In sports, history’s best moments often have to become just that – history – before their greatness is realized. Time and consequences are needed to prove their importance.
But, at times special enough, those who are a part of the moment understand the gravity immediately. When measurable history meets with a story that will become legend, no wait is needed to know this is something people will talk about for years.
On Saturday, Mississippi State had all the parts of a Maroon and White tale to be told for generations. There was historical significance in the biggest crowd to ever watch an on-campus college baseball game, 15,586 packing the house. There was an unlikely hero in the freshman catcher Gavin Collins and there was even a perfect antagonist in the arch-rival Ole Miss Rebels.
Like any good story arc, the good guys and bad traded blows in front of the masses, with the home team nearly suffering defeat before one man stepped up in the very last moment to save the day and win the game.
“This is something our kids will never forget,” MSU head coach John Cohen said.
In the 10th inning Saturday, the sun was falling behind Dudy Noble Field as Ole Miss pulled off the unlikeliest of acts, crushing a two-run homer over the centerfield wall off MSU’s All-American closer.
By the end of the frame, the Rebels had taken a 5-2 lead over the home ‘Dawgs and set a good chunk of the record crowd streaming for the exits, figuring the likelihood of comeback in the final three outs was slim.
Even if the Bulldogs were going to lose, they had barely made it this far, anyway. It had been a rocket throw from Derrick Armstrong in left field to Collins at the plate which saved MSU from giving up the go-ahead run in regulation to begin with.
Needing three runs to tie and four runs to win in a game where MSU had only previously scored two, the outlook was grim at best.
But just as Collins made the tag to keep MSU from losing, it was he who eventually made the hit to give the Bulldogs victory in the bottom of the 10th.
When the rally started, gloom in the stands turned to cautious optimism as hope flared up. Cody Brown and Seth Heck ripped back-to-back doubles, followed by a Brett Pirtle sacrifice fly, bringing MSU within a single run.
Then the captain stepped to the plate. Wes Rea, the leader of the team, coach on the field and father to the Bulldogs. The biggest man in Maroon and White, the one everyone stops to watch when he enters the batters box. Of course it was Rea who tied the game with an RBI double.
Finally, it was the unlikely hero who found himself with the un-assumed burden of victory, the freshman catcher from California who had made big plays all day.
“It’s all credit to Gavin,” Armstrong later said. “I told him when [Ole Miss] made the pitching change, ‘you’re gonna get the hit and I’m gonna tackle you.’”
When the perfect pitch came, Collins swung the bat without hesitation, belting the game-winning single, securing walk-off victory and beating the enemy to the north 6-5.
Rarely has a park been louder when those in the dugout stormed the field.
“I saw all my teammates coming out,” Collins told reporters after the game, recalling the embraces and shouts from his fellow Bulldogs somewhere near first base of the infield. “I love those guys. I think that’s why we won. We’re such a tight knit group. We’re a family.”
Not just family by association, but relation by blood made the day special for Collins, whose mother, father and brother were at an MSU game for the first time ever. As son stood in the dugout signing autographs after the game, mother called to him from behind the protective net lining the stadium.
“This was the best birthday present I could have asked for.”
Her birthday is on Monday.
The crowd, the comeback, the weight of the situation – it was the immediate makings of legend, the kind of event none will soon forget.
“Gavin’s the hero today,” Armstrong said.
And the scene couldn’t have been more perfect for walk-off, come-from-behind victory. 78 degrees and sunny, the oft-called Carnegie Hall of College Baseball was proving once again why it is the crown jewel of its sport.
Home to every single one of top 10 crowds in on-campus NCAA baseball history, Dudy Noble Field and the seats, lounges and grass surrounding it are a monument to what makes the sport special.
The fans of Mississippi State are the catalyst, and they will tell you there are none greater in the country.
Walking through the crowded outfield during the game, everyone was there to see it. Former MSU football greats like Cam Lawrence and Chad Bumphis stopped for pictures with fans. Dan Mullen, Anthony Dixon, members from all over the athletic kingdom – it didn’t matter that this wasn’t their sport, they wanted to be there.
