Jay Powell jokes that he needs a bracelet with “WWPD?” emblazoned on it.
As an assistant baseball and softball coach for Jackson Prep, the former Mississippi State and MLB standout often asks himself that question: “What would Polky do?”
That, of course, refers to legendary Bulldogs coach Ron Polk, who coached Powell during the reliever’s standout Starkville career from 1991-93. For Powell, merely reasoning what his old skipper might try often proves helpful.
“That honestly answers a lot of my questions a lot of the time,” Powell said. “It really does.”
On Saturday, Powell was one of four Bulldogs inducted into Mississippi State’s Ron Polk Ring of Honor, giving him a chance to join an exclusive club named after his longtime adviser.
“He’s been like a mentor to me really all my life,” Powell said. “It means a lot for me to be in a hall of fame that’s named after him.”
He and three former Bulldogs standouts stood on the concrete of Adkerson Plaza on Saturday morning before Mississippi State’s doubleheader with Texas A&M, posing with Polk as their brand-new plaques were officially unveiled. Powell, Paul Maholm, Del Unser and Jonathan Papelbon became the third class inducted into the ring of honor.
“I think it’s a culmination of a lot of things in my life, and it’s going to be one of the biggest memories I have until the day I die,” said Papelbon, who pitched for the Bulldogs from 2001 to 2003.
The World Series-winning closer with the Boston Red Sox is up for election on this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, perhaps the greatest honor in the sport. But Papelbon said being inducted into Polk’s ring of honor — named for a coach he considered a father figure — was right up there with it.
The other players inducted Saturday shared his sentiment. Unser, who spent 1964 to 1966 at Mississippi State, said he was shocked when former Bulldog Saunders Ramsey called him a while back to break the news.
“I was flabbergasted,” Unser said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
Unser said he was “very appreciative” of the opportunity. He described coming to Starkville refreshed by the warmer temperatures after growing up in central Illinois, where snow flurries swirled as he pitched and played the field.
When Unser and his father Al made the 500-mile trip south to meet with Bulldogs coach Paul Gregory — a member of the second class of the ring of honor — Gregory took Al’s word that his son was good enough to take the field. If not, Unser was told, he’d be put to work helping out in the clubhouse.
Clearly, Unser — who was moved from first base to center field and went on to a standout 15-year MLB career with the Philadelphia Phillies and five other professional teams — was talented enough to play. But he said it wasn’t solely his accomplishment.
The players from the Bulldogs’ 1965 and 1966 teams that won their conference still get together every five years or so, including 2021. The crowd of 25 has thinned over the years by Father Time, Unser said, but the squads featured 11 professional players.
“You don’t do this alone,” Unser said. “You’ve got to be part of a heck of a good team.”
Maholm, who attended Mississippi State from 2001-2003 along with Papelbon, had that as the Bulldogs made an NCAA Regional under Polk in his junior season. The left-hander chose to go to college rather than turn pro out of high school, and he said joining players like Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark in the exclusive group was “a true honor”
“It’s cool just to be mentioned with them as part of your career here,” Maholm said.
All four players touched on the changes of the past few decades. Powell mentioned that current high school and college players are throwing harder than ever, and Maholm said he was lucky to get by for 10 years in the major leagues with his arsenal.
“I wish I had the stuff some of these pitchers have now whenever I was pitching,” Maholm said. “I feel like it would be a little bit easier. I always said my career was just smoke and mirrors and trying to get hitters out.”
And all four players know there will be plenty of talented Bulldogs to follow in their footsteps and become the ring of honor’s latest inductees.
“It’s a heck of a brotherhood,” Unser said. “It really is.”