By JOEL COLEMAN
It’s the late innings. With Mississippi State down by a run, slugger Reid Humphreys shoots a double in the gap. Bulldogs head coach John Cohen has speedster Mike Smith ready to pinch run and give MSU a better chance to tie the game on a base hit. The problem is, if Cohen goes that route, Humphreys’ big bat is out of the game should it be needed later in the contest.
Cohen faces similar decisions in virtually every game the Bulldogs play. Some might say that’s just the nature of baseball. Cohen says, it doesn’t have to be that way. With so many different, talented players with a variety of skill sets, why not rewrite the rule book and give more opportunities for athletes to shine?
“This is why our sport is so antiquated in so many ways,” Cohen said. “About 100 years ago in football, they decided ‘Hey, I can take a guy out and I can put him right back in.’ People always say to me when I mention about free substitution in our sport, ‘Well that’s not how it was designed 100 years ago.’ I tell them 100 years ago football guys were wearing leather helmets.”
Cohen has never been a coach that feels he must adhere to the old school ways of baseball. In MSU’s run to the College World Series finals three years ago, his starting pitchers often went one or two innings only to give way to a reliever who might go the rest of the way. The Bulldogs often make pitching changes in the middle of at-bats. In his tenure in Starkville, seemingly every player Cohen has coached has been called on to drop down bunts, whether it was the lightning-quick Jacob Robson or the mammoth-sized former first baseman Wes Rea.
So it should come as no surprise that Cohen is once again thinking creatively. This season, Cohen’s eighth with the Bulldogs, the veteran leader has a roster that would be ideal for free subs. Jack Kruger and Brent Rooker are both hitting just under .350. Cody Brown is just a touch under .300. With their positional limitations though, usually at least one of those three young men are on the bench. To put one in, Cohen might have to burn the other for the game.
What if it wasn’t that way? It’s not as outlandish as some might think.
“Just go watch a softball game,” Cohen said. “That’s how you do it. Or watch NAIA baseball. Just getting as many student-athletes involved in the game as possible I think is huge. When there is no free substitution and you take somebody out and you can’t return them to the game, it’s a very difficult thing.”
So what is stopping college baseball from adopting a free substitution rule? Cohen says he’s talked about the idea with others before, but there is a hesitancy in the sport of baseball for change.
“I’ve told a lot of people about this and nobody says that it’s dumb and doesn’t make any sense,” Cohen said. “In baseball though, everything from video to strength and conditioning, we’re always the sport that’s latest to come to the party for whatever reasons.
“I’ve heard many, many, many times those dangerous six words – we’ve always done it this way.”
If Cohen was completely in charge of things, the issue of free subs wouldn’t be all that was addressed. Among other things, Cohen would love to see games shortened and a wider variety of people playing college baseball, too. He admits he’s just one man spitballing ideas, but Cohen, like he has so many times before, isn’t afraid to think a little bit outside the box.
“Our sport needs to speed up a little bit,” Cohen said. “Our sport needs to involve more kids. We need to have more diversity in our sport. There’s a lot of things about our sport that I think need to get better.”