Having just announced the specialty uniforms the Bulldogs were wearing that day, a deep group of representatives from Adidas had made the pilgrimage for Super Bulldog Weekend, many of them at Dudy Noble Field for the first time.
“This is the best college baseball experience in the country,” one of the first-time visitors said during the fifth inning. “I’ll be back.”
That MSU set the record for largest crowd is no surprise. After all, it was their own record the Bulldog fans smashed by over 500. The excitement is in the experience and being able to say, “I was there.”
The joy comes in a venue unique to the rest of the world, a place so very appropriate for the heart of Mississippi, where students share grills with professors, where son, father and grandfather sit on top of the world in the grandstands, cheering on their Bulldogs.
In the 15,586 packing Polk-Dement Stadium and the Left Field Lounge, not one was a stranger to anyone, just old friends they’ve never met.
Walking through the outfield an hour after Collins’ winning hit was a difficult scene to describe. The debris from a day of tailgating and a game full of ups and downs was strewn across trailers and the deck lining the fence as game workers would later come to clean it up.
Of the record crowd, only dozens were left; family members, friends and dedicated fans who just seemed too happy to leave, milling around and looking for reasons to stay, holding on to the moment as long as possible. Like Collins in the immediate aftermath of walk-off victory, they were in the happiest kind of daze, still processing what they had just experienced.
“If there’s an epicenter of college baseball,” one the remaining Adidas representatives said just outside the stadium, “it’s right here.”
My goal for Super Bulldog Weekend 2014 was simple in its intent, though exceedingly difficult in practice: attend every single event over the four day bonanza. 15 events, several pots of coffee and a few short sleepy respites later, I came out victorious, if not a touch exhausted.
Thursday night, soccer exhibition vs. Alabama
The weekend more or less started for me with the Adidas press conference Thursday afternoon (and the deep-fried dinner that evening), though the first official event was soccer’s exhibition game against Alabama at 7. Bringing an opponent like the Tide in for an exhibition was a strong move, as typically events like that are played against lesser opponents.
Of the many people met over the weekend, one of my favorite came Thursday night in a young girl named Belle (a variation on cowbell, I can only assume).
Unlike those around her, she was a literal Bulldog of the eating out of a bowl on the ground and going to the bathroom in the yard variety.
Her owner had found her in Alabama, though she’s now a Mississippi girl and frequenter of MSU events.
The moment was funny, watching a Bulldog watch the Bulldogs on Super Bulldog Weekend. An appropriate beginning, to be sure.
Friday afternoon, pig cook-off
The last thing I did before leaving the office was an unplanned soccer game in the hallway with Bart Gregory from the Bulldog Club as we killed our final free moments of the day.
“For the two people who get accused the most of not working,” he said after a misfired kick, “this is pretty appropriate.”
Immediately following, our CFO walked through the door and we pretended not to have been doing any of what we were doing on such a busy day.
A quick walk down the street was the annual pig cook-off, where the cooking portion had begun, the eating time not yet arrived.
Here, I ran into an old friend and fellow Starkville native tailgating and hanging out with friends and family, enjoying the relative quiet before the storm of activity to come.
The patriarch of the family had a smile on his face he couldn’t remove as he told me about his day.
“Wayne Madkin set up a tailgate tent outside my office window on Super Bulldog Weekend,” he said. “It doesn’t get much more MSU than that.”
Friday evening, softball vs. Alabama, game one
Resigned to walking across campus all weekend, I was excited to see a golf cart passing by as I headed to the softball stadium for a big game against Alabama.
“Hey, golf cart!” I yelled, trying to get the attention of the girl in the Event Operations Group jacket.
“Sorry, old people!” she yelled back, a means of letting me know she wasn’t there to help perfectly healthy if not particularly fit 20-somethings.
I realized my press pass was in my pocket, not yet hanging on my neck, so I whipped it out and called back, “Media!”
After a quick ride and many expressions of gratitude, I arrived at the softball stadium 15 minutes before the game was to begin. I’d heard Anthony Dixon was in town to throw out the first pitch, so I was happy to get there in time for it.
“Boobie just called,” softball marketing guru Daniel Watkins told me. “He said, ‘I’m passing Louisville, tell those Bulldogs not to start without me! I’ll be there.’”
