“I’m the opposite of moderate,
Immaculately polished with,
The spirit of a hustler,
And the swagger of a college kid.”
– Clifford “T.I.” Harris
Forget about the awards for a minute. Forget about The Ferriss Trophy, the first-team All-SEC, the freshman All-SEC and the overall conference Freshman of the Year award. Ignore, until a bit later at least, that he leads the SEC in batting average, that he’s one of the country’s deadliest runners on the basepath and that he could even take the mound for an inning or three if he really wanted.
Instead, just for now, let’s take a moment to appreciate the personality of Jake Mangum, outfielder, Mississippi State. The one who jumps in the air in celebration just for hitting a single. The one who drops to his knee and fires an imaginary arrow with an imaginary bow into his dugout after hitting triples. And on Saturday, the one who unveiled some kind of leaping, fist-pumping, whooping pirouette of a celebration after making the diving catch to end the seventh inning and the Arkansas threat, effectively sewing up the regular season SEC Championship for his Bulldogs.
“I don’t even know what I did,” Mangum admitted when asked after the game about the celebratory outburst. “Probably something stupid.”
There is a history to these exuberant displays, too, it turns out. Once, in high school, Mangum and his Jackson Prep teammates were playing against Starkville Academy. It was, Mangum recalled, maybe the third inning, at the latest, and he was on base. The game was tied 3-3. Until Mangum crossed the plate.
Those who have seen Mangum play at MSU – or anywhere, surely – know how fast he runs. That day, like all others, he moved as fast as his body would let him. Like a bullet fired from the chamber when the ball was hit, Mangum didn’t sprint to home plate. He sprinted through home plate. And he didn’t stop there. Altering his trajectory slightly, Mangum kept going at top speed and full-on tackled his teammate who was waiting in the on-deck circle. Now an opponent of Mangum’s playing for Ole Miss, Rob Huffman was dropped to the ground in Mangum’s celebration of a game that wasn’t even halfway over.
“There are so many stories I could go through,” Mangum said as his mind’s eye wandered to visions of other such exhibitions of joy. “You can ask anybody who played high school baseball with me. Some of my celebrations over the years may have been over the top, but a lot of emotion goes into baseball.”
MSU recruiting coordinator and outfielders coach Nick Mingione remembers a similar occasion he witnessed when he was recruiting Mangum. The speedster rounded third base in a flash while the ball was off in play somewhere in the outfield behind him, and by the time his teammates had even figured out their guy was about to score, Mangum had reached home and already made it almost all the way to the dugout. From there, he continued sprinting along the outside of the dugout fence, giving high fives to each teammate as he passed them by and ran almost all the way to the outfield.
“He got to the dugout before everyone could even get out of the dugout he was so excited,” Mingione said with a laugh. “We want competitive kids, and there’s no doubt, he’s extremely competitive. Some kids are quiet competitors … Jake’s more of that animated competitor.
“Earlier in the year,” Mingione continued, “he gets on first base and he’s jumping in the air. Most people were like, ‘The dude was safe on a single and he’s jumping up in the air?’ But that’s who he is. He’s being Jake Mangum.”
Being Jake Mangum involves personality. It involves flair. It requires being competitive, expressive and unabashedly proud of the name on the front of the jersey as well as the one on the back. And, in addition to all that, it comes with a thick cloak of humility and a genuine team-first attitude.
Ask Mangum about his spectacular diving catches, and he’ll you tell that he considers his teammate Jacob Robson to be the best outfielder in the country. Try to talk to Mangum about his hitting prowess, and he’ll respond by letting you know just how great his teammates have been all year, bragging on spots 2-9 in the lineup. He’ll start telling you about the guys on the bench, too, if you don’t stop him. He’ll thank Mingione. He’ll thank his head coach, John Cohen. He even thanked a couple pitching coaches when reporters tried to talk to him about the success he’s had in 2016.
“I know how much he cares about Mississippi State in general, and he really cares about our team,” Mingione said. “I know where his heart is. There’s no doubt the guy cares about Mississippi State first.
“I talked to him every week in the recruiting process,” Mingione added, “and every time, he would talk about winning a National Championship. That’s all he wanted to talk about, was how great Mississippi State was going to be and how we were going to do it.”
There, again, is the trademark Mangum confidence and competitiveness. He’s been that way his whole life, he confesses. He gets it from his dad. It was fostered by his friends. Baseball, video games, hockey, even, it doesn’t matter; Mangum wants to win. He expects to win. And when he does win, he celebrates like a man who was never supposed to win a thing in his life.
“Games I’m not playing,” junior All-SEC pitcher Dakota Hudson shared, “I’m just sitting there watching him. Games I am playing, I turn around and he’s making a diving catch and fist-pumping … Being able to feed off that has been huge for our team.”
