Author’s note: Delta State University will retire former head baseball coach Mike Kinnison No. 15 jersey in a ceremony Saturday at Harvey Stadium-Ferriss Field prior to the 2 p.m. doubleheader against the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Kinnison guided the Statesmen to the 2004 NCAA Division II national championship, six College World Series appearances and 15 NCAA South Regional appearances. His Delta State teams won 981 games, while losing only 313 for a 75.6 win percentage. He averaged 42.5 victories per season.
The story of Kinnison’s journey from team manager, to All-American shortstop, to national championship coach was detailed in Mississippi Today columnist Rick Cleveland’s 2008 biography of Boo Ferriss: “Boo: A Life in Baseball, Well-Lived.” That chapter follows:
The most succinct and telling way to describe Mike Kinnison’s success as Delta State’s baseball coach is this: No coach at any level of NCAA baseball – ever – has won a higher percentage of his games. In college baseball 40-win seasons are considered the gold standard. Kinnison’s teams routinely win 50 games.
The story of how Kinnison, the hard-working son of a Yazoo County farmer, found his way to Delta State and eventually came back to his alma mater is worth telling and re-telling. As you might guess, Boo Ferris is a huge part of the story. The two form a two-man mutual admiration society.
Kinnison first met Boo Ferris when Ferriss spoke at the Benton Academy athletic banquet Kinnison’s senior year of high school. “Coach made such a strong impression, not just about baseball and sports but about life and planning for your future,” Kinnison said decades later. “That was in 1973 and I remember thinking even then that Coach Ferriss would be a great person to play for.”
But Kinnison was not college baseball material at that point. A late bloomer, he spent his first two years out of high school at Holmes Community College where he played football and baseball as a freshman and basketball and baseball as a sophomore.
“Baseball was what I loved,” Kinnison said. “I asked my coach to put in a word for me at Delta State. He said he would call Coach Ferriss.”
Ferriss promised Kinnison a chance to walk on and try out.
“So I went to Delta State and registered and showed up for the first baseball meeting, and Coach told us we would have open tryouts,” Kinnison said. “I looked around and saw about 70 guys there and that’s when it dawned on me that I was a little bitty fish in great big pond.”
Making matters worse, Kinnison had spent the previous summer away from baseball. He needed money to pay his tuition, so he worked off-shore on an oil rig. You can’t take much batting practice in the Gulf of Mexico. Kinnison was more than a little rusty when he arrived at Delta State.
“Delta State was a much more advanced program than anything I had ever seen,” Kinnison said. “I’ll give you an example. I had never in my life hit off a pitching machine. Anybody who has ever played baseball will tell you how different that is. I don’t think I impressed anybody. Coach gave me an extended look, but I just didn’t do enough.”
Said Ferriss, “We had a veteran team coming back. We were loaded. I just didn’t have room for Mike. I loved everything about coaching except for cutdown day. I hated telling a boy that he couldn’t play the game he loved. I just hated that part of it.”
“I was devastated,” Kinnison said. “It was the first time I had ever been told I wasn’t going to be able to play ball. Coach caught me between classes and asked me to come to his office. Well, I knew what was coming. He was as thoughtful and polite as he could be, thanking me for my effort. I’ll never forget him saying that I came up a little bit short – just a little bit short, he said – and he wasn’t going to be able to keep me. I’m not going to lie to you. It hurt. Man, it hurt. I just couldn’t imagine life without baseball.”
Kinnison had pretty much resigned himself to just that. Then, a week later, he was walking from one class to another when Ferriss drove by and then pulled over to the side of the road.
“Coach asked me how things were going and then he told me had some spots for people top help him and that there was some scholarship money involved,” Kinnison said. “He was talking about being a manager, and he told me to get back to him.
“Well, I didn’t have any intention of doing that. It was a pride thing. But I kept thinking about it and I knew I was going to have to get a job any way to help pay for school. He was offering some money. I had to work somewhere and I decided to take the job as a manager. That decision was the turning point in my life.”
Instead of fielding ground balls, Kinnison smoothed the infield so others could. Instead of taking batting practice, Kinnison shagged balls for others. Instead wearing a baseball uniform, Kinnison washed them.
“I won’t sugar-coat it,” Kinnison says. “It wasn’t any fun watching those other people play. As a manager, you do whatever needs to be done. It was great preparation really, although I didn’t look at it that way at the time. I learned how to work on the field. I learned about the science of growing grass, the different chemicals you use. I saw the pride Coach had in the field and how it looked. And I can tell you what else I learned. I learned to appreciate the managers and support people.
“I’d sneak in the cage and hit when nobody else did,” Kinnison continued. “I’d shag guy balls during the batting practice. The biggest thing is I saw the mental and physical maturity you had to have to play at that level. By then, I pretty well knew I wanted to coach some day, and I knew I was at the footsteps of a master.
“I learned so much about strategy and how you handle players and pitchers. I remember Coach telling men that the people on the bench are the ones you have to spend time on. Those out on the field are involved in the game. You have to spend time with the ones who aren’t in the game, make sure they stay interested and focused. I’ve never forgotten that. Coach is still the best I’ve ever been around at the strategy of the game, about having a feel for different matchups, when to use certain players.”
Kinnison was like a sponge. He soaked it all in – all that and more.
“I can remember we’d be on a road trip and Coach would pull over some place and go in and spend five minutes with somebody to thank them for something they had done for the program,” Kinnison says. “He’d always remember to take every opportunity to stay thank-you. He told us you can never say thank-you too much.”
Whether he knew it or not, Kinnison was making an impression on Ferriss, too. “Mike was one of the best managers I ever had,” Ferriss says. “He was a worker and he was smart. Man, he’s smart. But the main thing is he worked. You never had to tell him twice to do anything.”
Kinnison remembers that Ferriss never failed to thank him for all that work. “More than once he’d come up to me as I was finishing washing and drying and hand me a 20 dollar bill,” Kinnison says. “He’d tell me, ‘Go eat a steak tonight. You earned it.'”
Kinnison also earned a nickname that spring as a manager. Whenever it came time to rake the infield dirt, Ferriss would call it “scratching” – as in, “Mike go out there and scratch around first base where it’s wet.”
One time, Kinnison mumbled under his breath that he was sick and tired of that word “scratch” and that he hoped he never heard it again. One of the graduate assistant coaches heard him and jumped on it. Mike Kinnison became “Scratch” Kinnison.
But that summer Scratch Kinnison played semipro baseball with a team in Greenwood that included several Delta State players. He worked out regularly, too, doing hundreds and hundreds of pushups and swinging a heavy bat regularly. The work paid off.
He got bigger, stronger. His line drives became gappers. He did so well that reports filtered back to Ferriss. Still, Kinnison figured that when he went back to school, he would be going back to be a manager.
-- Article credit to Rick Cleveland of Mississippi Today --