In the circle with Miss Teen Mississippi, he delivered a perfect honorary first pitch, receiving loud applause from the big crowd.
Sitting in the stands a few minutes later, he was proud of throwing the ball so well.
“I didn’t even get to warm up!”
Friday night, baseball vs. Ole Miss, game one
It was Friday when you realized how big this weekend was really going to be, how many people had shown up and the excitement there was for this particular iteration of SBW.
I passed by Jackie Sherrill on my way to the outfield, snaked my way around thousands as I worked my way through and said hello to dozens on my way to do Taste of the Lounge at the right field tiki lounge.
This is what The Lounge is famous for, what Mississippi and the entire south stake their reputations on: food.
Every vegetable on earth somehow made less healthy. Surf, turf and anything in-between thrown onto a grill.
Smoke rises in front of cameras trying to film the game and groups have to make room when fresh burning coals are brought to re-stock steel pits of cooking flame.
While waiting for our segment in the middle of the fifth, someone passed over a plate of skewered somethings.
“What’s this,” I asked as I picked one up.
“Just eat it,” I was told with a smile.
Works for me. The answer, it turns out, was bacon-wrapped tenderloin, stuffed with jalapenos and cream cheese. Superb.
But this was Friday during the season of lent. Not everyone could eat that beefy delicacy. So what was Hobie Hobart cooking?
“Fish tacos,” he proudly said as he opened the grill. “Let me make you one.”
Saturday morning, Cotton District Arts Festival
My goal of hitting every event of the weekend included the non-sporting activities, and the arts festival is one of my favorite yearly functions.
This being his first SBW, I took Mike Bonner out there with me, where it was less than 10 minutes before we had somehow found ourselves walking in the middle of a dog parade, despite our obvious lack of dogs. Whoops.
I commented as I passed on a cool-looking hand-drawn creation made to look like a beachy, faded street sign. It read one word: “Dawgaritaville.”
“Better buy it now,” a lady at the tent called out. “We sold out early last year.”
Along the way, Dan Mullen passed by, shaking hands and taking pictures in the hours of free time before the spring game.
“Are we gonna have enough for free beer?” he asked, referencing his joke that he would give complimentary beverages to students if they got 30,000 at the spring game.
Nearby, a pair was debating the details between two items of potential purchase.
“What’s more appropriate for an adult?” one voice asked.
Saturday morning, softball alumni game
This was the busiest hour of my weekend assignment. At 11 a.m., the softball alumni game started. At 11 a.m. across campus, the volleyball alumni match started. At noon, the spring game started. Getting to all three on foot would be difficult.
When I got to the softball field to start it off, the old heads were still inside the facility taking some practice swings in the batting cages, many of them far removed from their playing days. Waiting on them,
I walked out to the empty field as Total Eclipse of the Heart blared over the speakers.
“Forever’s gonna start tonight,” Bonnie Tyler’s voice crooned.
Oddly accurate foreshadowing, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Soon after, I headed for volleyball as either by coincidence or tip of the hat from the DJ, Sandstorm blasted across the empty stadium, perfectly sending me into my day.
Saturday morning, volleyball alumni match
I managed to catch connecting golf cart rides, one from Dudy Noble to Davis Wade Stadium, then a second from football to the Newell-Grissom for volleyball, the result having me there in time to catch some action before the spring game.
The setup of this match had current players pitted against the alumni, and it was here that one of those perfect moments happened where present mirrors past.
In what must have reminded him of college days, current volleyball assistant and former MSU football placekicker Brian Hazelwood watched from the sideline as his wife Jenny, current MSU head coach and former Bulldog volleyball player, took the court as part of the alumni team.
In those glory days of classes and college, Brian could be found sneaking over in his rare football-free weekend hours to watch his girlfriend Jenny play volleyball, the beginning stages of love eventually becoming marriage and family in the very town and place they met.
Like then, Saturday was a quick pit stop for athletic romance before football began.
Saturday mid-day, Maroon-White football game
The scrimmage itself is left to be critiqued and analyzed in different places, but the people surrounding it make up this part of the story.
On true game days in the fall, 56,000 people fill the stands of Davis Wade, music is pumped throughout the stadium and cowbells clang constantly during their allowed moments of ringing.
