FINDING THE SOUL IN COLLEGE BASEBALL’S EPICENTER

by Jon Wiener, Bash Brothers VP & Editor

The idea didn’t come all at once. It crept organically, then exploded into fruition as the best ones do.

Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss were set for NCAA regional action this past weekend. The Bulldogs and the Rebels were hosting; the Golden Eagles would be in Baton Rouge, home of the vaunted LSU Tigers. Each of the locations presented massive appeal. Any was a chance to see the best of college baseball in America.

Then it dawned on me: why not do all three?

The draw lined up perfectly: Mississippi State would play at noon on Friday, and Ole Miss at 7:00. That meant I could go to both in one day, ambitious but reasonably easy, and then have the rest of the weekend to work out Baton Rouge. All I needed was credentials, company, and a carload of energy.

Lightning struck at lunch with a writer friend. He was planning to cover both games for his outlet and driving himself, more than happy for a partner on the nearly 400-mile day. It was the break I needed.

We would leave on Friday morning at 9 A.M. I wasn’t planning to cover the games themselves as much as immerse myself in them. College baseball is alive and well in the Deep South. Over the next 36 hours, I was going to traverse its epicenter, and was determined to take it all in.

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STARKVILLE: Friday 12 p.m. – Mississippi State vs. Southern University

The first would be most familiar.

My mother was raised in Louisville, Miss. a small town about thirty miles south of Starkville on Highway 25. Her dad grew up in the dust of the Great Depression and enrolled at Mississippi State through the G.I.Bill in 1947 after serving in World War Two — the first male in his family to attend college.

He would graduate with a P.H.D. in entomology and go on to work in that department at State for decades, helping to patent the trap that eradicated the boll weevil from the South’s cotton. His children would go to State after him.

That, of course, made me a devout Bulldog fan growing up. I loved football and basketball like everyone else, but I was obsessed with Mississippi State baseball. We were given season tickets for a few years by a dear woman named Theresa Priebatsch, whose husband’s passing meant she no longer needed seats to see the Bulldogs he had lived for.

I remember camping for three days in the white-hot bleachers during the famous 1998 regional that saw Eric Dubose & Brooks Bryan boost the Bulldogs to Omaha. I wanted to play at State, and tried to bat like Travis Chapman in my own career.

Hell, my dad even got me out of school once to hear Ron Polk speak at the rotary lunch.

(In my job now I root for all Mississippi teams, even the Rebels! It’s better for business, and I’ve come to understand that the players, coaches, and staffers at the universities are mostly cut from the same cloth of good Mississippi people.)

But I had not been to the new Dudy Noble Field since its reopening this season after a $68 million dollar renovation. And so it was with a mixture of excitement, nostalgia and uncertainty that we made our way up Highway 25, eating Pistachios and unpacking Rick Stansbury’s demise.

I knew the stadium would be stunning. Would it feel the same? I wished my grandfather was still around to see it. I felt like a kid going on a first date with the girl he’s loved his whole life.

The “New Dude” glimmered against the sky, a shrine for the center of college baseball.

We pulled into Starkville about an hour before the noon first pitch against SWAC champion Southern University. Walking to the stadium, the “New Dude” glimmered against the sky, a shrine for the center of college baseball. We stopped to pick up credentials in the clubhouse adjacent to the Palmeiro Center (named for lead donor and Bulldog great Rafael Palmeiro), and ate boxed cheeseburgers while media guys razzed my buddy about his bucket hat and covering The Masters.

Soon we made the short walk to the stadium. State fans clad in all possible forms of maroon and white baseball apparel streamed into the stadium. Many stopped to take pictures of the Palmeiro & Will Clark statues at the main concourse entrance. We went the long way to the press box stairs so we could soak in the scene.

Mississippi State takes more pride in its baseball program than any other school in the country. It’s among the best, but their fans love and live it the most.

The old Dudy Noble Field, with its famous Left Field Lounge of pickup trucks, smoking grills, and wooden-rig seating that stretched capacity to more than 13,000, was called “The Carnegie Hall of College Baseball.”  It was beautiful, distinctly southern, raucous, full of character, tradition and electricity. It was college baseball.

