Five Things We Learned On Day One Of Football Fall Camp

Today – Tuesday, for those of you reading this from the future – Mississippi State opened fall football camp with its first practice of the preseason. In conjunction with this momentous occasion, MSU hosted its on-campus media day with Dan Mullen, some of his staff and many of his players. I’ll have some more in-depth stories from all the interviews later, and we’ll be posting updates and highlights from fall camp as practices go along.

However, in the meantime, we learned a great deal from today’s media session, the main points of which we’ll share here. Of note, there are new rules in place this year that A) allow NCAA football teams to begin fall camp earlier than before and B) prevent NCAA football teams from having two-a-day practices. The number of practices between now and game one remains the same as ever, holding steady at 29, but the time in which teams can have these practices is now bigger. Which brings us to item No. 1…

Mullen Focused on Health in Preseason

With more flexibility on how to run the schedule for the preseason, Mullen took a unique approach to setting the itinerary. Before talking to anyone else, State’s coach got his head trainer and his strength and conditioning coach together to talk about one specific thing: health. He asked them, given the number of available days and total number of practices, what the healthiest possible schedule would be. After receiving an answer, he added input from his coaching staff on how they want to do installations, checked the summer and fall class schedules, and came up with dates that made MSU the first SEC team to kick off preseason practices. Using this week as an example, the Bulldogs will practice in just helmets the first two days, then have a day off, then practice three days in shoulder pads, then have another day off.

Offensive Line Taking Shape

As with any John Hevesy-coached offensive line, veteran players are expected to be able to play most if not all positions if need be. Because of that, older guys moved around a lot in bowl practices and spring practices. Now, it appears MSU is set with having two of its best and most experienced players at the two most important positions on the line. Senior Martinas Rankin appears locked in for left tackle, while junior Elgton Jenkins has seemingly solidified his role as the center. This is, of course, subject to change with all of fall camp to go, but Mullen and Hevesy both seem to like the starting point.

Mullen: “You feel pretty confident about those guys … [Jenkins] is a veteran guy and a pretty smart football player. He’s a guy that can get all the right calls and get everybody in position.”

Hevesy: “You have two good guys that have good knowledge of the game and are leaders for me … The first thing I look for in a center is, can they communicate?

[Jenkins] has got a great knowledge of the game. He’s a communicator. Likes to talk.”

Elsewhere on the line, Hevesy has tentatively switched junior Deion Calhoun to right guard so that he can have a veteran presence next to whichever young player steps up and takes over the right tackle position.

Grantham Outlines Defensive Approach

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the second interview of the day, and as has been the case since his arrival, he was quite candid and clear in his answers to questions. A few things stood out, but we’ll start here with his general approach to running MSU’s defense. First, he outlined a general style of play summed up in three words: fast, physical and aggressive. Those are certainly words you’d here almost no matter who the coordinator is, but they appear to be particularly true in this case, when it hasn’t always been the case. The directive is coming from the top.

Mullen: “I want to have an intimidating defense. I want 11 guys flying to the ball with a chip on their shoulder. Nasty disposition.”

The second thing Grantham highlighted sounded more like something from a Ted Talk by a successful CEO rather than a football coach. Grantham recognizes that all his players are unique individuals, and he wants to get to know them as such. He wants to figure out how each individual person learns and then try to teach them in a manner they are able to respond to. By doing so, Grantham believes he can help them more fully reach their potential first as people and second as athletes by giving them confidence.

Grantham: “Belief is a powerful tool and guys can push through barriers they’ve never passed before.”

Grantham also shared how he runs fall camp, breaking it down into three parts. First is installation of the defense as a whole, then in the middle of the camp they start working on preparing for each individual offense they will face over the course of the season so that the Monday of each game week won’t be the first time they see or hear anything about that team. The final portion of camp is dedicated almost exclusively to preparing for the game one opponent so they can get the season off to a good start.

Defensive Leaders, Starters Emerging

Now, for more specifics on the defense as far as personnel. Plenty is known about MSU’s safeties and linebackers where depth and experience remain bountiful. Defensive line and cornerback, however, are more interesting positions with lots of battles for starting spots and some voids left by departed seniors, particularly along the line. Mullen made note of some leaders there, first mentioning Jeffery Simmons and Cory Thomas on the defensive line, then Tolando Cleveland at cornerback, who is back on a medical redshirt for one final season in maroon and white.

When Grantham was asked a question about structuring defenses to highlight the strengths of his players, a follow-up was asked about who some of those specific players are that he wants to highlight. In answering the question, he gave a good look into some players who may be in the lead for starting gigs as camp and further competition for those spots begins. On the line, he mentioned Simmons and Thomas followed by Fletcher Adams and Chauncey Rivers. At linebacker, he brought up Gerri Green, Leo Lewis and Dez Harris specifically. Then, at safety, he listed off four players, saying the names of Mark McLaurin, Brandon Bryant, Jonathan Abrams and JT Gray.

You’ll notice he didn’t list any corners, but being there in person, it felt like he lost that position somewhere along the way as he worked his way through the defense, rather than thinking he purposely didn’t mention them.

And no matter what Grantham said today, it’s all subject to change based on camp and in-game performance, beside the fact that he said he’s going to rotate heavily. Lots of guys are going to play no matter who the “starters” are.”

Mullen Has Big Plans for Tight Ends

And finally, we got one rather interesting tidbit on Mullen’s plans for more extensive use of his tight ends. Injuries there have prevented much depth from accumulating in the past, but now MSU has as many as five guys they feel good about at that position, offering new coach D.J. Looney a lot of tools to work with. Asked if he studied anyone else in college or professional football for ideas, Mullen actually threw it back to what the New England Patriots did several years ago with a lot of their two tight-end sets.

Mullen’s spread offense is all about mismatches, advantageous matchups and versatility. Having a deep set of tight ends makes all of that a whole lot easier. The example Mullen used when talking about the Patriots was their ability to go from a 10 set (four wide receivers) to a 12 (two wide receivers and two tight ends inside) without having to change personnel. If Mullen has the players to do it, he’s certainly got the playbook to take advantage.

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Nick Fitzgerald Invited To Manning Passing Academy, Talks Offseason Work

Nick Fitzgerald was sitting at Starkville Mexican food staple La Terraza with a group of friends when his phone started buzzing. A quick glance told him the incoming call was an unknown number out of Lousiana, so he sent it to voicemail and put his phone back down.

A minute later, his phone buzzed one more time, letting the Mississippi State quarterback know that he had a new voice message. Fitzgerald swiped his phone open to quickly listen while he ate.

“Hey, Nick,” the message began. “This is Archie Manning.”

“I almost dropped my phone,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I was like, what? My buddies looked at me like I was crazy. I was like, y’all don’t understand. So I put it on speaker and set it on the table. Everyone’s jaw just dropped.”

Naturally, the patriarch of the family was calling to invite Fitzgerald to the annual Manning Passing Academy, a summer football camp put on by the Manning family in which the best quarterbacks in college football are invited to serve as counselors. Fitzgerald arrives in Louisiana today to join Archie, Peyton, Eli and all the elite college quarterbacks from across the country.

Following his predecessors Dak Prescott and Tyler Russell, Fitzgerald is just the third MSU passer to be invited to the camp, and he plans to use the time to learn as much as he can from the Mannings, keeping his eyes and ears open for any nuggets of knowledge or helpful hints he can glean from the famous quarterbacks.

“Any time you can be around a family like the Mannings, you kind of just turn into a sponge and try to absorb everything you possibly can,” he said. “So you can hopefully get a little bit of coaching and at the same time have some fun, meet some new guys.”

As for the entirety of the offseason, Fitzgerald has been in Starkville taking summer classes and working out every day. Beyond the usual weightlifting, Fitzgerald says he has also been doing consistent work with resistance bands to help strengthen his shoulder and throwing arm, and putting himself through daily footwork drills has been an integral part of his offseason regimen.

The most important part, however, has been the extra work he and his teammates have put in together. Fitzgerald regularly gets together with receivers, tight ends and running backs to work on passing and timing. He gets together with his lineman to build chemistry and consistency. As groups, they’ve even been joining up to watch and study film.

In a period of the year where the only coach players can work with is their strength coach, Fitzgerald believes that players working together on their own can help them build off of spring practice and improve during the hot summer months even without real practices. And certainly, as one of the new stars of the SEC, Fitzgerald wants to build on his stellar first season as a starter and take both himself and his team to greater heights.

