To get straight to the point, Brent Rooker is really good at hitting baseballs. Like, really good. He is, it turns out, one of the very best at it, as the Mississippi State junior currently leads the SEC in just about every offensive category the sport of baseball has to offer. Through 34 games, as a starter in all of them, he’s batting .448 with 56 hits, 56 RBI, 33 runs scored, 19 doubles and three triples. His one-base percentage is .548 and his slugging percentage is a ridiculous 1.008. To boot, he’s stolen 14 bases and been walked 22 times.
But what we’re going to talk about here is home runs. It’s the thing everyone watching a baseball game wants. It’s the only thing in the sport that is guaranteed. Every pitch, every single, double or triple, every stolen base attempt, every bunt and every blooper is metaphorically up in the air until the play is completed. It might be good, it might not. There are outside factors, other people are involved, and the action continues inside the walls of the park until a result is determined.
Home runs, while literally up in the air, are the only guarantees in baseball. The only sure thing. If you hit a ball over the fence, nothing can change that. You can’t mess it up. No one can take it from you. It just is. No questions. It’s the play everyone is waiting for, that everyone wants to see. It’s the most exciting normal play in sports.
And Brent Rooker is really good at making it happen. When told he was about to have a discussion purely about home runs, his response was quick and easy: “Oh,” he said, “those are my favorite.”
Rooker has hit 15 home runs this season, sending six out of the park in the last week alone. On Saturday, he hit three in one game, and one of them was a grand slam. Back on Wednesday, his game-winning long shot over the fences of Dudy Noble Field was the first walk-off of his career.
One of his homers landed a full 90 feet past the fence in left-centerfield, falling through the hands of a fan on top of a Left Field Lounge rig about 15 feet in the air. Rooker’s walk-out song is, appropriately, Frank Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come,” but it’s another hit by The Chairman that each baseball he hits is surely singing to itself as it’s sent over the fence: “Fly Me to the Moon.”
This is not a story about why Brent Rooker hits home runs. Breaking down his swing, his hand speed, his foot placement, his weight distribution, is an adventure for another time. No, this is a story about something none of us will ever understand – what’s it like to hit a home run as Brent Rooker; what it’s like from the moment the swing is completed.
This is about the moment a home run switches from mechanics to celebration.
“It depends on the ball,” Rooker began to explain. “Sometimes you’ll hit it and you know immediately it’s gone. Then sometimes you hit it and you’ve got to watch the outfielder to kind of see how he reacts, how hard he’s running backwards and when he kind of stops so you know for sure that it’s out. The balls you hit really well, you know right at contact it’s going out and that’s when it just kind of becomes a celebration.”
How a hitter celebrates a home run varies from person to person and personality to personality. Some strut, some flip the bat, some just put their heads down and jog. It depends on the human hitting the ball. Rooker’s reaction at the plate has actually been determined as much by position as any personality trait. Out of habit, the bat on Rooker’s big swings always goes around his left shoulder, lies flat on his back, then whips back around to be held down at his right side.
It’s a fine looking swing, but the bounce back of the bat doesn’t provide him much to work with as far as a showy flip goes.
“So my big thing,” Rooker said, “is if I hit it well and I know it’s out, I’ll walk for a few steps and watch the ball, then I’m more of a casual drop guy instead of a big flip guy.”
From there, it’s almost entirely emotion. As Rooker heads to first base, the accomplishment is his own. It’s personal.
“It’s a cool feeling just getting to soak that moment in knowing you put a good swing on the ball and you did what you went to the plate trying to do.”
As he rounds second, the celebration grows outward. When hitting home runs at Dudy Noble Field, this is the time he looks up and sees his teammates celebrating. The first person he spots is the first one he’s looking for, the third base coach. Behind him in the dugout a celebration of great variety takes place.
Some, like Hunter Stovall are dancing. Others, like Jake Mangum on Saturday, are walking in bewilderment and yelling, not inaccurately, “He’s so good!”
“That’s a cool feeling,” Rooker said, “seeing how what you did affects your teammates and gives your team a chance to win.”
Of course, the celebration isn’t always in the dugout. On Wednesday when Rooker’s walk-off homer sealed the win over FIU in extra innings, his entire team was waiting on him at home plate. And as excited as he was, he was still sure to be careful not to mess up the one thing he had to do.”
“That was actually the first time I’d ever hit a walk-off,” he said, “so I was getting close and I was consciously making sure I touched home plate before I got mobbed. Which I did, thankfully. That was the first time that I’ve hit a walk-off home run and that’s something I’m pretty glad I got to experience.
“It’s adrenaline,” he continued to explain. “It’s excitement. At some point, it’s relief that you were able to end the game and put your team over the edge. Mostly it’s excitement and joy.”
What’s more impressive: the walk-off, or hitting three bombs in a single game? To be sure, a multi-homer game is a hard task, as Rooker knows, and the rush from hitting one jack has to be exorcised before the next time at the plate, otherwise the approach is ruined.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re settled down before your next at-bat or you’re going to try to get too big or do too much, and that’s when disaster happens,” Rooker shared.
Luckily, Rooker is a natural pacer, and “whether I hit a home run or strike out,” he’s going to be pacing in the dugout, slowly burning that nervous energy and bringing adrenaline back to normal Brent Rooker levels.
Tempering emotions, enjoying celebrations, hitting all the bases and repeating the task ad nauseum – there’s a lot that goes into creating those brief moments when Brent Rooker stands at the plate with the bat hanging by his side, watching another baseball sail out of the park.
“I don’t know what’s going on, I’m just gonna be honest with you guys,” he said after Saturday’s game, offering a small smile that was half joy and half bewilderment at his own accomplishments. “There’s a lot of God happening right now, and not a lot of Brent.”
Whatever it is that’s going on, perhaps it’s nice for a moment not to try and break it down too much, but to just appreciate it and go with Mangum’s first reaction to his teammate’s talent: “He’s so good.”