Taking in the new atmosphere, two things were immediately apparent: it didn’t feel like the old Dude. And it was the most spectacular stadium in college baseball. The new Left Field Lofts, a three story, 30,000 foot modern brick facility of stay-in suites and viewing decks behind the stands, cut the sky behind the stadium like a bold exclamation mark. It is quite simply the biggest stadium achievement in the history of the sport.

At each end of the stadium, austere brick spaces and concrete concourses consecrate Bulldog greats and the big-time donors who bankrolled the renovations.

Huge grass areas dot the first and third base lines and space behind the outfield scoreboard, where kids play and families spread lawn chairs and picnic blankets. The stadium’s main walkways are entirely open to a view of the field and more space for concessions — the single best architectural advancement in modern stadium design.

In the outfield, the Lounge remains the thing, now upgraded and expanded to a concrete platform with an open walkway that splits a lower and upper tier. Better views, same designated spaces. No more pickups, dust and dirt.

As I walked around the outfield expanse a few times, nostalgia fought with progress, tradition battled modernization, and character mingled with the corporate dollar.

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The New Dude is a bold mixture of all of those things. It is without reservation the nicest, coolest stadium in college baseball, the way of the future in the sport. Yet I couldn’t help but miss its unique qualities of my Travis Chapman youth, and wished with all the honoring of the past they had found a way to keep it.

Early on, the Bulldogs played like they had come to a picnic. Southern came to play. The scrappy SWAC champions from Baton Rouge pieced together savvy baseball and brazen stolen bases for an early 4-2 lead.  Mississippi State freshman starter J.T. Ginn left after the third inning with injury precautions. With every passing inning and fly ball out, the State crowd of nearly 9,000 grew more anxious.

I alternated spaces between the press box and the third base concourse with a better view. A couple of innings in the sun meant a couple of cold sodas. I happily learned that the stadium staff had opened the chair back seatings to anyone with a ticket. The live organ with its blend of ballpark standards and Drake remixes remained sublime.

With the game surprisingly close, the Bulldogs faithful eventually came alive. ‘Maroon – White’ chants echoed across the ballpark as the team awoke from its slumber in turn, partly just overwhelming the Jaguars with sheer depth and talent.

They put them away with Cole Gordon’s two innings of six strikeout, scoreless relief and Rowdey Jordan’s bomb that cleared the Ron Polk pavilion in right field and still may not have landed. The crowd grew louder with each punctuation, a proud program celebrated and affirmed.

The New Dude was surely different. Newer, nicer, better. It has lost a little of the grit and authenticity that made it so unique. So goes the price of progress. As I stood on the third base concourse and took in the crowd standing and cheering in unison for a Mississippi State NCAA regional win, it felt familiar again.

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OXFORD: Friday 7:45 p.m. – Ole Miss vs. Jacksonville State

A journey doesn’t become one until you do the next part of it.

So after we completed our postgame write-ups and an impromptu chat with Bulldogs pitching great Jay Powell, I felt new excitement as we climbed in the compact Toyota truck and set off to Oxford.

The 113-mile drive from Starkville was a slow journey through the scenes of rural Mississippi. We left in our rearview the wealth of college academia and athletics and made our way through the dusty, desolate countryside. Strange traffic delayed us on the single strip of highway in West Point. Pastures and dirt roads marked the entrances to even smaller towns. Great Value food stores and multipurpose car washes dotted the intersections.

First pitch wasn’t scheduled until 7 p.m., so we had time enough to amble with ease along the back roads, predicting Mike Bianco’s future and laughing about Andy Kennedy’s past. We both ignored our real food cravings in reverence of the culinary bastion awaiting us.

Oxford has a way of delivering its famous traditions in full, without fuss, wrapped and ready for your enjoyment. If it all seems a bit contrived at times, it always satisfies. The campus with its red and blue and omnipresent green has an intoxicating, magisterial air about it.

We breathed it all in as we climbed out of the truck and walked past the Manning Center towards Swayze Field.