“I just keep working out,” he said, “keep building those relationships with our receivers, keep building trust up, keep building that leadership role and just trying to work hard.”

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Blair Schaefer Discusses Summer Internship With Entertainment Tonight

A little bit of rivalry isn’t always a bad thing.

Back in December, long before Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team made its run to the National Championship Game in Dallas, the Bulldogs were in Los Angeles for a non-conference tournament. The Women of Troy Classic, hosted by Southern Cal, provided an opportunity not just for MSU to continue racking up wins, but it was a chance for junior guard Blair Schaefer to get a peek at her future.

For some time now, Schaefer has dreamed of a career in broadcasting, and as it turns out, one of her mom’s friends works for The Insider, an L.A.-based TV show. During some down time, Schaefer and her mom went to get a tour of the studio, which happens to share a building with the ever-popular Entertainment Tonight. The hopeful Schaefer asked at the end of the tour if any of the E.T. hosts were there, but unfortunately, she was told, they were not. But then, on their way out of the building, E.T. host Kevin Frazier stepped out into the same hallway on his way out for the day and ran into the Schaefers.

Frazier, as fans of the show likely know, is the most knowledgeable sports fan on E.T., a former ESPN host and a former basketball player himself. After saying hi to the strangers in the hallway, he asked what brought them to town and discovered that not only was Schaefer a basketball player herself, but that she might be playing against his beloved USC that Sunday if they beat SMU first.

Schaefer remembers the joking trash talk that ensued.

“He said, ‘Y’all are gonna lose.’ I said no, we’re pretty good, we’re 14-0. I mean, we’re on a streak right now. I said, if we beat SMU, come watch us play. He said OK.”

And of course, MSU beat SMU soundly, taking down the Mustangs 91-42 and setting up a championship tilt against the Trojans. When tipoff came on Sunday, Frazier and his two sons were sitting courtside to watch. When the final buzzer sounded, the Bulldogs had won 76-72, and the gracious Frazier came over to talk to Schaefer, introduce his sons and even take pictures with the team.

However, watching a game wasn’t the only deal Schaefer and Frazier made that day outside the studio. While talking in the hallway, Schaefer told Frazier about her dream to work in broadcasting and her plan to get a broadcasting internship the following summer when she was off from school and basketball in May.

“When I told Kevin about it,” Schaefer recalled, “he was like oh, consider it done. I was like no, I’m serious. I’m not just saying that and you’re never going to see me again. I really want this. He was like no, I got you.”

So this May, once she finished her classes, Schaefer flew out to Los Angeles for three weeks of working on the set of Entertainment Tonight with Frazier as her guide. Over the course of her time there, she got a peek into every aspect of the production, from editors and producers and cameramen to hosts and writers and researchers. Some days she’d be in an editing bay as segments and interviews were spliced together, and others she’d be with the E.T. online team working events and social media.

But every day, she went to the stage with Frazier and watched her new friend work. The relationship that blossomed led to many discussions between the two as Schaefer was able to get a better idea of exactly what she wants to do one day and as Frazier gave her endless advice on how to make it happen.

“He’s awesome,” Schaefer said. “There are so few people that are so high up in the business that are so genuine. He would go out of his way and do things for me when I feel like I should be doing that for him.”

Schaefer is back in Starkville now, taking summer classes and working out in the gym as she prepares for her senior season of basketball. But while her focus has shifted back to her team and her education, she’s able to advance now with an idea of what she wants to be and what she can do in the meantime to make it happen.

“I need to get experience on camera,” she said, as her plan is to be on-camera talent. “Maybe do a women’s basketball segment at the local news station every weekend or something. Just an update on women’s basketball, because people love women’s basketball here.

“Everyone was saying to go get experience, go get another internship. Just experience, experience, experience. I learned that I really need to get myself out there.”

Lucky for Schaefer, she’s a point guard for one of the best basketball teams in America. The camera won’t have any trouble finding her.

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Q&A: Neil Price Discusses Becoming New Voice Of The Bulldogs

This morning, Neil Price was announced by Mississippi State as the new Voice of the Bulldogs, taking over football and basketball radio play-by-play for the retired Jim Ellis and becoming the next in the line of MSU’s most recognized voices. A long-time broadcaster, Price joins MSU after a successful stint on the radio for the Kentucky Wildcats.

Shortly after being hired at MSU, we caught up with Price to talk about his new job. The following is a transcript of that conversation.

Hail State Beat: Let’s jump right in and start with the big news: you’re the new Voice of the Bulldogs. That must be a pretty unique feeling.

Neil Price: Well, it’s been a dream of mine, ever since I started my career, to be the voice of a Division-1 athletic program, and preferably one in the Southeastern Conference because it’s what I grew up watching and listening to on the radio, what I feel like I identify with the most. To see that dream become a reality – I’m not sure that it’s sunk in yet. It’s a cool thing to think about. The fact that it’s at Mississippi State, that’s just an added blessing. It’s a place where I feel comfortable. I’ve always enjoyed going to Mississippi State. I’ve never had a bad experience at Mississippi State, even when the teams I went there with lost games. The people are great. I love the town, love the community. It feels like home to me. I’m excited about all of that and just can’t wait to get going.

HSB: When you talk about being the voice of a school, Jack Cristil is, obviously, a name that comes to mind as one of the greats in college athletics, and he’s certainly a legend around here. Did you ever come across his broadcasts growing up in the southeast?

NP: I heard Jack Cristil toward the end of his career, but what stands out to me is that, if you ask any fan of any team in the Southeastern Conference to name you the three best radio announcers in the history of the league, Jack Cristil’s name is always near the top. To me, that speaks volumes. I’ve heard all kinds of wonderful stories about Jack. Jim Ellis has been kind enough to share some of those with me through the years, and he knew Jack better than probably anybody outside of his family. It is humbling to follow in those big shoes, and it’s the same thing with Jim, now, because Jim’s done a great job. And to do it with the grace that he’s done it with these last six years, that wasn’t easy. He was the guy who had to follow the guy, and you don’t always get to pick when the opportunity is going to come. He did it, and he did it with great professionalism and class. I think there’s a lot to be learned from Jim, too.

I told John [Cohen] this during the interview: if I chase the example set by Jack Cristil and Jim Ellis, I’m going to be on the right path. I’ve got no doubt about that, because people loved them, they were great at their jobs – and Jim still is – and they’re great role models for anybody in broadcasting, not just me.

HSB: So, how is it that you ended up in a profession like this? When did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do and how did it end up happening?

NP: I think the moment that it first occurred to me that I wanted to do this, I remember it was on a trip in east Tennessee with my dad. Dad had a little black and gray Ford Ranger, and we were listening to a Tennessee football game. John Ward’s voice just captivated me. I thought, this is a pretty cool deal that this guy gets to go to the game, he gets to watch the game, and he gets to convey all the excitement of the atmosphere and what’s going on on the field to people like me. That’s a pretty cool job, when you think about it. I think I knew even that early, at that age, that I wasn’t going to be an athlete. My future wasn’t in doing that. This was a way for me to still be involved in athletics and be around my friends who were far better athletes than I was, and have some kind of role that people would appreciate. That’s when the seed was planted, and I was probably in the seventh grade.

From there, it was being the public address announcer at middle school basketball games for our teams, and then doing the same thing in high school and eventually getting into radio at 15, doing the basic stuff: playing music, filling in doing news and sports, and occasionally getting a play-by-play assignment for a baseball game that maybe no one else wanted to do, or get to travel with the high school football crew on Fridays and get to help out with those broadcasts. My big break, in terms of getting the reps, was when I got to junior college. We had a president who was committed to athletics and he thought it was important that the games were on the radio and I happened to be the person that was qualified to do that and had the relationships with the college and the radio station to help facilitate that. I did two years worth of basketball doubleheaders, a women’s game and a men’s game during the season, and I had never had those kinds of reps before. That was valuable. Then, obviously, meeting Bob Kesling. Bob’s at Tennessee now. And has been for the most of 20 years at this point, and Bob kind of got me from that point where I had just put my foot in the door and taught me how to be professional, how to prepare, how to take what I was doing in a small town and get to a point where I could do it on a big stage. I think if you’re looking for the keystone moments, those are the ones that come to my mind.

HSB: This may be kind of a vague question as we finish up, but what’s your style on the radio? What’s your approach to the microphone and the personality that you bring to a broadcast?

