Walking up to a Mississippi State baseball game, several sights will catch the eye. Humphrey Coliseum to the left, the Bryan Athletic Building overlooking Chadwick Lake to the right, the new Seal Football Complex in the distance, and most importantly, green grass surrounded by grandstands and bleachers nestled just inside the tiniest of hills, the home of Dudy Noble Field and Polk-Dement Stadium.
Though as patrons leave their car, headed to the entrance, tickets in hand, vision becomes less important. At least, it’s not thought about so much. Somewhere around the curb of the winding road separating The Hump and The Dude from a few thousand parking spaces, the smell hits you.
Like walking into a kitchen on Thanksgiving morning, no tweet can describe nor can any picture convey the smell of a hundred-some odd charcoal grills and their contents being carried out on the strong Dudy Noble wind through the gates of the stadium, inviting and welcoming anyone who so pleases, stronger and more succulent with every step.
The Left Field Lounge beckons, one of college baseball and even all of college sport’s best traditions.
The setup you know. Trucks, trailers, campers and massive contraptions of wood and steel lining the outfield wall, from foul pole to foul pole, laden with various means of seating, flags of all sorts and fronted with grills, tables, coolers and friends.
On opening weekend for the Diamond Dawgs, you’ll pardon my desire to spend games at the heart of the smell welcoming everyone to Dudy Noble Field, rather than in the press box with my usual media cohorts.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I trekked to the outfield and watched baseball from one of the finest locations around as the No. 5-ranked Diamond Dawgs hosted Portland on opening weekend.
Stepping onto the deck surrounding the wall, a group of students are in the trailer to the left, on the right, a hodgepodge of MSU employees, friends of the families and whoever else saw someone they know. A table and a big grill full of meats separate these two trailers from the next one over.
A couple stands nearby, a little girl in the arms of the husband. It’s baby’s first baseball game. I’m thinking she’s not ready for the ribs.
-Somewhere in the students there must be a radio, as Jim Ellis’s voice is heard behind every pause in conversation, running through pre-game before the big event.
“You hungry?” Someone asks. “Chicken, burgers, hot dogs. We got ribs coming soon. Grab whatever you want, buns are under the table, Cokes are in the cooler.”
Coke in the south is like the Left Field Lounge at MSU. When you tell someone you want a Coke, they ask, “What kind?” And Sprite is a perfectly acceptable answer.
If someone says, “We’re in the Left Field Lounge, it’s by the scoreboard in right field,” you don’t blink. Coaches and baseball players can say what they like, but once you get off the field and over the fence, it’s all left field at Dudy Noble.
-As the game starts, the Bulldogs are on the field and something new starts. The Bulldog Roll Call.
Apparently, someone asked junior outfielder C.T. Bradford what the fans in the lounge could do to get the players excited. This was his suggestion. On the first try, around half a dozen joined in, chanting and clapping the name of every starter, pausing only if there is a hit.
As each repetition concludes, the players acknowledge the support with a wave, hat tip or even a smile, if they’re close enough to show it.
Only six or seven-strong, it was pretty cool. If the whole stadium gets into it one day, it’ll be darn impressive to witness.
-Cool story: before the game, one of the students, Kyle, said with certainty, “Wes Rea’s gonna hit a home run the first time he gets to the plate.”
First inning, first at-bat for Rea, first pitch and first swing: out of the park. The big first baseman crushed one that happened to land about 30 feet away from the trailer where Kyle sat.
Everyone hits their feet for the homer, standing up to cheer, and it’s about 10 minutes before those with seats sit back down. It was the perfect start to the first game.
-Early in the game, Bradford runs up and catches a pop fly.
“That’s a little dude,” the guy next to me says.
Shortly after, Bradford hits the second home run of the game, another one to right field, the second bomb falling near those who had called the batter by name.
-At some point, an astute geographer and curious girl wasn’t sure if these Portland Pilots were from Oregon or Maine, as both have scenic locales by that name.
Either too embarrassed to ask her friends or just eager for an excuse to talk to a pitcher, she wanders over to the visiting bullpen just a few yards over and asks.