A full Swayze Field before first pitch.

The opening game went long, and the Ole Miss – Jacksonville State start time was pushed back more than half an hour. I seized the opportunity to find the media food tent: a plastic, air-conditioned tent erected by Ole Miss staffers to satisfy the larger-than-usual media contingent for the postseason regional.

Oxford eating lived up to its reputation: fried chicken buffet with macaroni and cheese. There was no beer or bourbon available, but talk of the SEC’s lifted alcohol ban seemed a fitting distraction. I took down one too many pieces of chicken while watching  LSU clobber Stony Brook, then headed for a slow walk around the stadium to see the scene and shake the coma.

There’s nothing that fancy with Swayze Field, especially compared to the shrine in Starkville I had just left. The stadium is one of the nation’s biggest at more than 11,000 seating capacity, with the typical setup of chair-backs plus bleacher & outfield grass seating.

Openings in a wire fence behind the equipment sheds in the right field corner expose discarded pitching machines and a random, sparsely wooded area.

But I was there for what makes Swayze special: the raucous nighttime atmosphere, led by the beer-throwing student section in right field. The best college atmospheres, from Duke’s Cameron Indoor to LSU’s Tiger Stadium, are made so by the student sections, their loud, unbridled energy infusing the rest of the crowd and the team.

So it goes at Swayze. If Ole Miss has never lost a party, it also doesn’t have a baseball game without one.

Ole Miss is a place of contradictions. I watched elderly men with white hair and glasses feel young again, dancing with a winking joy to Lil’ Jon and Miley Cyrus music that blared through the stadium. Oxford’s hospitable fans have no problem heckling rival players despite it.

Instead of drinking the beer, people hurl them in the air.

But the game is still the thing. The stadium was firing and nearly full before the first pitch, a bursting mix of music, happy hour, and passion for Ole Miss baseball. Even the Jacksonville State fans were loud, having clearly made the most of their pregame afternoon in Oxford.

The Rebels were as ready to go as the crowd. After allowing a run to start the game, Ole Miss simply ambushed and annihilated the Jaguars. A Tyler Keenan bomb over the student section in the 3rd inning turned up the party  (and the solo cups). Starting pitcher Will Ethridge shut down whatever pop Jacksonville State brought to the plate.

Swayze Field from Bash Brothers Media on Vimeo.

I took in most of the onslaught from the outdoor portion of the press box; the game is always better in front of the glass. The Rebels added another big inning as I slammed a couple more sodas, and soon it was 10-1 in the fifth and time to stop the fight.

I was considering the long drive back home, and the prospect of another trip tomorrow, when a distinct smell wafted over and around me. Beer. The Rebels had hit another home run, this one from light-hitting Anthony Servideo, and the sheer amount of deposited ale in right field carried its own scent across the ballpark. It was pungent, and invaluably pleasant.

This was Friday night postseason baseball at Swayze Field. The two felt made for each other.

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BATON ROUGE: Saturday, 6 p.m. – LSU vs. Southern Mississippi

Baton Rouge had always presented the most potential. And problems.

First, Southern Miss needed to win to set up the Saturday night showdown with LSU that would allow me time to recover and hit the road again. Then I needed some company for the drive.

The Golden Eagles obliged by smoking Arizona State, and I found my brother & Bash Brothers president Henry Wiener more than eager for a road trip. There’s a certain mysticism attached to LSU baseball for any SEC fan whose formidable years coincided with the Tigers’ reign under Skip Bertman in the 1990s. The fans, the voodoo, the clutch. So for him, the opportunity to experience it for the first time — and then a night in Baton Rouge — was too appealing.

(There were golf plans. Always golf plans. But we left too late to play that morning, and the hangover after our night in Baton Rouge would kill any desire to whack a ball around the woods the next day.)

The drive down was sedated. Grey skies and intermittent rain shadowed us in spots. Long hours spent arguing in the office lent to welcome silence in the car.  I had committed to Gatorade for the day instead of soda, and was slowly getting into game mode as we exited I-55 at Hammond for the thirty mile stretch of I-12 and the LSU campus.

