“This is one of the great venues in college baseball,” Central Arkansas coach Allen Gum said. “Has been for years. I remember growing up watching it.”
For the first time in a decade, Dudy Noble Field will once again host an NCAA Regional, resuming its rightful place as one of the most storied parks in the country, carrying the mantle of unique history and tradition in college baseball.
“This is what you play college baseball for,” South Alabama coach Mark Calvi said. “It’ll be a great atmosphere.”
The numbers are clear, as Mississippi State holds the entire Top 10 list of biggest college baseball crowds.
But behind the numbers are steel contraptions lining the outfield wall, smoke rising as meats are grilled and sunscreen lathered on. Hecklers of the highest regard filling the Left Field Lounge, lauded as both knowledgeable and unendingly persistent.
“I’ve heard some different things,” Gum said with a wry smile. “I think I even heard one time an outfielder mooned the crowd.”
As an opposing player, you’ve got to be prepared to handle 14,000-plus yelling fans from every direction, Calvi said.
“Will they get their feelings hurt if they make an error?” he asked, “Yeah, so don’t make an error.”
Part of the legend of State fans, however, is their history of being as generous as they are intimidating.
Pictures surfaced last week of South Carolina outfielders being fed chicken and beef along the outfield wall while the Gamecocks made a pitching change.
“Maybe they can poison it or something give us a little advantage or something,” Bulldog shortstop Adam Frazier said with a laugh at the memory. “No, I know they give those guys a hard time, I guess they wanna make up for it a little bit by giving them some food. I think it’s pretty cool. It’s fun for the opposing teams to have that opportunity to play in front of a crowd like this.”
Craig Gibson, head coach of the Mercer Bears, brought his team to Starkville in 2010. It was spring break at the time, not nearly the numbers in the crowd he expects to see as he plays in this weekend’s regional, but even then, the Bulldogs were reliable as ever.
“Back in 2010,” Gibson said, “we had more pitchers that were willing to run after the game. We were wondering what was going on and they said, ‘Coach, they’re feeding us in the outfield.’”
John Cohen, head coach for MSU, was part of three regionals on MSU’s campus when he played for the Bulldogs in college. Now, he gets to coach as the host for the first time.
As a lifelong Bulldog, the importance of the event is not lost on him. He understands the effect a crowd can have better than anyone, having been a part of the locally-legendary 1990 Regional.
Down to Florida State in the ninth inning, in front of thousands upon thousands of Maroon and White clad fans, Burke Masters stepped to the plate for the Bulldogs and crushed one of the most famous hits in MSU history, a go-ahead grand slam to secure victory for his beloved school over the threatening Seminoles.
Cohen was in the on-deck circle as he watched the ball fly through the air and into the sea of jumping fans in the outfield.
“That was a special moment,” Cohen said. “You’re just feeding off the crowd. The crowd’s trying to will those great moments. That’s why you gather and as my wife would say, the Carnegie Hall of college baseball here. You just think special things are gonna happen. You have kids on a club that want those things to happen.
“You just feel like you’re supported,” Cohen continued. “You feel like it’s one big family. I’ve always said the strength of Mississippi State is the people. You might not have the most money, the most of this, the most of that, but our people are of the highest quality. Our people make the difference. They want to will things to happen for our players and they know what we’re all about. It’s just a great environment.
Since NCAA Regional hosts were announced Sunday night, Cohen said he’s been getting tweets, texts, emails and the like all week, reminding him of Masters’ legendary swing of the bat.
In the days since, he’s gone back to listen to the call.
MSU radio man Jim Ellis did his usual masterful job, Cohen said, and it’s what Ellis didn’t voice that made the difference. In the seconds following the hit, Ellis allowed moments for the sound of the crowd at Dudy Noble to wash over the microphone.
“It’s goosebumps,” Cohen said. “It makes your hair stand on end just to listen to those people.
“You hope that we’re gonna have future moments like that at Dudy Noble.”
In recent history, May has been one of the slowest months of the year in Starkville, when college classes are done and high schools have finished for the summer.
“I guess the 10-year suspense just makes everyone more anxious to come,” Frazier said, who was in sixth grade the last time his university hosted.
“When you live in a college town and something special goes on, everyone knows about it,” Cohen said. “It’s neat. Our kids sense that. They know something special is going on and they want their play to match that. They’re giddy.”
If everyone who made the claim was right, there would be 300 schools tied for having “the best fans in the country.”
At MSU, the Diamond Dawgs have a case for the bravado.
“I think Dudy Noble at its best, when there’s something on the line, when it’s in your face, I can’t imagine…” Cohen said. “Our players are very aware of the fact that we have an atmosphere that can lift kids up. That’s so rare in college baseball.”
“We’ve got the greatest fans in college baseball,” sophomore closer Jonathan Holder said. “Coming back here and playing in front of them is gonna be special.”