In the spring game, though 20,000 is a big crowd, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. Sitting in the press box and eating a small plate of brunch, I kept hearing the same group of people: the cheerleaders.
Over the noise in the fall, the voices and chants of these young men and women rarely carry all the way to our perch atop the stadium in the press box. But today, everyone at Scott Field could here them. Every shout into the megaphone spread over the stadium, every coordinated clap fell on the ears of those in attendance.
In an odd way, the spring game is their time to shine. Like the players on the field, this is their moment in front of the crowd, their opportunity to show what they can do.
Walking off the field afterward, I was stopped by a man who seemed to recognize me. He was the father of MSU longsnapper Winston Chapman’s, he told me, and that woman over there was his wife, Winston’s mom.
The special teams group is always the first on the field for pre-game warm ups, so they are the ones I take pictures of to tweet what uniform MSU is wearing that day. Winston, a nice guy and always willing to help, is my go-to uniform model.
“Thank you for all the pictures,” his mom said as she shook my hand. “I’ve got one of them saved as my background.”
We spend a lot of time breaking down action on the field, praising and critiquing the students in those uniforms as they put into action what they’ve practiced for months.
It’s nice, on occasions like this, to see them from another point of view. Everyone, after all, is someone’s kid.
Saturday night, softball vs. Alabama, game two
Following the previously-discussed baseball game, I hopped over to the softball stadium to catch the end of game two.
I had been so involved in baseball that I hadn’t had the chance to check twitter or do anything to keep track of what had been going at softball, so as I walked up, I didn’t know what I would find. MSU has been playing well this season, but Alabama was the No. 2 team in the country and certainly favored to win.
However, as I approached, I heard loud cheers coming over the bleachers. Much louder than the small contingent of Crimson Tide fans could produce, to be certain.
The stands blocked the view of the scoreboard, but surely a crowd wouldn’t be so loud if the home team were losing. Turns out, I had walked up just as MSU had scored the go-ahead run, taking a 3-2 lead over the Tide they would never lose.
Luckily, my media badge got me a seat on press row, because otherwise I’d have had trouble finding somewhere to watch the conclusion.
The biggest crowd in MSU softball history was there to watch the win as every designated seat was spoken for and you could hardly walk down the aisles or across the front walkway for all the people finding makeshift seats on steps and flat areas of bleacher.
“Who are we?” the left side of the stadium yelled.
“Hail State!” came the return cry from the right.
Final score: Bulldogs won 4-2, rubber match to come on Sunday afternoon.
Saturday night, Old Main Music Festival
By the time softball finished, I was 12 hours into a day of outdoor activities and I had the unfortunate odor to prove it.
But Saturday wasn’t yet over. It just needed a fun nightcap to finish it off.
At my house near campus, I could hear the sound of bands coming from the amphitheater, one of my favorite venues for a concert. Passing through the Cotton District on my way felt like the ending of a movie – uplifting music seemingly coming out of the air around you, walking into the night at the conclusion of a dramatic and beautiful day. The haze of the last 12 hours faded into the lights and sounds of campus at night.
The next day, MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin looked back on everything as he applied perspective to all that happened.
“That might be the best day in Super Bulldog Weekend history,” he said.
The come-from-behind baseball win, the record crowd, a high-scoring spring game, the victory over Alabama, the arts and the music and the gorgeous weather to top it off.
“It lined up perfectly.”
Sunday morning, tennis vs. Texas A&M
A more perfect lazy spring Sunday could hardly be designed, with a strong breeze and just enough cloud cover to tame the warm sunshine pouring down.
In this tennis center I’ve often witnessed one my favorite happenings, something almost exclusively unique to college tennis. With fewer courts than there are matches to play, not all members of the teams are playing at the same time. And unlike other sports, there’s no sideline bench area for an entire team to sit in.
Instead, those who aren’t currently in action find seats in the stands, right in the middle of all the spectators watching the matches. From their spot with the fans, they are perfectly placed to start chants, loudly cheering for their teammates down below.