Where Starkville and Oxford are singular, quaint college towns, Baton Rouge sprawls like a small, urban southern city, mixing Cajun, Creole, and one of the most powerful colleges in America. The streets leading to Skip Bertman Drive were a progression of bare neighborhoods, tire shops and strip malls, eventually melding into the teeth of Tiger Stadium. On fall Saturdays, the fanatical college football scene swallows its immediate surroundings. But for a baseball game, the characteristics of the city that contains the LSU monster felt more pronounced.

We found ample parking, unpacked ourselves from my brother’s cramped Toyota Prius and made our way towards Alex Box. We stopped to appreciate Tiger Stadium towering beside us. You could feel in the cool lights shadowing the massive pillars of concrete the gladiatorial nature of the place, the epic confrontations to come.

Tiger Stadium looming over the outfield

This night there was the unmistakable feeling of a baseball showdown in the air. Where Friday had been a couple of expected exhibitions, Southern Miss had brought to Baton Rouge red-hot bats and some swagger of their own. They had won the C-USA Tournament to get in and obliterated Arizona State the previous day.

As we walked to the stadium, I wondered if the Golden Eagles could win and had decided with certainty that it was much hotter in Louisiana than north Mississippi. But it didn’t stop Tiger fans of all ages from gathering in the areas all around the stadium for pregame festivities. Most college fans make tailgating a special occasion; LSU’s look so natural in the endeavor it’s like they just resettled their lives momentarily.

We picked up our new credentials from the Southern Miss will call and walked up the ramp into the stands.

Alex Box filled steadily if not quickly, and in an hour or so would be entirely packed. The field literally shone purple and gold, the stadium colors and flags reflecting off of the blazing sun. Tiger Stadium loomed now in center field, a stirring backdrop between two large bleacher decks. A huge billboard displaying the program’s six national titles raises to the sky in right field, for Tigers and opponents to see and celebrate and revere. (LSU does success well, and rarely subtly.)

We took the elevator to the press box and soon opened the door to a jammed-full room. I was more taken by the nacho and chili-dispensing machine in the corner. I had managed to avoid soda thus far in the day but the stocked refrigerator of Coke and Sprite just inside the entrance looked like a shimmering safe of rubies and emeralds presented now for my pleasure.

I helped myself and found our stools on the back wall of the press box, but our time there was short. Standing against a wall somewhere in the stadium seemed better than doing the same in the press box.

As we made our way back down and settled in, so did LSU starter Cole Henry. In a tense 1-0 game, he pumped a series of “see if you can hit it” two-strike fastballs past Golden Eagles hitters to electrify the foaming, anticipating crowd. In the pivotal sixth inning, the Tigers put men on base, Southern changed pitchers, and the home fans reached a fever decibel.

Alex Box Stadium

LSU folks are by nature a loud and colorful group, and they were of one roaring, incessant voice at the Box. The alternating ‘Geaux….Tiiigers’ chant rumbled in succession and sounded like distant cannon shots. You could feel the energy about to overwhelm the opponent, like a dam about to blow. I had sensed it before watching LSU and their fans take over countless SEC Tournament games in Hoover. It was present and tangible here.

Sure enough, Zach Watson launched a two-run home run into the bleachers in left to blow the Box open. I tried in vain to capture the moment on my cell phone before realizing the video wouldn’t matter and I’d miss the very moment I had come to experience. It was a purist victory over the millennial mind, and the start of a hard-fought win for the Tigers.

We had food and bourbon on our minds and left the stadium just before game ended, stopping on the street in turn to soak in the echoes from the stadium as LSU added its final runs. We then found The Chimes restaurant and bar close to campus that would satisfy our greatest dreams and indulgences of Louisiana cuisine. Settling in to an open high top-table in the front of the bar to watch the last outs, we felt comfortable and content.

I had completed a three site, two day, once-in-a-blue-moon ride from Starkville to Oxford to Baton Rouge, and experienced the best America has to offer in college baseball. A journey through the epicenter of the sport. It was time to sign off and celebrate.

 

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