NP: I don’t know that I have a term to answer that. I’ll tell you what I strive for. I strive to be conversational. When someone listens to a broadcast that I’m on, my hope is that they will feel like I am talking directly to them. That’s always my intent. I believe that the difference between being a good broadcaster, and taking that next step, is being able to be conversational. I don’t know how to tell you how to do it, but you hope, over time, that’s what you develop. I think that, in some ways, I try to follow the example that Jack Cristil set. You knew that Jack wanted Mississippi State to win the game. But I think Jack was very professional in his approach, and Jim has been very professional in his approach to the job, in that it’s not a lot of yelling and screaming, but when the Bulldogs make a big play, you know it.

What I hope I can bring in the appropriate amounts, and what I have been asked to bring by one coach already on campus, is just to bring some juice. I hope I can do that. If a guy breaks a long run in a football game, you’re going to hear those cowbells ringing in the background and I’m going to give the right level of excitement to go with it. Same thing for a big touchdown catch or a quarterback sack or a slam dunk at Humphrey Coliseum. Picking those moments and punching, and showing the energy and enthusiasm of not only the moment but the people who are there too, and trying to tie that all together in a way that’s pleasing to somebody’s ear.

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Bulldog Bats Come Alive As MSU Takes Two To Keep Season Alive

“You like that?” Andy Cannizaro called out.
“Love it,” came the reply.

“Gotta wake ‘em up!” Cannizaro yelled back.

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Mississippi State’s offense had been struggling. Their head coach wasn’t going to criticize his players, but Andy Cannizaro knew his team had been having trouble at the plate. A team that entered the final two weeks of the season in position to win the SEC because of its explosive offense had suddenly seen the fireworks go dark.

In their last 10 games before Sunday, the Bulldogs had scored more than five runs only once their last 10 games, and eight of those outings had seen totals of four or less. Even in their last 16 games, they’d only broken five three times.

On Sunday morning, MSU was facing the end of its season, playing an elimination game against the University of Illinois Chicago in the Hattiesburg Regional. The Bulldogs had only mustered three runs on six hits in their loss to South Alabama in their last game, and if they couldn’t get better production at the plate, it wouldn’t matter how great Konnor Pilkington was on the mound – their season would be over.

It was early in the day, with a first pitch scheduled for 10 a.m. and team breakfast having taken place three hours before at 7 a.m. Just before the game, when all the bats had been gathered up in a bag and brought to the dugout to be hung up, Cannizaro stopped the manager carrying the bag and grabbed a hold of it himself. With the team watching as he stood at the edge of the dugout, he started taking bats out and tossing them carelessly – and occasionally aggressively – onto the ground. He began by doing it one at a time, and eventually he started grabbing them by twos and threes and throwing them to the floor of the dugout.

On every bat or three, he’d yell some variation of the same thing.

“Gotta wake the bats up! Gotta wake ‘em up!”

At first bewildered, the players eventually joined the fun, laughing and cheering as Cannizaro heaved the normally carefully-handled bats to the ground. The bats won’t be put up until they’ve been woken up, they were told. And as the game went along, each player was instructed to toss their bat back into the pile after the at-bat.

The Diamond Girls in charge of tracking down bats after players get hits were hesitant at first when Cannizaro instructed them, too, to toss the bats to the ground instead of hanging them up like usual.

“No, I’m serious, throw it in there!”

By the end of the game, MSU had racked up 14 hits, the most they’d had all postseason, spread among eight hitters, and they defeated the Flames 5-4 to keep the season alive.

And when, four hours later, the bag was brought back to the dugout before MSU’s second elimination game of the day, Cannizaro again grabbed hold of it and started throwing bats by ones and twos onto the ground while the team looked on.

“Wake these bats up!”

When he discovered someone had taken a picture of he and his bat pile, Cannizaro just smiled and laughed.

“You like that?” he called out.

“Love it,” came the reply.

“Gotta wake ‘em up!” Cannizaro yelled back.

Slowly, starting with Hunter Stovall and Cody Brown after they both went yard in the same inning, the bats were allowed to be hung in their usual place as the game went along. 12 hits, three homers and seven runs later, their slumber had clearly ended, as MSU advanced yet again, this time taking down South Alabama 7-3.

The bats were officially awake.

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Bulldogs Defeat UIC To Stay Alive, Advance In Hattiesburg Regional

Sunday morning in the Hattiesburg Regional elimination game, and as it turned into Sunday afternoon, was a nine-inning microcosm of Mississippi State’s season. Highlight plays, eighth-inning scares, weather issues, great pitching, sometimes not-great pitching, last-minute heroics and a win that can hardly be celebrated before attention must be turned to the next one.
The answer to how the Bulldogs won – a question that’s been asked all season with varying degrees of incredulity – is easy enough. In a cliché-ridden season, it’s appropriate that another cliché keeps the season alive. MSU played as a team. They won as a team. Any number of players could be given the credit for defeating UIC, and all would be deserving.

Konnor Pilkington came through when MSU needed him the most, pitching an absolute gem for seven innings before the Flames finally found the ball in the eighth inning. He only gave up four hits in seven innings, throwing 113 pitches and striking out nine, passing 100 strikeouts on the year. He turned the Flames into the flamed.

Hunter Stovall made three game-changing plays with his left hand; the second two coming on back-to-back snags defensively at second base and the first coming at second on the offensive side when he just slipped his left hand away in time to avoid the tag and arrive on base safely. He then used his right foot a few minutes later to step on home and score State’s first run of the game.

One could give Riley Self the credit, coming in late and securing his sixth save of the season, holding onto a one-run lead with the bases loaded behind him. He certainly looked nothing like a freshman pitcher should be expected to appear.

Perhaps Elijah MacNamee deserves the credit for RBI hits in back-to-back innings, knocking in a run each in the fourth and fifth innings to take back and then extend the lead.

And even then, it could have all been for naught if it weren’t for Jake Mangum stealing two bases and racking up three hits in five at-bats. If not for Josh Lovelady showing how a veteran plays catcher when the season is on the line. If not for Cody Brown making a big catch, if not for Ryan Gridley getting a big hit, and certainly if not for Brent Rooker’s RBI double in which he became the first player in SEC history to rack up 20 home runs, 30 doubles and 75 RBI in a single season.

The consistent theme of the 2017 season has been the arrival of the unexpected. No one expected MSU to be this good, to win this many games, to have 20-plus come-from-behind wins. Nobody planned for that when they made their projections, but MSU came through anyway. If the Bulldogs have been raining on everyone’s parade this year, it’s fitting that they kept their season alive on Sunday by scoring the winning runs when the rain was at its heaviest.

Before the game started, head coach Andy Cannizaro’s message to the team was simple: “Play for the guy next to you.”

It wasn’t about one person carrying the rest. It was about all of them carrying each other. Early Sunday, that’s exactly what they did. Another full-team performance to keep the unexpected run going.

“I’m proud of our guys today,” Cannizaro said. “They gave us an outstanding team effort.”

In another four hours or so, weather permitting, they’ll go try it again.

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Offseason Development Shines Over Course Of In-Season Production For MSU Baseball

There are a great many factors that go into developing a good baseball player. Mechanics, awareness, timing, approach, form, patience – all important things. And to be a good hitter or pitcher, you need just about all of those.

What you also need is a good strength program.

At Mississippi State, it’s Brian Neal who is in charge of making sure every player has the physical build, strength and stamina to use the tools and techniques they are given. As MSU’s strength and conditioning coach, it’s his job to make sure the Bulldogs are prepared, and it’s a job he doesn’t just take pride in, but enjoys fully.

If you get him talking about what goes into developing a good baseball player in the weight room, he’ll say himself that he can talk for hours on the subject and not grow weary. We don’t have enough time for that here, but his philosophy can be boiled down to a pretty straightforward approach. When asked how to develop good hitters, he broke it down as such:

“It’s going to come from the ground up, from the inside out, and from back to front,” he said. “What does that mean?”

Good question, I was just about to ask. Go on.

“Well, obviously, from the ground up: we want to develop lower body strength and lower body power,” he said. “From the inside out, we want to work from the core outwards. From the back to the front, I always say, ‘I want you guys to look better walking away from me than you do walking to me.’ So, as you’re walking away, big calves, big hamstrings, big butt, strong lower back, broad shoulders, big triceps. Your backside should be more developed than you front side.”

The same approach, he said, applies to pitchers, as well, where power coming out of the hand starts from the ground. Developing those areas is something he works with players on throughout the offseason. Even during the season, the Player Development crew is the group of redshirting players who continue to work out with Neal as the season goes along.

