Walt had no idea what was in the box.
He and his wife Cathy had tickets to see their hometown Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field that night for Walt’s birthday, but his wife insisted that they come here, to their favorite local country music bar, instead.
Confused, wearing a “DUDY GRAS 2015” T-shirt and wondering who this mystery gift was from, Walt eventually gave up staring at the box and opened up what turned out to be his favorite birthday present: a card from everyone they had met unexpectedly the year before on their first trip to the Left Field lounge, plus a signed Mississippi State baseball.
“He was elated,” Cathy remembered. “He said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ and teared up.”
That birthday present was one of many great moments to come as the result of an adventure Walt and Cathy Cohen (no relation to MSU head coach John Cohen that they know of) decided to take during Easter weekend of 2015. Long-time Chicagoans, they had seen the likes of former Bulldogs and then-MLB stars Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Thigpen come through for the White Sox, leading Walt to wonder, “What kind of team was that?” The eventual SEC Storied documentary on Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark at MSU sparked Walt’s curiosity even more.
Two years ago, the Cohens were watching college baseball on ESPN and happened to see the game in Starkville when announcer Kyle Peterson broadcast the entire night from MSU’s famed Left Field Lounge, a mobile broadcast booth set up in the Right Field Tiki Lounge.
“We’ve got to go to this,” Walt thought at the time, Cathy quickly agreeing.
Walt asked around at work and it turned out a friend of a friend – long-time MSU meteorology expert Renny Vandewege – knew plenty to get the Cohens started. In fact, Vandewege had himself previously been the chief weather expert for MSU’s baseball team and knew precisely what the Cohens should do.
“Go by the tiki tailgate and say hey to Hobie,” Vandewege relayed to Walt.
“Oh, tiki,” Walt reacted excitedly, “that was the one that was on ESPN.”
So, Easter weekend, the Cohens headed south, no idea what to expect, nothing to go on but the name of a stranger they had never met who had no idea they were coming for him and depending on his hospitality.
Walt and Cathy likely would’ve found the Tiki Lounge and the man named Hobie Hobart who oversees it on their own – he’s hard to miss in his Hawaiian shorts, bright shirts, sunglasses and visor – but the gods of the Left Field Lounge weren’t content to leave it to chance. Shortly after arriving in Starkville, a man in a gas station overheard the Cohens saying it was their first time in Starkville and first time going to an MSU baseball game.
“You guys have never been to the Left Field Lounge?” the stranger asked.
“No,” Walt replied. “I keep envisioning it and I’m dying to see what it looks like.”
“I want to make sure you do it the right way,” the kind Samaritan answered. “Do you know where to go?”
“We do not.”
(“We love the south,” Cathy later said.
“Overwhelmed at how nice everyone is down here,” Walt agreed.)
The nice man got the Cohens to their hotel, then took them to Dudy Noble Field and led them straight to the Tiki Lounge to introduce them to his friend Hobie who he knew would take care of them.
The rest of the story isn’t just history. It became the future. The Cohens had such a good time, made such good friends with Hobie, Donna, Pickle and the entire crew that they’ve kept up with everyone over the last year, Walt texting a congratulations when MSU’s football team wins a game, the Starkvillians sending presents to Chicago to help Walt celebrate his birthday. The Cohens even have dreams of retiring to Starkville, to the SEC.
This weekend, one year removed from their first trip, the Cohens returned to Starkville for a reunion with their friends in their new favorite vacation spot.
“Everybody goes to Hawaii or the Caribbean for Spring Break,” Walt said. “We come here.”
“It’s the power of Left Field Lounge,” Hobart says now. “The Left Field Lounge is such an ambassador for Mississippi State.”
“This is the greatest atmosphere,” Walt remarked Thursday night as he stood in the Lounge with a plate full of food watching MSU beat Georgia. “I remember telling people last year, we do the same thing at home, barbecue and have friends over, except for the game’s on the TV on our patio. This is the best.”
Quite literally just strangers off the street when they walked into the Lounge last year, the Cohens have been treated like life-long friends from the start. Beyond being guided in direction and showered with grilled meats, veggies and cheeses, Walt even got to meet his favorite college baseball player as a result of the hospitality last year, former MSU first baseman Wes Rea.
“We also wanted to come last year pretty badly because I became a big Wes Rea fan. He was my favorite player,” Walt said. “We met him in the left field area. Nicest guy in the world.”
Walt and Cathy feel as if they couldn’t possibly re-pay their friends for the kindness they’ve been shown, but as a sign of their gratitude, they brought a piece of Chicago with them back to Starkville this time. A 20-pound piece, to be exact, in the form of their favorite Chicago sausage from their preferred local spot, Tony’s Italian Deli, a family-owned business that makes its own sausage in-house.
Beyond the fences of Dudy Noble Field, Starkville and Chicago meet now on an annual basis, southern hospitality and northern curiosity forming an unlikely team. In no other world would Walt and Cathy have crossed paths with the crew from the Right Field Tiki Lounge, and without the chance meeting, the Chicago-loyal Cohens certainly would not now be considering retiring to Mississippi.
Much as they appreciate their city, however, they’ve found a new love, a place for Walt to tell coworkers about when he talks about “going home.” As Hobart said, such is the power of the Left Field Lounge, the draw of a place that looks like a fantastical combination of a junkyard and a college football tailgate, the character of a venue with seats made from pontoon boats, milk trucks, bowling alley benches and discarded stadium chairs, a community full of smoking grills, cheering fans and Mississippi’s staple: hospitality.
“Pictures did not do it justice,” Walt said. “I didn’t know what to expect. It blew us away. We absolutely live for this. I don’t know why we haven’t been coming before.
“I told Hobie, you ruined Wrigley Field for us.”