto, Calif.
"I've been playing on a lot of summer teams with multiple Big Ten players for three years, and I have friends on pretty much every team," said Bucciferro, who will be MSU's starting pitcher in Friday's opener against Pepperdine. "And, I've gotten texts from almost every one of them.
"They're all excited that we got in, and it says something about the Big Ten that we can compete against each other, and if one team makes it we can all get behind each other's backs."
While the Spartans realized immediately that they can show past MSU letterwinners and their long-suffering fans that Michigan State baseball is relevant on a national basis again, they can also make a case for Northern teams that have more often than not been overlooked for at-large bids in recent decades.
Michigan State finished fifth in the Big Ten regular season standings and lost to Indiana in the conference tournament semifinals, but its 37-21 record after playing a tough national schedule and RPI of 45 landed it in the field of 64. Big Ten champ Purdue is the No. 1 seed in the Gary (Ind.) Regional.
"We're playing for something bigger than ourselves here," said Bucciferro, a first-team All-Big Ten selection and a Spartan co-captain. "And it's not just past players, we're playing for the Big Ten and we're trying to represent us Northern schools that don't get a lot of credit.
"We're playing for all these guys up here, and respect, and if we can stay relaxed and not be distracted, we're going to show them that we can compete with any team in the nation. We're going to take this responsibility; it's awesome.
Breaking a more-than-three-decade tournament dry spell wasn't even on Bucciferro's radar when he left Minooka Community High School in Joliet, Ill., to take a chance on Spartan baseball program starting over with Jake Boss Jr., the team's third head coach in five years.
If Bucciferro aspired to play in the NCAA Tournament, his odds would have been much better with a school located south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
"Coming in here, I didn't expect much out of it," Bucciferro said. "Being recruited, I didn't really know much. But I took a chance and it was the best decision of my life. It's a dream come true to be playing for a national championship.
"I couldn't even imagine it before, but now we have this opportunity and we don't have that much pressure because a lot of people didn't expect us to be here. Last year, we win the Big Ten for the first time in 32 years and now we make a regional for the first time in 33 years.
"It's something to say about this program changing since I got here. It's something special and something we're going to be a part of forever."
High school prospects naturally gravitate to schools with winning traditions and those that provide the best chance at success. There are some, however, even highly sought individuals in every sport, who pick a school because they want to be at least partly responsible for turning a beleaguered team around.
Ryan Jones, a redshirt junior second baseman from nearby Haslett High School, is in the novel real-time position of describing the satisfaction that comes from restoring a once-proud program.
"I knew that they had struggled over the years, but at the same time I love Michigan State and I wanted to help make Michigan State something it hasn't been in awhile," Jones said. "We had a ton of good recruits when I came in, and we just wanted play well together and see how far it takes us.
"So far, so good. To see Michigan State back on the map like this isn't something you would have expected 10 years ago. This class is going to be remembered probably forever in Michigan State history just because of what have put together from really nothing, and we love it."
Jones, who leads the Big Ten with 90 hits and 253 at-bats, paused and gazed over his shoulder at the fence surround the sparkling diamond in McLane Baseball Stadium at Kobs Field, which opened before his second season.
"Looking at the outfield fence, there aren't many banners, but the past couple years we've been fortunate enough to add a couple banners and when we get older we'll be definitely coming back knowing we helped get Michigan State baseball going again,"Jo nes said. "We are the team going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 33 years, and we're kind carrying that legacy around with us.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet, but I'm sure it will by Friday. Two Big Ten schools are in the tournament, which is pretty rare nowadays, so we know we need to make a statement to keep the Big Ten on the map and show it's a good baseball conference."
Boss won't downplay the magnitude of the moment at hand.
"It's a thrill for all of us to be able to represent Michigan State on a national level," he said. "We've seen so many of our colleagues and friends here from men's and women's basketball, football, crew, hockey, soccer get a chance to do that and now to do what they've done is pretty neat for our guys to be mentioned in that conversation.
"I've gotten a lot of phone calls, emails and texts from guys who played here as far back as 1954, and just the amount of pride they have for Michigan State and how happy they are for the guys is really neat to see. It's a good lesson for our guys to realize they're part of something that's bigger than themselves."
Northern teams have long complained about having to compete on a tournament playing field tilted in favor of warm-weather teams. The Spartans are hopeful to back up some of those claims of unfair treatment with actions.
"I've talked about that with our guys," Boss said. "Obviously, we're going out there and playing for Michigan State. But at the same time, I think we have a responsibility first and foremost to our conference, and to represent the Big Ten in a positive way.
"We know there's a lot of good baseball in this league, and we have the responsibility to prove to people that the selection committee did get it right."
That decision may, or may not, be validated by victories, and this MSU team will be defined by more than the scoreboard.
"It's a credit to our seniors who won 23 games that first year, have been through an awful lot of transition and have taken ownership of this program," Boss said. "We talked about goals when we got here four years ago, and the first was to make the Big Ten Tournament. The next after that was to win a ring, and the next goal after last year was to win and keep going.
"To their credit they've accomplished each one of those and now this is the next step. We're not there yet and we've still got a long way to go, and we're always trying to get better, but you couldn't ask for a better group of kids."