If you see “Flex Friday” on social media, that’s their weekly workout of the upper body. It came from what used to be Sleeveless Saturday and was followed briefly by Flannel Friday, in which the participating weightlifters wore flannel shirts to the gym. For Neal, it’s just another way to get guys excited about developing their bodies.

That excitement, it turns out, has carried over to the roster as a whole, aided greatly by the presence of new head coach Andy Cannizaro, whose arms are each as big as a fully-grown toddler and whose bench press prowess is enough to intimidate even the strongest of strong men.

Certainly, the process can’t be done in just one year, but looking at a pair of sluggers who made significant improvements at the plate this year provides good insight into just how important this last offseason was for MSU. Below are some of the 2016 and 2017 numbers for juniors Ryan Gridley and Brent Rooker. The 2016 numbers, of course, include the full length of their postseason run, while each has player has time left to build on their 2017 numbers. Even still, the differences are impressive.

Ryan Gridley

2016: Eight doubles, two home runs, zero triples, .345 slugging percentage

2017: 12 doubles, six home runs, one triple, .461 slugging percentage

Brent Rooker

2016: 15 doubles, eleven home runs, two triples, .578 slugging percentage

2017: 29 doubles, 21 home runs, three triples, .843 slugging percentage

From one year to the next, their numbers have nearly doubled across the board for them both, and tripled in at least one case for Gridley.

For Neal, it’s no surprise.

“They’re unbelievable leaders, unbelievable workers. For those guys to be All-SEC at their positions, it’s no accident. I tell them all the time, it’s like they did it on purpose. They’re that good,” he said. “They’re shutting out the lights at night in the Palmeiro Center, working extra after practice and workouts … It’s easy with guys like that because they’re so focused on the end result and being the best possible baseball player they can be.”

It would be easy for the casual observer to think that such improvements came simply from getting stronger and making some changes at the plate. However, Neal says, that’s not necessarily the case. Using Rooker as the example, he explained what the offseason entailed.

As plenty recall, Rooker neared double-digits last year in big hits that were either robbed at the fence or just short of leaving the ballpark. He didn’t have far to go to get the big numbers he’s had in 2017, and when Rooker got back after the summer, it wasn’t even strength that Neal focused on with him to get those extra few feet.

After all, the multi-poistional player was something of a physical freak already. He can squat 500 pounds, he has a 36-inch vertical and he can reportedly run the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. The physical tools were there. Neal just needed to help him hone them.

“He was already strong enough,” Neal said. “So what we wanted to focus on with him was more velocity-based training. We wanted him to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster rate … He’s always swinging a 34-inch bat. That’s going to be constant. So, how can we get him to swing that faster? Adding more strength to him probably isn’t going to help that. But being able to move that 34-inch bat faster through the zone will increase power. We want to be able to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster speed.

“If we got him to a 550-pound squatter, is that going to make him better? Probably not. But if he can move, say, 400 pounds, faster this year than he could last year, and his absolute strength is the same, then we’ve gotten better. We’ve produced more force and produced more power – produced a faster bat through the zone.

“Some of the guys are younger and they need more strength. But with him, because he’s such a freak, he doesn’t necessarily need that. At this point in his career, we’ve got strength, now we need to apply that and be able to move that strength faster.”

The results stand well enough on their own, and the countless awards and honors for Rooker and Gridley and other members of the team speak to the success of both the individuals and the club. And with MSU just starting Regional play this weekend, there is plenty of time left to accomplish even greater feats.

So yes, there’s a lot that goes into becoming a great baseball player, and having an equally great strength coach is a big part of it.

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Ode To Dudy Noble: A Lifetime Of MSU Baseball

Polk-DeMent Stadium, 1987-2017, opened the year I was born. The home of Mississippi State Baseball was also the home of my childhood. Big chunks of it, anyway. I was raised around MSU baseball, spending afternoons and nights jumping back and forth between the seats in the grandstands with my parents high up on the third base line and all the distractions, activities and pleasures that the Left Field Lounge and the surrounding areas had to offer for kids with endless energy and short attention spans.

After watching Jay Powell or Gary Rath or Eric DuBose pitch for a few innings, I’d run down to find my friends and play wall ball on the side of the stadium in the area between the grandstands and the bleachers. In what is now a parking lot, there was a hill we’d play football on, toss the baseball across or, when we got really bored, just roll down until we made ourselves dizzy.

My childhood best friend was Sean Weathersby, and on long days at the park, we’d sneak into the batting cages beneath the third base bleachers and toss the ball back and forth, each trying to impress the other with how hard we could throw and how easily we could catch a hard-thrown ball.

After we wore ourselves out, we’d go back to his family’s rig that lined the home bullpen and catch the end of the game. It’s out there that the Weathersbys taught me about food and eating, while Gerald taught me about drinks and cursing. Some lessons were more helpful than others.

That’s also the first place I ever heard the familiar refrain yelled at the end of the National Anthem, a certain suggestion for Ole Miss and where they could go, even though the opponent was almost always someone else. If my mom wasn’t around I’d sometimes join in. Not that she’d have likely cared, but still, no kid is comfortable saying even the least offensive curse word in front of their parents until at least high school.

Over the years, I gradually developed the ability to sit still for more than 20 minutes at a time, and I started watching the games more. When the stadium expanded in the ‘90s, my dad got three seats in the spot he calls “The Top Of The World,” the one three-seat row all the way to the right and all the way to the top on the third base side. The aisle seat had his name on it, the middle seat my little brother’s, and the window seat as it were, overlooking the side of the stadium, had mine. Whatever else was going on in our lives, we always had spring days at Dudy Noble to look forward to.

Then I went to college and my presence at The Top Of The World became a bit more rare and my days in the Left Field Lounge a bit more regular. I was lucky my freshman year when an MSU team that none of us really thought was that good ended up hosting – and sweeping – a Super Regional against Clemson to clinch a trip to the College World Series. I don’t care what anyone says, I still thought that was the biggest crowd MSU had ever had until Super Bulldog Weekend a few years ago. And I know for sure that’s the hottest I’ve ever been, smushed in among thousands on an outfield deck that was much smaller at the time, baking under the cloudless June sky with a sun hotter than the smoking grills surrounding us.

Then this weekend came. I now work at MSU, if you can call what I do work. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m employed by MSU. I spent the last weekend of The Dude as I know it, The Dude I grew up on, the same way I did for most of my life: out in the crowd, watching the game, hanging out with friends. Some of those same Starkville locals I made friends with in elementary school were around me as we watched. We’re all a little taller and have a lot more responsibilities, but that stuff sort of disappears when you go to the game. You can forget everything else, at least for the space of a few innings, and enjoy yourself.

Stadiums are built for baseball, but they become much more meaningful than that with enough time. For three decades, Polk-DeMent stadium was, like so many things in life, ultimately about the people. I sit here now feeling gratitude, wanting to say thank you to everyone who took me in, everyone who welcomed me, who fed me, who quenched my thirst and who helped shape who I am. Thank you for being you and thank you for accepting all of us for who we are. Thank you for cheering alongside strangers and friends, families and foes, black and white, old and young. Thank you for years of passion and pride, of fandom and faith, of tragedy and triumph. The structure was cement, but the foundation was you.

It’s appropriate that so much rain fell on the final day of what is soon to be The Old Dudy Noble, the showers from the sky finally putting out a fire that had been burning for 30 years straight. But we know that from the ashes of history, the future will rise.

The New Dude will open soon enough, a beautiful new park that will once again set the standard in college baseball, just like the last one did in 1987. It will be the beginning of the modern era for a program that had the luxury of living in history well into the new millennium.

The timing is right, too. For the last 30 years, there had always been a tie to the past. Ron Polk was the head coach in 1987 when the stadium opened and had already been there for a decade and showed the college baseball world that MSU had reservations in Omaha every summer. Pat McMahon had three different stints as an assistant coach at MSU, and the third one resulted in him becoming the head coach in 1997, only to be replaced by Polk again a few years later. When Polk retired for good, MSU kept it in the family again, going to a former player this time as John Cohen was hired in 2009.

But when Cohen vacated the job to become athletic director last fall, the next hire marked a breaking of the pattern. Cohen hired a Louisiana native who had played in his home state in college, who was drafted and eventually worked for the Yankees and then went on to be an assistant at LSU. When Andy Cannizaro was hired last year, he had no history with the school. He was just a young, energetic, up-and-coming coach who got the gig of a lifetime. A strikingly similar story to the day Polk was first hired in 1976.