Senior Day for the Bulldogs, it was the culmination of careers for three MSU seniors in Malte Stropp, Zach White and team manager Andrew Kirkland. In unfortunate results, State ended up dropping a tight match to Texas A&M, the Aggies winning 4-2, a hard end to the regular season for MSU.
But in sports, just as in life, where there is defeat, there is opportunity for redemption, and if luck is on their side, Stropp and White may not yet have played their final moments at home.
The SEC Tournament is up next, followed by the NCAA Tournament, which the Bulldogs hope to be a host for yet again.
Sunday afternoon, softball vs. Alabama, game three
Right behind the tennis courts, I was in my seat a few minutes before first pitch between MSU and Alabama softball, then rose as the National Anthem was called to take place.
At any event, this is as quiet as it will ever be. The only time one voice can be heard with every mouth struck silent in reverence, it’s respect and love for country as the fight for America’s freedom is recalled in solo song.
“…the bombs bursting in air…”
Overheard in the near silent softball stadium, cheers erupted from tennis next door, where a crucial point had just been won by MSU.
“…gave proof through the night…”
A repeating “stomp, stomp, clap” off bleachers and hands began at tennis as the singing continued at softball. The rhythmic noise-making came from ‘We Will Rock You,’ an anthemic song itself which has been heard for years at sporting events across the country, though certainly different in style to the tune it accidentally mixed with in that moment.
The National Anthem is a beautiful song, though not without strong words, the story of a battle for freedom and the realization of accomplished victory coming after.
The incidental pairing of passion and pageantry now passed, I left for baseball, assuming I’d be there the rest of the day and miss the end of softball.
However, as updates came on twitter hours later, I struggled to stay away. Finally, upon seeing softball had gone into extra innings at a scoreless tie, I skipped over from baseball to softball to watch the end.
Shortly after arrival, it seemed the trek might have been a waste. After no score for nine innings, the Alabama offense finally broke through in the tenth as the Tide racked up three runs.
Just like their baseball brothers the night before, these softball ladies found themselves needing three runs to tie and four to win in the 10th inning, despite their relative lack of offense the previous nine innings.
Facing deficit and defeat, the Bulldog bats came alive. After three batters, MSU had three runners on – the bases loaded with zero outs on the board.
A single scored the first run. 3-1.
Another single scored the second. 3-2.
A fielder’s choice tied it up. 3-3.
Saturday night at Dudy Noble flashed in my mind as a freshman catcher – Katie Ann Bailey – stepped to the plate for Vann Stuedeman’s Bulldogs, the result of the game potentially resting on her bat.
The entire crowd was on their feet waiting on the pitch to come. Some were clapping, some had their phones out ready to document the win, should it come.
When the ball came her way, Bailey did exactly what she was supposed to, sending it flying in the other direction, deep into the outfield.
Her sacrifice fly had won the game, perhaps the biggest in the history of the program, as MSU beat Alabama 4-3 and won the weekend series against the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.
The stands erupted, the dugout emptied and the celebration began.
After singing the fight song with the crowd, the entire Bulldog team and coaching staff sprinted out of the stadium, ran across the street and dove into Chadwick Lake, euphoric in victory.
Sunday afternoon, baseball vs. Ole Miss, game three
In the locker room following the game, there were very few smiles to be found in the immediate moments after loss.
Otherwise sad eyes looked up as man walked in, holding his son in his arms.
“He just wanted to meet y’all,” the father told the team after they gathered around.
Just four years old, little Campbell was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer two months ago.
With both tears and a smile on his face, father told the team how brave his son is and how much they both love Mississippi State baseball.
Heads bowed in prayer for Campbell, junior pitcher Ross Mitchell asked for healing and comfort for Campbell.
“It’s easy to say woe is us,” Mitchell spoke to his team. “We just had a bad day because we lost a game. Let Campbell be a reminder to us.”
Mitchell asked for happiness for their new friend. He encouraged those around him to keep Campbell in their minds and to enjoy life, not let anything get them down.
Wins and losses are accrued over time, people and players come and go.
There in the locker room, a smile on a little boy’s face as he got to meet the men of his favorite team served as example of what Super Bulldog Weekend is all about, why it’s important.
Through all circumstances, all events, the good and especially the bad, finding happiness and contentment is what makes life worth living.