When unexpected, finality is devastating. Finality is crushing. Finality not only takes the breath out of the lungs, but swirls emotions, halts words in throats and unleashes torrents of tears fueled by love and regret alike.
In sports, the end of the season is the hardest part not because it’s the end, but because you didn’t know that was when the end was coming. Competitive flames burning year-round are snuffed out in a single moment, the belief that tomorrow would always be there upended with one swing of a bat.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Mississippi State’s baseball team, they thought. Not this year. Not this group. They were special, they believed. And they were right, which only made the end that much harder.
When John Cohen arrived at the press conference podium following his team’s elimination at home in the Starkville Super Regional, he did so as someone who has been through decades of competitive baseball. He did so as someone who has seen more seasons come to an end than his starting lineup combined. Experience doesn’t soften the blow, but it does prepare you for the pain.
His players, however, weren’t prepared. Brent Rooker and Austin Sexton, representing their teammates as they took the podium next to Cohen, had faces that looked as if they had seen death for the first time. In an allegorical sense, they sort of had. It was the death of a season, and it was one that came unexpectedly. That, again, is when things are most difficult.
Not knowing then that his comments were foreshadowing a hard ending, Cohen reminisced on his days as a player the night MSU won the 2016 regular season SEC Championship. When you’re a player on the team, he said, you think things like that are going to happen every year. Freshmen do it once and think it will happen every season they’re on campus. Juniors and seniors always believe, this is their year, no matter what year it is.
As a coach, Cohen said that night, you realize how rare those experiences are, how hard it is to accomplish such feats. The awareness of their rarity makes appreciation for big wins even greater.
Such victories, however, seem to demand or even require the assumed invincibility of youth. The rigid belief that they are the best, that no one will beat them, is absolutely necessary to becoming the best and to ensuring one is never beat.
And that’s why the struggle with finality is so difficult for players to handle, the end such hard a concept to grasp.
Every single player on the bench believed they were going to win game two Saturday night, that they would win then win game three on Sunday and that this time next weekend they’d be in Omaha for the College World Series. In the first inning, ninth inning and 11th inning, the belief never wavered.
All year long, even when loss seemed immediately upon them, the expectation was always that the next pitch, the next inning or the next game would bring redemption, would bring victory. More times than not, they were right, and they had no reason to feel differently Saturday night in Starkville.
“At no point in the game did I think we were going to lose,” Sexton said.
You could see it on his face, hear it in his voice. He wasn’t offering what he thought were the right words for reporters. He was sharing what he genuinely felt. His firm belief that MSU was going to win was being disproved by the cold fact of the moment. They lost.
State’s players thought they were going to win a National Championship, and that dream being dashed is certainly part of why the loss was so hard. However, the most difficult thing, players will almost always say, is realizing two truths at the same time. First, that the journey was far more meaningful than the destination the whole time. Second, that the journey is over.
“It is disappointing that we came this far and weren’t able to finish it,” Rooker began as the tears came, the words getting stuck somewhere between heart and mouth. “But the biggest disappointment to me is that I don’t get to be around this group of guys anymore. This is a special group and that’s what hurts the most, having to leave these guys.”
Rooker may be back, that’s a decision he’ll have to make after being drafted on Saturday. A lot of his teammates will be off to play pro ball. Some will just graduate. And plenty more, Rooker perhaps among them, will return and work to ensure they don’t have to feel this way again. But it won’t be the same team. Might be better, might be worse. But it will definitely be different.
That’s what Cohen remembers about the end of seasons as a player, and it’s the words of his former coach at MSU, Ron Polk, that he shared with the team in their final moments after the game. The same hard message Polk delivered then, Cohen had to repeat for his own club.
This, he said, is the last time this group will ever be together. Sitting in their lockers and trying to come to terms with their new reality, it was the final experience for those 27 players together, the last minutes for that exact group to exist as it was. It’s a hard truth, but a necessary one. The finality is a bitter pill that has to be swallowed.
The most important thing in those final moments, Cohen said, is to appreciate what they had, what they did together. One loss at the end does not define a season of wins, a year of training and four months of life lived and games played together at home and on the road. What they did was special, and what they accomplished will be remembered within that locker room forever.
“They are champions,” Cohen said. “They can hold their heads up and know they were a great Mississippi State baseball team. Looking at the tradition of our program, that’s saying a lot.”