With the new stadium already planned, this last year at The Old Dude has marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one in more ways than one. It’s a changing of the guard.

As sad as it is to say goodbye to the place I grew up, the timing was right. The first day I spent in the Lounge was with the Weathersbys in the farthest reaches of left field along the home bullpen. The last day I spent in the Lounge was with childhood friends in the far end of right field, pressed against the visiting bullpen. It was, in both the literal and metaphoric sense, the end of the road. I had worked my way around and come full circle, so much as the outfield allows, nowhere left to go but somewhere new.

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50 Years Of Stories: The History, The People And The Future Of The Left Field Lounge

The History

The legend of how the Left Field Lounge began, despite what one would guess, is circulated by only a few. Those who know the tale, this is the story they tell.

When Mississippi State opened its new baseball stadium in 1967, everything was perfect for those regularly in attendance, save one issue: the smelly farmer. A local farmer, who was also a big baseball fan, would come straight to the games after putting in a day’s work and join his friends to watch the Bulldogs in their fancy new stadium. The trouble was that the farmer smelled like, well, a farm.

After deciding there was no reasonable alternative, the farmer was banished from the stands and sent to the other side of the outfield fence where he could back up his pickup and sit in the bed of the truck to watch the game. And so, the Left Field Lounge was born, growing over the years from one farmer and his truck to dozens of rigs and thousands of fans comprising the greatest spectacle in college baseball.

That legend, like most legends, has a small nugget of truth surrounded by a great many falsehoods and exaggerations, and is far from the real story. But within the convenient and humorous tale is where the story truly begins. The Left Field Lounge really was started by a farmer, even if the parts about his particular farm-ish scent were likely later added by friends who wanted to tease him.

The trouble is, the farmer denies that it was him. Well, he denies it was just him, anyway.

“I wanna say this,” Everett Kennard began when asked what he knew about the beginning of the story, “there are a lot of people that give me credit for starting the Left Field Lounge. The Left Field Lounge was not started by any one person. The Left Field Lounge was organized by a group of which I was a part.”

And it is certainly the case that a core collection of people made up the original group from which the Lounge grew, but any from that time who are asked are quick to give credit to Kennard, and there can be no doubt that the former farmer spearheaded many of the efforts that led to the growth and success of the Lounge over the last 50 years.

“They had a dairy farm out at Oktoc,” Kennard’s friend and fellow Lounge-founder Jimmy Willcutt recalled. “He’d get through with his milking and just come out there and sit in his pickup.”

Early pictures of the Left Field Lounge and the new MSU baseball field. Above: from the 1971 MSU yearbook. Below: From the 1969 MSU year book.
Courtesy: MSU Libraries

Naturally, people started joining him. If anything, it wasn’t that anyone was avoiding the grandstands, but that you could show up late and no one had to pay to watch from their truck in the outfield. You couldn’t charge someone for a seat if they brought their own. At least not yet, anyway.

“From there,” Kennard explained, “people just started pulling up out there, and it’s just like you’ve heard. Somebody brought out a blanket. Somebody brought out an ice chest. Somebody brought out a grill. The Left Field Lounge started and it was just game-by-game. You just pull up there and then go home.”

So, that’s how it began. But, how the Left Field Lounge grew, how it blossomed from a couple pickups to the show it is today, follows the story of Mississippi State baseball itself.

The lounging began in 1967 when the new stadium opened, but it came in the middle of a most extraordinary run for MSU’s baseball team. By the end of 1971, the Bulldogs had won four SEC Championships in the last seven seasons under head coach Paul Gregory, and in 1972, something revolutionary came along and changed the baseball experience forever: lights.

Before the 1972 season, MSU installed lights at Dudy Noble field for the very first time. So then, Loungers not only had the promise of good baseball, but they had all the opportunities that a full day and night could provide.

“Now, there’s when it took off,” Kennard said.

More and more people began to join in the fun, and the experience grew so popular that even visiting fans were finding their way to other side of the chain link fence at Dudy Noble. To this day, all are welcome in the Lounge, but in 1972, in that first year under the lights, the hospitality was a bit more, shall we say, fickle.

Back then, MSU and Ole Miss would play a three-game series in both Oxford and Starkville every season. Midway through the SEC slate, the rival Rebels were in town, and with the team had come a handful of fans. Now, visiting fans were expected and accepted, but a particularly brazen crew of UM faithful – football players, some claim – had not only taken to the Lounge, but they flew an Ole Miss flag from the top of their truck.

Well, that was a bit much for a pair of young MSU fans, and to show their disdain, those two brothers went and took the flag down and promptly burned it on their grill. No other solution could have seemed so natural to them. However, the gesture was less than appreciated by the owners of the flag, and they had, among a few other things, strong words for the Bulldogs surrounding them.

“And it was one heck of a brawl, brother,” said Kennard with a laugh, who watched a massive scrum unfold from his truck in far left field. “They might have had three cops at the game at that time and all three of them came running. It spread up and down left field pretty good.”

That, as is turned out, was the peak of the early years of the Lounge. The last couple years of Gregory’s career saw a slide in success ultimately ending in his retirement. A single and immensely unsuccessful season followed in 1975 under Jimmy Bragan, the head coach whose tenure at State ended almost as soon as it started, and all of a sudden, the Lounge, like the program, was struggling.

Before Left Field Lounge was settled on as the name, the area was called many things, including the Beer Garden
Photo courtesy: MSU Libriaries (1978 Reveille)

But in the fall of 1975 came perhaps the most important moment in the history of Mississippi State baseball, and the Left Field Lounge by association: Ron Polk was hired as the new head coach at MSU.

With what he considered to be a singularly terrible team, Polk managed to wrangle a winning record in his first season in 1976. He followed that up with a junior college-heavy signing class – including one Nat “Buck” Showalter – that helped set the foundation for the career of the winningest coach in MSU history and one of the greatest minds and leaders college baseball has ever produced.

As the wins returned en masse, so did the Lounge. During those early years, a Left Field Lounge Committee was founded, led by Kennard and a handful of others from the original crew, tasked with making sure everyone was happy and, more importantly, safe. The Lounge was growing, and it made sense why.

“Let’s face it,” Kennard said. “Football wasn’t very good. Basketball at that time wasn’t very good. It was what Mississippi State could hang its hat on. That had a lot to do with the popularity of baseball. Yes, people here have always liked baseball, but it got big at Mississippi State because it was the sport that we could stick our chest out and say, ‘this is us.’”

By 1978, people had started building their own sets of miniature bleachers to put in the beds of their trucks, and the contraptions and inventions only grew from there. By the early ‘80s, when Polk had really gotten things rolling, MSU had begun charging for access to the Lounge – which only seemed fair as those in the stadium had to pay for tickets, too – and they started letting people bring their trucks in Saturday morning before game one (this was when weekend schedules consisted of a Saturday doubleheader and single Sunday game) and leave them there all weekend.

The idea was to make things more orderly, and to some degree that goal was accomplished. Trucks would start lining up on Friday, and Kennard would actually arrive as early as Wednesday with his camper that he would ultimately park on the hill by the bathrooms (built so that Loungers wouldn’t have to keep using the cow pasture behind the Lounge – when nature called, it was to nature that man went). MSU would put alerts in the local newspaper that they would open the gate at 10 a.m. Saturday for trucks to enter.

It was nice, at first. But with demand growing and supply remaining static, chaos ensued as those in line at the gate were allowed to enter.

“The best description I can give is the old western movies with the covered wagons and the land rush,” Willcutt, a 1964 MSU graduate, explained. “Everybody tore out. Everybody was trying to get a particular spot. Fistfights broke out. That occurred for several years. It was quite stressful and entertaining for those few years.”

“When they would open the gate, people would come flying in there,” Kennard recalled. “You’ve got vehicles that didn’t run being drug by chains or pushed by people. It was like the Indy 500, man. Gravel going everywhere, those chains flying around like whips. Somebody was gonna get killed.”

That practice eventually came to an end, but not before the storm hit. In 1983, Thunder and Lightning came to Mississippi State when Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark showed up to play for Polk and the Bulldogs. MSU’s program to that point had been very good, but with their arrival, the steps were taken to establish State as great, elite and a national power. And that’s when the big crowds really started to show up. As had always been the case, as Mississippi State baseball grew, so too did the Left Field Lounge.

