Polk-DeMent Stadium, 1987-2017, opened the year I was born. The home of Mississippi State Baseball was also the home of my childhood. Big chunks of it, anyway. I was raised around MSU baseball, spending afternoons and nights jumping back and forth between the seats in the grandstands with my parents high up on the third base line and all the distractions, activities and pleasures that the Left Field Lounge and the surrounding areas had to offer for kids with endless energy and short attention spans.
After watching Jay Powell or Gary Rath or Eric DuBose pitch for a few innings, I’d run down to find my friends and play wall ball on the side of the stadium in the area between the grandstands and the bleachers. In what is now a parking lot, there was a hill we’d play football on, toss the baseball across or, when we got really bored, just roll down until we made ourselves dizzy.
My childhood best friend was Sean Weathersby, and on long days at the park, we’d sneak into the batting cages beneath the third base bleachers and toss the ball back and forth, each trying to impress the other with how hard we could throw and how easily we could catch a hard-thrown ball.
After we wore ourselves out, we’d go back to his family’s rig that lined the home bullpen and catch the end of the game. It’s out there that the Weathersbys taught me about food and eating, while Gerald taught me about drinks and cursing. Some lessons were more helpful than others.
That’s also the first place I ever heard the familiar refrain yelled at the end of the National Anthem, a certain suggestion for Ole Miss and where they could go, even though the opponent was almost always someone else. If my mom wasn’t around I’d sometimes join in. Not that she’d have likely cared, but still, no kid is comfortable saying even the least offensive curse word in front of their parents until at least high school.
Over the years, I gradually developed the ability to sit still for more than 20 minutes at a time, and I started watching the games more. When the stadium expanded in the ‘90s, my dad got three seats in the spot he calls “The Top Of The World,” the one three-seat row all the way to the right and all the way to the top on the third base side. The aisle seat had his name on it, the middle seat my little brother’s, and the window seat as it were, overlooking the side of the stadium, had mine. Whatever else was going on in our lives, we always had spring days at Dudy Noble to look forward to.
Then I went to college and my presence at The Top Of The World became a bit more rare and my days in the Left Field Lounge a bit more regular. I was lucky my freshman year when an MSU team that none of us really thought was that good ended up hosting – and sweeping – a Super Regional against Clemson to clinch a trip to the College World Series. I don’t care what anyone says, I still thought that was the biggest crowd MSU had ever had until Super Bulldog Weekend a few years ago. And I know for sure that’s the hottest I’ve ever been, smushed in among thousands on an outfield deck that was much smaller at the time, baking under the cloudless June sky with a sun hotter than the smoking grills surrounding us.
Then this weekend came. I now work at MSU, if you can call what I do work. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m employed by MSU. I spent the last weekend of The Dude as I know it, The Dude I grew up on, the same way I did for most of my life: out in the crowd, watching the game, hanging out with friends. Some of those same Starkville locals I made friends with in elementary school were around me as we watched. We’re all a little taller and have a lot more responsibilities, but that stuff sort of disappears when you go to the game. You can forget everything else, at least for the space of a few innings, and enjoy yourself.
Stadiums are built for baseball, but they become much more meaningful than that with enough time. For three decades, Polk-DeMent stadium was, like so many things in life, ultimately about the people. I sit here now feeling gratitude, wanting to say thank you to everyone who took me in, everyone who welcomed me, who fed me, who quenched my thirst and who helped shape who I am. Thank you for being you and thank you for accepting all of us for who we are. Thank you for cheering alongside strangers and friends, families and foes, black and white, old and young. Thank you for years of passion and pride, of fandom and faith, of tragedy and triumph. The structure was cement, but the foundation was you.
It’s appropriate that so much rain fell on the final day of what is soon to be The Old Dudy Noble, the showers from the sky finally putting out a fire that had been burning for 30 years straight. But we know that from the ashes of history, the future will rise.
The New Dude will open soon enough, a beautiful new park that will once again set the standard in college baseball, just like the last one did in 1987. It will be the beginning of the modern era for a program that had the luxury of living in history well into the new millennium.
The timing is right, too. For the last 30 years, there had always been a tie to the past. Ron Polk was the head coach in 1987 when the stadium opened and had already been there for a decade and showed the college baseball world that MSU had reservations in Omaha every summer. Pat McMahon had three different stints as an assistant coach at MSU, and the third one resulted in him becoming the head coach in 1997, only to be replaced by Polk again a few years later. When Polk retired for good, MSU kept it in the family again, going to a former player this time as John Cohen was hired in 2009.
But when Cohen vacated the job to become athletic director last fall, the next hire marked a breaking of the pattern. Cohen hired a Louisiana native who had played in his home state in college, who was drafted and eventually worked for the Yankees and then went on to be an assistant at LSU. When Andy Cannizaro was hired last year, he had no history with the school. He was just a young, energetic, up-and-coming coach who got the gig of a lifetime. A strikingly similar story to the day Polk was first hired in 1976.
With the new stadium already planned, this last year at The Old Dude has marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one in more ways than one. It’s a changing of the guard.
As sad as it is to say goodbye to the place I grew up, the timing was right. The first day I spent in the Lounge was with the Weathersbys in the farthest reaches of left field along the home bullpen. The last day I spent in the Lounge was with childhood friends in the far end of right field, pressed against the visiting bullpen. It was, in both the literal and metaphoric sense, the end of the road. I had worked my way around and come full circle, so much as the outfield allows, nowhere left to go but somewhere new.