OMAHA – When Oklahoma takes the field on Saturday night in the first game of the College World Series finals, it will be thanks to the exploits of a plethora of players throughout the year.
The Sooners, after all, have prided themselves on being a “team of Davids” with the ability to beat an opponent in lots of different ways with different heroes on any given day.
However, while the role of team most valuable player has at times been a moving target, perhaps nobody has been more reliable or important to the cause than redshirt sophomore catcher Jimmy Crooks.
Obviously, Crooks’ on-field impact is not hard to notice. Since the start of the Big 12 tournament, the lefty is pounding the ball hitting .385 with five home runs and 20 RBIs all while playing a rock solid defensive catcher with a strong arm to match his glove.
But it’s the things that don’t show up in the box score that really make him the complete player he is.
CWS Championship Series: How to Watch
Charles Schwab Field, Omaha
- Oklahoma vs. Ole Miss
- Saturday, 6 p.m.
- Sunday, 2 p.m.
- Saturday, 6 p.m.
- TV: ESPN
Crooks’ ability to massage a pitching staff and lead both by example and with words is a value that is hard to quantify, but certainly noticeable to his coaches and teammates.
“I think it's missed from the catching standpoint,” head coach Skip Johnson said following Oklahoma’s 5-1 win over Texas A&M on Wednesday. “The leadership that he provides, the comfort when he goes to the mound and either chews their butt out or gets them fired up or makes them execute pitches. I think that leadership from the catching standpoint is what is really needed.
We've had guys in the past -- I've had guys in the past that were really good at that, and we work really hard on that as a staff to teach that. Coach (Clay) Overcash works with the catchers and does a great job of teaching that leadership quality.”
Despite being in just his second year in the program, Crooks has earned a role as one of the leaders of the team through his play and preparation.
But it’s one thing to have the stature to lead, it’s another thing to actually do it.
Crooks is more than willing to call out a teammate if he feels like they need it, and let you know what he feels needs to be changed. And when he does, players listen.
“Jimmy is a huge part of our team,” center fielder Tanner Tredaway said at a press conference on Friday. “One of the big things about Jimmy is he'll get onto you when he needs to. There's not a whole lot of guys on the team that do that, call you out on stuff that's going on in the game.
It's not just in the game of baseball, it's in life, too. He's just always been that guy.”
When he’s not giving guidance verbally, Crooks does it by example. As previously noted, the OU backstop has played a large role in the Sooners reaching the final series and playing for a national title.
On the year, he is hitting .311 with nine home runs and 51 RBIs, playing a key role in the Oklahoma offense from start to finish in 2022.
“He's a leader for us, but he's also a very explosive player,” Tredaway said. “Jimmy -- we call him Jimmy Barrels for a reason. The guy can swing it. He's a great leader behind the plate. Just does a really good job for us and really calms the pitchers down more than anything.”
Now, with just one more series remaining in what has been a historic 2022 season for the Sooners, Crooks can leave it all out on the field for his squad one last time.
Time will tell if Crooks will head to the next level after this year, but one way or another Oklahoma will assuredly look much different next season as players explore professional opportunities this offseason.
So for this group, the finals against Ole Miss is a final shot to go out on top - with Crooks leading the way and laying it all out on the line for his team. Just as he has always done.
“Those guys know that Jimmy cares about them because they know he will put his body in front of you, he will play hurt,” Johnson said. “He is just a baseball player, and he is a prospect too.”