Sunday afternoon, I was walking and searching all around Dudy Noble. There were about 45 minutes to go before Mississippi State and Tennessee started their final game of the series and I was hoping to catch my favorite pre-school aged fan before the rubber match began.
Nearly everyone at MSU baseball games knows him, or at least has seen him, so he shouldn’t be hard to find, as one of the Diamond Girls reminded when I asked if she’d she spotted him.
“If Reed were here,” Jordyn told me, “you’d know. You’d see him running around and talking to people.”
Reed Sparks, 3 ½ years old, curly blond hair and chubby cheeks like everyone his age, has somehow become one of the most popular fans around MSU’s teams.
“Today,” his dad Ryan told me Sunday, “we were at Restaurant Tyler for Mother’s Day and people would walk by and say ‘Hey Reed!’ I don’t recognize them, but I’m sure he’s talked to them at baseball games.”
Reed, Ryan says, hasn’t missed an MSU football game since he was three weeks old, though he wasn’t able to make it to the one the day after his birth. He’s only missed one baseball game this spring and has made it to nearly every softball, basketball and whatever-other-sport game in between.
“I was telling Reed this would be our last time at Dudy Noble this year,” Ryan recalled from the morning. “He said, ‘That makes me sad, daddy.’”
As a part of a program MSU has been experimenting with this spring – Maroon Memories – Reed has been on the field before games, stood next to Jonathan Holder (while wearing his homemade Jonathan Holder jersey) for the National Anthem and has even been lifted up into the arms of massive Gavin Ware for a National Anthem in The Hump.
Reed is a second-generation fan of experience, as hid dad tells it. When Ryan Sparks was 12 years old, his uncle took him to Wrigley Field, one of the country’s historic parks, to see the Chicago Cubs. Sitting a few rows up on the third base line, Ryan had never seen anything like it.
When the visiting team hit a home run, those behind the outfield wall threw the ball back onto the grass. The left fielder grabbed it, turned to the seats behind the foul line and saw Ryan looking at him with wide eyes. The MLB star waved him to come down to the wall and he tossed him the ball.
Ryan’s been a Cubs fan ever since.
“I always remembered that growing up,” he said. “That moment meant something to me. I’m hoping these memories can be like that for Reed.”
Creating memories and experiences is something MSU’s athletic department has made a recent effort for, starting at the top with Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, which is why they were so interested when the Maroon Memories idea was presented to them.
And it’s gone so well, they plan to keep the program, expanding it when football begins in the fall.
It would be an upset if Reed doesn’t get involved.
“You gotta love little Reed,” MSU’s coordinator of Maroon Memories Danielle Smith said. “Gavin just picked him up and to see them standing there during the National Anthem – I was a little girl, you were a little boy, he’s going to want to grow up and be a Mississippi State baseball player. He’s going to remember those things.”
Naturally, Reed is just one of many who have been able to have special moments fostered for them.
Smith remembers one particular person who wanted nothing more than to see MSU baseball’s National Championship runner-up trophy in the Hall of Champions. That fan’s mother, through Maroon Memories, set up a surprise visit for her son.
“He took off his hat walking into the Hall of Champions,” Smith said. “He was just so honored to be there, and when he saw the trophy he began to cry. I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it’s all about.’”
Of course, these experiences and events aren’t limited to those who sign up for them, though plenty have enjoyed doing it that way.
On Saturday for instance, the usual tailgate scene in the Left Field Lounge was classed up a bit. The new Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Nations had just been wed in the Chapel of Memories, scheduling their day such that they could have a reception along the outfield deck. They celebrated their Mississippi State wedding the best way they knew how – watching Mississippi State win from the Left Field Lounge as afternoon turned to night.
On Sunday – on Mother’s Day – Nelle Cohen exhibited what makes both MSU and moms so special. There’s something that happens in a mother to make her not only care for her own children, but the children of anyone else she comes across.
Wife of head coach John, Nelle arranged a special day for a child who was badly in need of something positive.
Nine-year-old Aiden has been an MSU baseball fan as long as he’s been able to open his eyes and watch the Bulldogs. With the help of his parents, family and friends, he’s spent years gathering Diamond Dawg memorabilia to fill his bedroom with, a practical shrine to the Maroon and White he loves so much.
Two weeks ago, when tornados ripped through Mississippi and his hometown of Louisville, Aiden’s house was destroyed, his young life’s collection gone.
When he came to Sunday’s game with his parents and grandmother, whose house he had sought refuge in when the storm came, he was given an incredible surprise: Nelle and the team had gathered and prepared everything available to them to give to Aiden. They couldn’t replace what he had, but they gave him a foundation to start over; signed gear, baseballs, a jersey, posters – everything a nine year old baseball fan would want to hang on his walls and display on his dresser.
He even got to throw out the first pitch.
“He’s really nervous,” his grandmother told me before the ceremonial throw. “He plays travel ball and he really wants to throw a strike.”
When he started his wind up, setting his feet in the perfect position, holding ball to glove just under his eyes, he got applause from the crowd who saw that clearly this was someone who knew what he was doing.
John Cohen standing next to him and his father watching from behind the mound, Aiden delivered his heater right over the middle of the plate.
MSU’s team lined up outside the dugout as Aiden came off the mound, high-fiving and congratulating him on his impressive pitch.
“We’re fortunate to be alive,” grandmother said as she watched her grandson next to his real-life heroes. “This is amazing.”
Sports are just games, but they can mean a great deal to those who follow.
Everyone wants something to be a part of, something to care about and be invested in.
“We got back from Missouri late on a Sunday night,” baseball sports information director Kyle Niblett remembered. “There was one fan who came to greet us and welcome us back – little Reed in his pajamas, there with his dad. He wanted to talk to Ben Bracewell.”