It’s an approach and attitude Mangum has had his whole life, but one that was enhanced in this, his first season at MSU, when senior catcher Josh Lovelady gave a speech to the team shortly before the season began. Lovelady – who Mangum calls the best teammate he’s ever had – preached to his teammates about never taking any game, play or moment for granted. Nothing is guaranteed, he told them, clichéd as it may sound. Take every opportunity, because you never know which game or play could be your last.
That was days before the 2016 campaign began. Four games into his senior season, Lovelady blew out his knee. His year was over before it had hardly begun. For him, for his teammates, and specifically for Mangum, the message he had shared so recently resonated that much more. If it wasn’t real before, it was after that.
So, now, Mangum takes every chance he gets. He sees not just every game, but every practice, every workout and even every film session as an opportunity, a gift that could be revoked at any time.
That approach to life is one he takes to the plate, as well, which numbers would indicate has been successful. Any ball he thinks he can hit – and he’s got enough confidence to believe he can get most – Mangum is going to take a swing at.
“My approach at the plate is, just get something you can hit, and hit it,” he explained. “There are so many great pitchers in this league … You can step in the box 0-0 and get a curveball that’s just absolutely filthy, then the next pitch you get a 96 mph fastball on your hands, and then the next pitch you get a change-up low and away. If you get anything to hit, you need to hit it.”
As for the results, they can be spoken for in awards, certainly, or explained in pure numbers. His .427 batting average leads the team, of course, but perhaps just as impressive is the fact that in 171 at-bats, he’s only struck out 12 times, the lowest total of any Bulldog with 150-plus plate appearances. He’s one of only two such players with fewer than 20 strikeouts.
Mangum’s 73 hits and team-high .472 on-base percentage are impressive, as well, and they are part of why Cohen has compared his freshman star to one of the best hitters MSU baseball has ever seen in Adam Frazier. They both, constantly, put themselves in position to get on base.
It’s to the point now that any time Mangum doesn’t get a hit, the crowd at Dudy Noble Field seems genuinely surprised. Even the way he takes the plate, thanks to his chosen walk-up song, feels dramatic. The ‘80s hit ‘Your Love’ by English rock band The Outfield, just like Mangum, wastes exactly zero time. There’s almost no build-up, no intro, no time to prepare. Within a second of the well-known riff starting, the band is yelling across the stadium. “Josie’s on a vacation far away…” The Outfield bursting over the outfield.
It seems like you hear the song so many times in any game, and especially over the course of a weekend. You can’t look down without Mangum coming back up to the plate sometimes. The song really is perfect for Mangum, who Mingione observes to have an old school quality about him, somehow combining the swagger of youth with the confidence of an old soul, a wily veteran. The song, too – other than being appropriately sung by a band with Mangum’s actual position in the name – pays homage to his roots and the teammate who originally picked ‘Your Love’ as his walk-up song years ago.
One of Mangum’s best friends is the rightfielder from his high school team, Trace Lovertich, now a freshman at MSU who will be Mangum’s roommate next year. However, while Mangum’s baseball career is continuing, Lovertich’s ended at Jackson Prep last spring and, it seemed at the moment, so did the regular renditions of ‘Your Love.’ So, when Mangum was trying to come up with a song before this season started, Lovertich suggested he carry on the tradition he had started in high school.
“I’ll do it,” Mangum told him. “That’ll be my walk-up song all four years I’m here.”
Mangum says now, “It’s a tribute to him and it’s a tribute to Jackson Prep. Jackson Prep really did change my life. Just a special, special place that will always have a special place in my heart.”
To make the choice even better: the name of The Outfield’s greatest hits album on which the song appears is ‘Big Innings.’ Those two words form the exact goal Mingione has for the team every game. Get at least one big offensive inning per game by scoring three or more runs in a single frame.
The Bulldogs have had those Big Innings frequently this year, and more times than not, Mangum has been in the middle of the action. Whether he’s driving in his teammates for those runs or watching and running as they send him to home plate, he’s thrilled, in his usual emotive fashion, to see it happen – just like his coach.
“You’ll see Coach Mingione over at third base going absolutely crazy,” Mangum said, “because he loves big innings. That’s his thing.“
Inning or otherwise, it seems that just plain Big is Mangum’s thing. Big catches, Big hits, Big steals and the Biggest celebrations. However, as is typical with Mangum, he’s not thinking about his Big Self. His big personality is 100 percent invested in the even bigger dreams of his team.
“It really has been a special year so far,” he said. “And we don’t want it to end.”
Lucky him. The regular season concluded Saturday, but the postseason is just beginning.