Following the College World Series run by the historic 1985 team, plans were made to build new, modern grandstands to accommodate the massive crowds flooding the gates to watch the Bulldogs. While that was an easy solution around the infield, the problem of the outfield had yet to be solved. So, Kennard and a few others came up with an idea.

The proposal was this: the Left Field Lounge Committee would identify where each group wanted to set up their rig, assess how much space they needed, and with the help of Kennard’s brother David who was an engineer, they would measure out spaces for each rig and give everyone an assigned spot.

For a couple years the practice was allowed, and for the first time, people could haul in their rigs at the beginning of the season and leave them there all year, but in 1987 MSU announced that they were going to start selling numbered passes for permanent spots in the Lounge. Those passes were to go on sale on the next Saturday morning on a first-come, first-served basis, and that was that. Willcutt, his two sons and David Kennard showed up at the ticket office in Humphrey Coliseum on Thursday and announced, “We’re in line.”

Another man who just happened to be in the ticket office for his own reasons saw what happened and quickly declared, “Me too.” And so the line for the new, permanent lounge began with those five and stretched out for 48 hours of sitting, camping and waiting.

“Word began to get around a little bit,” Willcutt said. “The first night, probably 20-25 people spent the night in the foyer there at the Coliseum. Then word began to spread and on Friday night we may have had as many as 100 people.”

Early on Saturday morning, Polk himself showed up with donuts for the faithful Loungers. Local news station WCBI came out. ESPN sent a crew. Newspapers wrote stories. For those 48 hours, Willcutt and the growing line were a sensation, and he’s still got the stories saved and framed at home. The headline of the Collegiate Baseball Newsletter feature, over a story quoting Wilcutt, said simply, “Ticket to Paradise.”

At 10 o’clock Saturday morning, Willcutt bought the first-ever permanent spot in Left Field Lounge, and his rig is still there today. From then until now, the left field area has hardly changed at all, save for the addition of a handful of rigs on the second row and a few more regulations added for safety purposes.

So then, with that all taken care of, the attention was turned to right field. Up to that point, the Lounge as it is known today only stretched to centerfield. In right field, a small but dense patch of cedar trees had meant there was no space for trucks or rigs, and Polk had been adamant that he would not have them chopped down when he was approached with the idea. After all, it was he who had ordered that they be planted when he first got to MSU.

So for a time, the right field was just made up of individuals or small packs of a few people standing along the fence. Hobie Hobart, now one of the most recognized faces of the Lounge, was a student at MSU from 1985-91 and worked as a manager with the track team. Without a rig to call his own at the time, his solution was to borrow one of the three-tiered judges’ ladders and set up shop in the trees on the fence.

“That’s how I got through six years of college,” he said. “In that one spot.”

Before long, Polk agreed to a compromise of cutting down four specific trees, which would open up enough room for a handful of rigs to come in and officially stretch the Left Field Lounge into right field. Phil Silva, the long-time head of equipment at MSU, was one of the first to come into the new area and set up a spot right next to Hobart and his ladder.

“We had the back end of an old pickup truck,” Silva said, remembering the humble beginnings as he stood on the large rig he owns now. “We built a little platform and put it up in the trees against the fence and just kept building on.”

In the years that passed, more and more trees were removed to make room and eventually the fence was lined completely with those famous Loungers and their rigs. Stretching from foul pole to foul pole, the Left Field Lounge was officially complete.

 

The People

It is a lot more than baseball. I tell people all the time – people don’t throw picnics anymore. This is what the picnics were. My kids have grown up out here.” – Hobie Hobart

What it means to me is the fact that we have a place that friends and family can meet. It’s a lot like anything else. Most of the people here don’t come to watch the baseball game. The baseball game is an excuse to be here. They just come to see friends and family. It’s the atmosphere, to be able to tailgate before the game starts, tailgate when the game is going on, and you never have to leave.” – Denis “Snoot” Everett

You kind of get to still be a college student, you know? You have the responsibilities of the children and all that but you still kinda act like a kid. I’m 60 years old, but I’ll come out here as long as I’m alive.” – Bobby Crosland

The thing with the Left Field Lounge is that it’s not about the rigs. It’s about the people. The rigs are great too, now, but it’s really about the people and the atmosphere.” – Everett Kennard

That, perhaps, is the best way to explain the Left Field Lounge from within: it’s about the people. The view from the outside is certainly impressive, too, as cameras have always highlighted the curiously configured contraptions made of all manner of old trucks, campers, portions of bleachers and even discarded bowling alley seats, all appearing to be held up by nothing more than duct tape, nails or prayers, if not all three. The fog of smoke rolling off the grills before, during and after games, often forming clouds over the outfield, sometimes appears to be the most stable and sensical part of the whole thing.

Twenty-feet high wooden structures full of frat guys stand behind old pickups at field level with bleachers strapped to the back, grills set out on the deck along the fence and children running in and out of their parents field of vision, their shirts, pants and faces all smudged with undecipherable mixtures of dirt, grease and BBQ sauce.

The whole thing is too big now to be considered a family, but it is a community in every sense. Neighbors who have lounged next to each other for decades have watched as families age, change and grow in number. Unlikely friendships have formed, people who would otherwise never have met spending hours on end together in the confines of the Left Field Lounge.

In one spot in right field, the soon-to-be-retired Phil Silva has an old milk truck that he and his crew use for their spot, a group made up largely of current and former MSU and athletic department employees and their friends, some Silva’s age, some younger. Fred Mock, MSU’s Associate Director for Facilities and Maintenance and a retired Marine nicknamed “Honcho,” is one of the heads of the milk truck crew, and he is one of many who has formed an unlikely bond thanks to his time in the Lounge.

See, right next to their group of adults – by definition, if not always by example – is a rig that has belonged to the same fraternity for over a decade. In theory, the two trailers should clash. In reality, they couldn’t get along better.

“This is why the Lounge is special to me,” Mock said. “By nature, I think our fanbase is made up of friendly people, so I think we all just kind of make friends with each other.

“We’re different in right field,” he went on to explain. “We come and go. With this big boardwalk we get more mixing and stuff. We have these fraternities right next door to us. And there are guys in these fraternities that I never would have met if we hadn’t been out here together. One of them sits next to us at church now and we never would have met him if we hadn’t been out here together.”

Sometimes, it’s about the family you make. Others, it’s about the family you have. For Hobie Hobart, the Right Field Tiki Lounge isn’t just a social gathering spot – it’s where his children were raised. Every rig – except, hopefully, the fraternity trailers – has children they’ve watched grow up, adults coming to games now who were babies when the whole thing started.

Silva, Wilcutt, Crosland – like so many others, they’re now out in the Lounge spending as much time tending to grandbabies as they do grilling.

“It’s the family picnic,” Hobart said.

Heck, some families have even been started in the Left Field Lounge. It was during the heyday of the ‘80s that a young man and woman were introduced to each other in the Lounge and eventually went on to get married. Their son Pete was born August 20, 1987, just a couple months after Bulldog pitcher Pete Young was named a freshman All-American and helped lead MSU to the SEC Championship. The name was no coincidence. It was only fitting that the couple name their son, a present-day Lounger himself, in honor of their roots in the Lounge.

And, as Hobart also likes to say, the Left Field Lounge is an ambassador of sorts. It’s an example of what makes Mississippi State – its fans, its baseball program, its home state – so special. It’s not always pretty, but there’s nothing like it anywhere. The way so many great cuisines have been born from poverty and creativity, locals having to work with whatever they can find, so too did the Lounge find its recipe for growth and success in that way.

It’s not just that the Lounge is cool, but that it’s the epitome of southern hospitality in the place that calls itself The Hospitality State.

“It’s such an ambassador for the state of Mississippi,” Hobart said. “We do so many things wrong; we do this right. This is good.”

Or, as Denis “Snoot” Everett more bluntly put it, “Mississippi has got the most unhealthiest people, we’ve got the most poorest people, we’ve got the most uneducated people, and we’ve got one thing that shines.”

Not to say that the state doesn’t have other good things going for it, of course, just as Starkville and MSU, for that matter, have a great many things about which they can brag and highlight to outsiders. But certainly, the Lounge has become a part of MSU’s identity, and that’s why visitors have flocked to it as far back as those Ole Miss flag fliers in 1972.

“We’ve got two traditions: one of them is cowbells, and the other one is the Left Field Lounge,” Silva said. “Everybody that comes, from all the different schools we play, they love Left Field Lounge. They think this is awesome.”

