Wes Rea walked up to me in the dugout as he waited on the game to begin, a cup of water in his hand and a serious look on his face.
“You like our stash?” he asked me, with a nod back to the bench area behind him.
There sat at least a dozen empty bags, previously home to hand-warmers that were now in the grips of Rea’s teammates, the ones he had hand-picked just two days before.
“We cleaned the gas station out of their supply,” he said.
And good thing, too, as it dropped to nearly-freezing temperatures by the time the night concluded under the lights of Dudy Noble.
Game one of the Bulldog World Series, an intrasquad five-game series of scrimmages to conclude fall baseball for Mississippi State, was about to begin. Rea, one of the four captains of the White team, was the understood coach of the team, whether anyone appointed him as such or not.
Both a natural leader and detailed baseball mind, Rea has already spent time this fall coaching up his teammates – pitchers, even – and was doing the same again on Wednesday, reviewing base-running signals with young guys on his team, checking pitch counts and availability, double-checking the batting order and making sure he was able to get everyone in the game.
The catch of the Bulldog World Series is that the real coaches at MSU – John Cohen and his assistants – stay behind home plate, protected by a net, letting the four team captains on each squad do all the coaching and decision making.
Camped out in the White dugout for the first tilt, I watched as Rea directed the team, though it wasn’t just him. Senior and fellow-captain Ben Bracewell was just as involved, just as invested and perhaps even more active, as he stayed in the dugout the entire game. He won’t pitch until Friday.
Then a surprise leader, or perhaps assistant coach could be the appropriate term, emerged, as junior closer Jonathan Holder, while not a captain, was one of those directing his teammates, offering encouragement and teaching when possible.
Or, just having fun.
“Everyone hold,” he told his teammates as the National Anthem finished.
They remained steady in their line they had formed in front of the dugout, right hands held firm over their hearts, left hands, gripping their caps, pressed unmovingly against their lower backs.
“This might never end,” Bracewell told him as the Maroon team stood in exactly the same fashion in front of their dugout.
MSU has had standoffs with other teams before, but those were in real games, with real officials and often a TV audience.
“I had one this summer where we stood until the seventh inning,” Holder told one of his statuesque teammates, “and we didn’t even win.”
Like William Wallace, Holder kept the line steady, unmoving, despite the mounting pressure. Finally, the Maroon team folded, Holder cheered and the line dispersed to the dugout, just moments after the first batter had been introduced and stepped up to the plate.
White won the standoff, just as they did the game.
Back in the dugout for the bottom of the first, Rea looked out at the field as his team had a runner on first, Demarcus Henderson.
Rea looked at the man beside him who had a number of boards in his hands, all with different pictures and colors.
“Hold up the blue one,” Rea advised. “Act like you’re telling Demarcus to do something.”
Later in the game, Rea was talking to whoever was in the hole, soon to be batting, about his approach at the plate.
“Be aggressive on balls in the dirt,” he recommended. “Get him to throw it away.”
“I like the gamble,” Bracewell chimed in. “Dangerous, but I like it.”
Later in the same inning, watching as runners got on base, Bracewell took a coaching moment for one of his fellow pitchers, Will Cox.
“What do we want here, Cox?” Bracewell asked. “I’m quizzing you.”
“Ground ball to the right side,” Cox responded after a quick visual run-through of the situation.
“That’s right we do,” Bracewell finished with a pat on Cox’s back.
Perhaps given confidence by his correct answer, or maybe out of natural bravado, Cox himself took to a bit of trash-talking not long after.
“Fear the face!” he yelled to someone who must have shaved recently. “There’s no more beard.”
At some point later in the seven-inning game, after Rea had taught his team new hand signals the people in the other dugout wouldn’t recognize and given advice to Gavin Collins as he stood in the on-deck circle, sophomore Jacob Robson was up to bat.
There was a runner on second and only one out, so this was a good opportunity for the White team to do some more damage on the scoreboard
“Don’t get too big, Robbie,” Rea yelled from the dugout. “Just a little flick.”
Immediately after, Rea got his wish on a quick flick to shallow left field, Robson getting himself on first.
Robson continued to advance around the diamond, reaching second in short time.
“That’s why I put him at the bottom of the lineup,” Rea said. “We got speed when the order comes back around.”
The very next pitch, the ball was hit and Robson scampered all the way home, beating the throw from right field with time to spare. Speed, indeed.
With a big lead, the White team spent the last two innings being sure not to give up their large advantage.
When they got in a bit of trouble, though, they sent Cox to the bullpen to warm up, hoping he’d be ready to come in before too much damage was done at the plate by Maroon.
“Take a mound visit,” Holder recommended to Bracewell, an effort to give Cox more time in the pen before he entered the game.
“Walk it, now,” Holder called to Bracewell as he had started to jog to the mound. “Take your time.”
Soon after, Cox came in and he closed out the game for White.
Rea won his coaching debut 8-3, seemingly a natural for the job, though parts of it were still unusual to him, largely due to rules on every player being required to participate in a certain number of innings.
“I’ve never sat in the dugout on defense,” Rea said as he came to the realization late in the game. “This is weird.”
Weird, but it worked.