“He was so nice!” she returns and says. “He said he’s impressed with how hospitable everyone here has been.”
Nothing could have made her happier.
The answer, by the way, is Oregon.
-A couple Cokes lead me to the Junction John, a trailer of bathrooms moved from its namesake The Junction to the outfield, where a contented man to my right shares with those of us inside,
“Thank God for baseball season.”
Over my left shoulder, someone at the sink responds,
“Man, we’ve got 12 runs in the sixth inning. I think we’re gonna win the SEC.”
It’s not out of the question, nor is it an opinion many in the Junction John will find disagreeable. At least not today.
-Perhaps my favorite moment of the day comes late in the game, with MSU up by a sizable margin, when freshman outfielder Jacob Robson comes in for the first time.
As his name is announced, the head honcho manning the grill slides over to the trailer, slides a pole off the top and hoists it into the air.
“You wanna know how much that guy loves MSU baseball,” someone says to me. “He was in the U.S. Marine Corps and he’s waving a Canadian flag just to show a kid he’s got our support.”
Like, really, really cold.
I should’ve brought gloves.
The crowd is thinner than yesterday, but somehow, perhaps as a means of distraction, the biting cold seems to have inspired the hecklers, driving them to louder and louder yelling.
Portland’s rightfielder not only has the misfortune of an easy to name to remember (Turner Gill), but he’s within a few yards of one particularly booming voice a couple trailers down in a game with little hitting and not a lot of action for those near the fences.
He sounds like the guy from the Discount Double Check commercial yelling “Hey, Rodgas!” at Aaron Rodgers.
“LOOK AT ME!” the voice bellows.
Turner shakes his head in a clear “No,” getting a laugh from those in the Left Field Lounge.
At some point, a hit ball shoots in his direction, right into the gap of open grass.
Pounding on the outfield wall, leaning toward the field, the same guy yells, “C’mon, Turner!”
-It has snowed three different times now. At a baseball game. In Mississippi.
“They should just build a big window in here,” a guy tells me.
I’m kind of with him on this one.
Despite the cold, grills are still going, just as much for the warmth of the griller as food for the hungry.
The second biggest cheer of the day comes when all of the sudden the sun breaks out from behind a massive cloud, shining warm light on all of us.
Turner looked around to see what everyone was yelling about.
-The biggest cheer?
Wes Rea running the bases and getting to third safely.
“Y’all see the wheels on Rea?” someone asks.
“He’s really gotten in shape,” another replies.
-Late in the game, the score is close, and Jim Ellis’s voice is once again filling the air, this time joined by Bart Gregory, but this time it’s hoops, as the two are in Baton Rouge for MSU basketball against LSU.
Even as the game slips away, ears tune in attentively between pitches.
It’s warm, it’s sunny and everyone is well-rested and enjoying the last hours of weekend glory before Monday hits the best way they know how.
With food, friends and baseball.
Today’s hot item off the grill: bacon-wrapped, sausage-stuffed jalapenos. Drink in one hand, the sun and sky above and baseball before me, it’s like taking a bite of Americana.
Meaty, flavorful and delicious.
-One of my favorite people in the world is someone who exists all over. Even within one park, there are several of them. The Ball Four Guy.
Everyone at a game yells at some point, but the Ball Four Guy has a voice heard above all others. Sounds coming out of his mouth roll like thunder through the stadium, echoing off the grandstands, reverberating over the gates, not dying until hitting the last bit of asphalt parking lot.
“BALLLLLLLLLL FOURRRRRRRRRRR…….BAAAAAAAAAALLLLL FOURRRRRRRR.”
Someone elsewhere returns the call.
The pitch: it’s a ball. The batter takes his base and the crowd goes wild.
-Not long into the game, MSU is up 7-1.
We’re all watching Harlem Shake videos, because half of us have never seen them and the other half of us still don’t completely understand what’s going on.
-As the sun sets on Dudy Noble and the second game of the doubleheader, opening weekend draws to a close.
But in the Left Field Lounge, the fun has only begun.
Mississippi State is 4-0.
Just wait until Super Bulldog Weekend.