Visiting teams have a long history of enjoying the Lounge, provided their outfielders are able to withstand the heckling of the fans on the other side of the fence. Those who can take the ribbing are rewarded with the open arms and hot grills of the Lounge, regularly being invited to come out after the game for sausage or chicken or whatever is being cooked that day.

Sometimes, they don’t even wait until after the game. Not many years ago, a rightfielder was spotted chasing down a hard-hit liner, catching the grounder with the glove on his left hand while holding on to a fresh piece of sausage with his right hand.

A Michigan State outfielder takes a break for a snack between innings

The hit went for an RBI double, and the snack was finished before the next pitch.

The all-time winningest coach in college baseball history, the legendary Augie Garrido, is quoted secondhand as saying he made sure his Cal State Fullerton team got a trip to Dudy Noble to see the Left Field Lounge one postseason.

“Regionals are a really good time,” Willcutt said, “because teams play in the afternoon, then they don’t play until the next day, so they come and they mingle out in the Left Field Lounge. Augie came down there and told us one night, he said, ‘I’m on the selection committee. I could have gone anywhere in the country. I could have taken my team anywhere in the country, but I wanted them to come see this. I wanted them to see the atmosphere that y’all have here.’”

In addition to running his farm and helping propel the livelihood of the Lounge, Everett Kennard, known by many simply as “The Bus Driver,” was also the long-time director of transportation at MSU. As such, he was regularly tasked with picking up incoming teams at the airport and then taking them back at the end of the weekend.

He got to hear first-hand the reactions that first-time visitors had to the atmosphere at MSU.

“You’d be surprised how many of them got off the airplane hating Starkville, Mississippi before they ever got here,” he said. “Before they left, invariably, they would tell you it was one of the best experiences of their life. That’s because of, partly, the Left Field Lounge. As you well know, everybody took them in out there. Actually got mad at them if they didn’t eat with them. It was really amazing to see the people not want to come here, and leave here saying it was the best baseball experience of their life. That became kind of a goal of the outfield.”

Of course, that interest has extended beyond opponents visiting Starkville. TV broadcasts, national reporters, food and culture magazines and a host of other media entities have made their way to the famous Left Field Lounge to see what it’s all about. Seeing TV commentators leave the press box to spend an inning or three in the outfield is a regular occurrence, and Hobart’s spot in right field has played host to nearly all of them.

Even strangers with no affiliation to MSU, no professional reason to be in Starkville, have made the college baseball pilgrimage. Two years ago, a couple from Chicago saw the Left Field Lounge on TV, and though they’d never been to Mississippi, they agreed that they had to go. Three weeks ago, they were back for their third visit, having made fast friends with Hobart and the whole crew in right field thanks to nothing other than dumb luck and the divine intervention of the Lounge.

That same day, as Snoot was being interviewed on his rig by a videographer, he interrupted a question midway through and said, you know what, why don’t you ask these guys? We met them in Omaha and they flew in from Las Vegas just to be here today, to see the Left Field Lounge for the first time.

The camera panned to two middle-aged men walking across the rig, both already yelling about how much fun they were having and the game hadn’t even started yet.

“The Lizard Lounge” – (close; they’re called the Lounge Lizards) – “is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” the first man said. “It’s heaven. It’s heaven to me. I’d like to die here.”

“This was on my list,” random man from Las Vegas No. 2 explained to the camera. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’m going to Mississippi. I have to see it.’ This is fabulous. This is the best baseball venue of all time.”

“You have to see this place to believe it,” Man No. 1 picked back up. “Pictures don’t do it justice. Look at this place.”

“This is great, you know?” Man No. 2 finished. “Just good people having fun and enjoying baseball.”

And that’s what the Left Field Lounge is. Good people.

 

The Future

Now, the Left Field Lounge is going to change. Again. Like it always has. The way it’s always evolved.

2013 Super Bulldog Weekend
Photo courtesy: Russ Houston, Mississippi State

The day Kennard first drove his pickup from the farm to the outfield, the year people began transforming truck beds to full rigs, and the Saturday morning that Willcutt bought the first-ever permanent Lounge spot are the three biggest moments in the history of the Left Field Lounge.

This offseason will be the fourth transformative event in the storied history of one of the most celebrated attractions in sport. When Mississippi State announced it will be building an entirely new baseball stadium, the first major build since 1987 and the first significant upgrade since the ‘90s, it also announced that it would be constructing a new Left Field Lounge.

Through months of planning, design and town hall meetings, a final conclusion was drawn and a plan set into motion for the future of the Lounge. The rigs, as iconic as they may be, were no longer viable. For reasons of safety, space and accessibility, change was again necessary.

Construction will begin on the new Left Field Lounge this summer after the season ends and the rigs make their exit from Dudy Noble for the final time. In their place, a two-tiered, permanent structure will be put in place around the outfield fence with customizable spots for each group who previously called a rig home, in addition to a few more who will now be able to have permanent Lounge spots for the first time.

In the planning stages, each group of rig owners met with architects to customize their design for their area, settling on their own choices from a variety of possible setups and floor plans.

Each spot will have some added amenities not previously available, including access to electricity, as well as a concourse connecting the entire Lounge with itself as well the stadium structure. Beyond safety concerns, that was one of the driving forces behind the change: making the Lounge accessible to everyone and easier to navigate, ensuring that all who want to have the experience are able to do so, not just those who either own a spot or know someone who does.

And yes, to be quite certain, nearly all involved are sad to see the rigs go and to see the Lounge change. There were plenty who fought the decision, and understandably so, as they wanted to preserve the way of enjoying MSU baseball that they’ve had for decades.

In response to questions and feedback, MSU released a Q&A following the announcement to address the big question: why are you changing the Lounge?

“Preservation of the Left Field Lounge is of the utmost importance to everyone,” the answer began, “but safety, convenience, and comfort are key considerations. The new Left Field Lounge design maintains the ambiance Bulldog fans have enjoyed, removes potential hazards, allows for a permanent student area in right field and provides amenities that maintain this premier location fans have enjoyed for years.

“Your safety is our primary goal – but rest assured, this will be done in a way that also allows the Left Field Lounge to retain its unique culture and appeal.”

After the initial shock, understanding set in for most, even if it took some time to make sense of it.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Willcutt said. “If you ask me, do I like this new change we’re fixing to go to? No, I wish they’d leave it alone. But I’m also a realist. We have been extremely lucky that in all these years, to my knowledge, we’ve not had a serious accident out there. We’re better now on our setups than we have been in the past. In the past, some of the units out there were not as safe as they should be. But we got by with it. It’s gonna go away, and we’ll just start a new era of Left Field Lounge.”

The Left Field Lounge in 1980 Photo courtesy: MSU Libraries

Bobby Crosland started joining the crowds in the outfield when he was a student at MSU from 1975-79, back in the days when he could just drive the truck right in from the street and pull up to his usual spot. He’s been grilling food, watching games and eventually raising kids out there in the 40 years since. He’d prefer to keep the rig and setup he has now, if he’s being honest, but he too knows that change is an inevitable part of life, and the Left Field Lounge is no exception. The key is to roll with it and enjoy it, just as before.

“We’ll adapt,” he said simply. “We always do.”

Of course, the evolution of the Lounge isn’t bittersweet for everyone. Not only did all current rig owners have the opportunity to secure a location in the new Lounge, but a few more spots were created, making it possible for a select few to have permanent locations in the Lounge for the first time.

In far right field in the current Lounge, there is an area reserved for people without reservations. This particular area of the Lounge has no rigs, no trucks and no lines of property or personal space. It’s open to whoever wants it, whoever gets there first.

For years now, a group made up largely of locals who grew up in Starkville or now claim the town as their own has set up shop, becoming a mainstay of the Lounge by arriving early every weekend with grills, coolers, stools and even an outdoor bar with an umbrella and seating for half a dozen in need of rest for their legs.

Next year, they will be among the few lucky groups to have their own spot in the Left Field Lounge for the first time, a permanent location designed and built exclusively for them, a place they can call their own. Chase Hogue, one of many who grew up as a kid running around Dudy Noble, is a part of this group.

“I think it’s the coolest thing MSU has to offer,” he said, “Over a skybox in football. Getting a spot is the best thing to happen to the [group]. Left Field Lounge is one of the greatest traditions in all of college sports, so I’m glad to be a part of it.”

“Getting a lounge in the new stadium is the coolest thing in the world to us,” added Jonathan Parrish, another member of the group. “We love MSU baseball and have literally grown up in the park running around the Lounge, so we look at it as gaining admission into one of the coolest traditions in all of college sports. I know there is a lot of debate on what the university should do with the Lounge and depending on who you talk to the new stadium could be a negative or positive.

