In few places are the lives of fans and a team so intertwined as Mississippi State and its faithful baseball following.
As MSU’s entire team walked the full length of the fences along the first base line, outfield and third base line, shaking hands, high-fiving and even hugging strangers-turned-family after a Regional championship, the bond was clear.
Often, after big wins, fans rush the field. They didn’t on Monday night, so the Bulldogs went to them. 6’5”, 275-pound first baseman Wes Rea was diving over the fence, halfway into the stands, embracing fans and yelling in triumph.
It had been 10 years since MSU hosted an NCAA Regional, and six since the last time Dudy Noble Field held postseason baseball of any kind.
Entering the 2013 season with both hype and one of the toughest schedules in the country, many on the outside connected MSU to the College World Series before the first pitch was even thrown.
In Starkville, under John Cohen, the true goal was for a return to tradition, starting with the preseason theme, “We’re Back.”
“These kids wanted to bring a Regional to Starkville, Mississippi, and that’s exactly what they did,” Cohen said. “They know how special our fans are. Our fans created an unbelievable atmosphere all weekend long. It just truly is a special place, especially during Regional time. I can tell you, there was a lot of discussion in our locker room; if we get to host a Regional, it will be crazy, the fans, the atmosphere. Our kids earned that, they deserved this. I’m so proud of them, but I’m equally excited for our fans because I know they’ve wanted to host a Regional and I appreciate all their support.”
Collective attendance for the weekend topped 60,000 and MSU averaged over 10,000 for each of its four games in the Regional.
Baseball means something to people at Mississippi State.
In the week leading up to the action, just as much time was spent by opposing coaches and players talking about the atmosphere of ‘The Dude’ as anything else.
As they pointed out, MSU fans care about the Diamond Dawgs, and are knowledgeable in doing so.
On the way to Dudy Noble, the couple stopped at the Drill Field, where much to her surprise, he dropped to one knee and asked the most important question of their young lives.
She said yes.
Then they hurried to the ballpark to watch their Bulldogs.
“Bulldogs won and we got engaged,” the bride-to-be tweeted. “Could it have been any better? Hail State.”
The decade hiatus was worth the wait for MSU, though Cohen’s team doesn’t plan on waiting more than 12 months for the next one.
“Even though it’s been 10 years,” Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said, “you could tell we weren’t out of practice. It was a lot of fun. We want to create great experiences and win consistently and our athletic events are great experiences when people show up and support our kids. Averaging 10,000 fans at the four Mississippi State games here at Dudy Noble brought back a lot of memories and we don’t need to wait 10 years to do it again.”
“Greatest baseball games I’ve ever attended,” tweeted @theBrandito. “Atmosphere was next to none.”
An atmosphere created by engagement from the fans, both of the marital type and the attention and focus on the game.
“Greatest college baseball atmosphere in the country, hands down,” @g_alford tweeted. “Received many compliments on MSU hospitality, too.”
“Liveliest crowd at DNF I’ve ever seen,” @bvanderford129 agreed. “First trip to NDF for my girlfriend and now she wants to go to every MSU game we can.”
And as one put it, a return to what is expected at Dudy Noble.
“The norm for MSU, but still an outstanding weekend.” @DrewCaves93 tweeted.
In the immediate moments following Central Arkansas’ defeat of the Bulldogs on Sunday night and 24 hours before MSU would go on to secure a berth in a Super Regional, disappointment was an easy feeling to have.
But perhaps it was fate playing its veiled hand, extending MSU’s return to home-field glory for one more night.
Standing in right field as Monday’s championship game neared conclusion, Hunter Renfroe had a world in front of him. The junior is projected by many to be a high pick in the MLB Draft, and while his concern right now is making it to the World Series, the possibility that it was his last game at Dudy Noble was not lost on the fans.
Renfroe turned after several stanzas, removed his cap and waved to the faithful fans who had cheered him on the last three years.
“You saw what was there,” Renfroe said, referring to the crowds. “That’s not news to anybody. The fans here are 100 percent supportive of us and it’s one of the best atmospheres in college baseball. Whether we lose or win, they’re gonna back us 100 percent. Everybody saw that, how the fans reacted to us winning and going to a Super Regional.”
After starting on the first base line, the Bulldogs were near the end of their victory lap with fans when someone in right field placed a cowbell in Renfroe’s hand.
Old, rusty, beat up and dented from years of Mississippi State athletics, the relic of Bulldog history passed into Renfroe’s grip and stuck with him as he was ushered along the fence to continue celebrating with fans.
In the post-game press conference, Renfroe sat down in his chair and placed his new cowbell at the front of the table, right next to his nameplate.
“It’s been through the ringer a few times,” he said with an unintentional smile. “It means a lot.”