McALESTER — They line the walkway behind the backstop at Mike Deak Field in McAlester. You can see them carrying notebooks or laptop computers, tablets or smartphones or stopwatches.
There’s the college scouts and baseball coaches who flock to the Jr. Sunbelt Classic baseball tournament every June. And they’re as much a part of the Sunbelt experience as the players, teams and host families.
Take Mississippi State University associate head baseball coach Butch Thompson. Thompson said he started coming to the Sunbelt when he was the University of Georgia baseball team’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator in 2002.
Though he said he was simply told by his bosses to attend the tournament the first time, he quickly realized the value of the Sunbelt as a scouting tournament.
“A lot of these showcases, you have a pitcher that gets up here, throws to five hitters, and then the next pitcher comes up and he throws to five hitters, and we’re trying to recruit a guy off of that,” Thompson said June 6. “The Sunbelt is such a desirable format for a recruiter, because these guys are all from the same state. They come and form, like Team Mississippi, Team Oklahoma, Team Georgia. Now they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and they’re representing their state.”
Thompson attended the Sunbelt all four years he was at Georgia, then left for Auburn University in Alabama in 2006. With no Alabama Sunbelt team, Thompson said he still attended a couple of Sunbelts, then returned to coming every year when he joined Mississippi State University in 2009.
In the 13 years Thompson’s been coming to the Sunbelt, he’s said he’s recruited as many as 20 Sunbelt players. Six players from the 2014 Mississippi team, he said, had already verbally committed to Mississippi State.
“When they ask me, ‘Should I go play for Team Mississippi,’ I say, ‘Heck yeah,’” Thompson said. “You’re going to be with host families. You’re going to be at a great place. You can get a great steak, you’ve got Pete’s Place, and this becomes endearing.”