“Ultimately, the Lounge is about the people who occupy it more than the structures those people sit on, and the hospitality and recipes get passed on from generation to generation, so the Lounge will always be the Lounge, long after even the new stadium is considered a relic.”

The future of the Left Field Lounge will be defined by the same thing that shaped its past: the people. And at Mississippi State, that tends to be a good thing. If the future looks hazy, that’s probably just the charcoal fog rising from the grills.

 

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I call her Mrs. Becky, or Mrs. B., for short. Like anyone who knows her, like anyone who has played or coached baseball at Mississippi State for the last decade, I can easily spot her in any crowd by looking for the color pink. Hat, sunglasses, jacket, shirt, shoes – something she’s wearing will be bright pink, if not multiple somethings.

Fred stands in the middle with the red, white and blue American flag MSU hat. Bet you can spot Mrs. Becky.

I accidentally nicknamed him Honcho when, in a story I wrote about a weekend in the Left Field Lounge, I referred to him as the head honcho manning the grill at his rig. The next week, he showed me that, in celebration of his recognition, the rest of the group had decided to keep the name for him and even wrote “Honcho” on his cup. He gave me a quick history lesson, that the word Honcho is Japanese in origin, having made its way to America via members of the military stationed overseas in World War II, and that it indicates someone is the leader of a group. The “head” I had inserted before it was actually redundant.

Fred and Becky Mock are what the Lounge is to me, and what Mississippi State Baseball is to so many people. Over the years they have served as, basically, foster parents for scores of Bulldog baseball players, making sure they have someone to take care of them and be sure they’re able to find the things they need while they’re away from home. The Mocks have traveled across the country to watch the team, and they’re mainstays at any home game, Honcho sticking to their rig in right field and Mrs. Becky bouncing back and forth between sitting in the grandstands and standing along the outfield fence.

Go to their rig on any weekend, the one they share with Phil Silva, and you’re bound to find a former player, a parent of a current pitcher perhaps, or even a former manager, coach or trainer. As a kid, I spent countless afternoons and nights in a rig lining the left field bullpen, but now, you’re likely to find me in right field too, as they weekly welcome me like one of their own, despite having no stronger connection to me than Fred having worked with my mom on occasion when she was a Honcho herself as the director of the Shackouls Honors College. I also grew up with the Silva children, but the fact that Mr. Phil knew me in my formative years only weakens my case.

In 2003, the Mocks came to Starkville and visited MSU for the first time. Fred had an interview for a job on campus. When they were in the car with their host, the man was telling them things about the school, laying out some high points, and then he got to something he realized he didn’t have words to describe.

“I can’t explain it,” Mrs. Becky remembers him saying. “You’ve got to feel it and you’ve got to see it. We have something really special here and it’s called Left Field Lounge.”

“The first baseball game we came to, we sat in the bleachers over there because we didn’t know anybody yet,” Mrs. Becky told me while she stood around friends in the Lounge. “We looked out here and we said, wow, that looks like fun. Little did we know that we’d become so involved in Left Field Lounge and make so many friends. And it’s about relationships. That’s what this is about. We’ve had people out here pregnant, and now their babies are big. We’ve raised everybody out here.

“I get it now,” she finished. “If I had known it then, I would have said, take that job immediately, because of the Lounge. We love it out here. I love it. The people are what make it.”

And of course, she added, “I like baseball, too.”

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It’s beyond baseball, it is … It’s who we are, the hospitality … It’s my favorite place.” – Hobie Hobart

It’s unique to Mississippi State. There’s not another place like it. Anywhere.” – Jimmy Willcutt

In my opinion, it’s the biggest spectacle in college sports.” – Everett Kennard

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SEC Player Of The Year Borges Excelling For MSU Tennis

Nuno Borges, excluding his Portuguese accent, blends in naturally around campus and appears no different than any other sophomore at Mississippi State. He’s shy, humble, respectful and goes about his business quietly, racking up A’s in just about every class he takes – the only two B’s he had as a freshman were, unsurprisingly, public speaking and English Comp I.

He’s on MSU’s tennis team, too, but to see him hanging out at practice, one might assume he was a manager or just a random fan who enjoys the sport. He doesn’t look like one of the best players in the country. At least not until he starts playing.

“He’s the most relaxed, nice guy,” MSU head coach Matt Roberts said. “You watch him walk or jog and you think, this guy can’t be No. 3 in the country, he’s not even that athletic. But you see him hold that racquet. You see him start moving on the court and he glides, he’s so smooth. It’s unbelievable. He was born to play tennis and born to compete.”

On-court Nuno and off-court Nuno are very different people. In fact, on-court Nuno is so different that it nearly scared Roberts off the first time he watched Borges play in a European Championship event in Switzerland two years ago. The laid-back kid he’d met previously on an in-home visit was nothing like the ball of emotion and competitiveness he was watching on the court, and when the match against one of Spain’s top players turned south, Borges reaction was a bit more intense than even Roberts thought necessary.

“He was so emotional on the court, to the point where I didn’t know if he was a Bulldog or not,” Roberts remembered. “But we kept recruiting him and eventually he committed. He comes in and he’s the nicest guy. He’s a team guy. He’s so humble.”

And in addition to being humble, he’s really good. Not just at being nice, but at playing tennis. Borges committed to MSU as one of the top 40 junior players in the world, having been recruited by nearly everyone in America, and in a short period of time he’s already established himself as one of the all-time greats in the history of MSU tennis.

Last week, Borges was named the SEC Player of the Year, just the third Bulldog to ever win the award, and the youngest to have done so, earning the honor in only his second season. He deserved it, too, having risen to No. 3 in the nation’s singles rankings, winning more matches at No. 1 singles than anyone else in the conference (19-3 at No. 1), winning more ranked matches than anyone in the conference (21, including four over Top-10 foes) and racking up a total of 31 overall victories this spring.

Meanwhile, off the court, he’s a lanky sophomore who deflects praise, gets random nose bleeds (including one during the interview for this story) and cares about little more than seeing his team succeed. He didn’t even know he was the youngest to win Player of the Year until it was mentioned in a question. He was more worried about helping his team get ready the NCAA Championships this weekend.

“All my success is due to all of our teamwork,” he said. “We’ve been doing pretty great as a team. It’s not just me. They’re a big part of what I’ve become.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Roberts.

“It doesn’t matter if you play 1 or 8 on our team, you have a role,” the head coach explained. “Yeah, it’s great that we have a player on our team who’s No. 1 and is winning a lot for us, but he’s no different than anyone else. We’re all Bulldogs. We’re all having an impact on this team.”

But that’s not to take away from the season, or for that matter, the career that Borges is in the middle of. As the sophomore put it in his own words, “There’s no secret. It’s just working hard.” And beyond technical development, one of the things Roberts and assistant coach Matt Walters have worked with Borges on is shaping and molding the competitive fire he has so naturally.

The goal is to help him focus his passion and energies in a mature and productive way. It’s a goal that has quickly been reached, thanks to an offseason and fall slate of putting Borges in the right situations to face adversity and learn how to handle it.

An example of his court presence and comfort under fire came recently when the Bulldogs made a run to the championship match of the SEC Tournament a couple weeks ago. Over the course of the weekend, Borges found himself in a tough match against one of the league’s top players as he was pitted against South Carolina’s No. 1 singles player.

Borges lost the first set, then won the second. With everything on the line in the upcoming final set, Borges’ opponent took an injury timeout and went to a bathroom to recuperate before the third set began. Meanwhile, Borges was pacing the court with a near-manic fervor, talking to himself and pumping himself up while Roberts and the team trainer looked on in awe.

“He starts saying,” Roberts remembered, “’It doesn’t matter what this guy is gonna do, there’s no way he can come back and beat me.’ We’re just sitting there like, this is amazing.”

Sure enough, Borges won the final set with relative ease.

“It’s moments that like,” Roberts said, “where Nuno gets that look on his face and you think, man, he could take out Nadal right now. If he makes that decision to be tough and be a machine, no one can beat him.”

With so many wins on the court and A’s in the classroom – Borges actually won the Newsom Award this year, an annual MSU honor given to student-athletes who exhibit success in both sports and education – the future may be even more fun to watch than the present. But for Roberts and those with MSU tennis, it’s easy to just enjoy what’s happening now.

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