These are not my words to write. It is not my story to tell.
This epic eventually became one that those around the country became enthralled with, and that Mississippi State fans committed themselves to wholly. Here, at its finish, it remains that way – an incredible journey and an unbelievable tale of which thousands just witnessed the finale.
But that’s not where this story I started. I wasn’t there when this saga began, when this roller coaster ride first started clicking and clacking down the tracks. Only a few dozen of the tens of thousands of us watching the final moments were there for its genesis.
This is not our story to tell. It’s theirs.
Star player miraculously comes back from injury, team rallies in their presence and pulls off fairy tale victory. I’ve written that story. We’ve seen that story. And it’s a good one, don’t get me wrong.
But this isn’t that kind of story. There are chapters within this tale along those lines, certainly. But neither its final word nor its last offer that same magical ending. In fact, there is very little positive to be said about the off-putting beginning or the heartbreaking tail end of this story, even if there was a great deal of inspiration in between.
This team had a whiff of destiny to it, a feeling that fate was finally on their side after very nearly everything went wrong at the start. It seemed fitting, as well, that this Mississippi State baseball team, of all the great teams this historic program has fielded, would be the one to finally break through and win a National Championship. The underdogs fighting through adversity to become MSU’s first National Champions!
It would have been a nice story. But that’s not the one that belongs to this group.
“The ride started in August,” junior outfielder Jake Mangum said. “The group of guys that don’t even have a baseball field to practice on. You’re inside every day, rain or shine, you’re inside. All the 6:00 a.m. lifts.”
And the season began: 0-3, swept by Southern Miss. Then the head coach resigns. Then you hit the road for a three-week road trip with an interim head coach, an interim staff, and no clue at all what you’re supposed to do. That’s when Gary Henderson, interim head coach, sat the team down and discussed exactly what it was they would do next.
“123 days ago we started on a journey with these guys,” he said. “It was an unbelievable time in my life for a guy who coached as long as I have, never been close to being something we were a part of.
“I asked them to create an identity. I asked them to buy into my vision. I asked the kids the same exact thing. Honesty, integrity, competitiveness. Act like men, not boys. And they did it.
“I was so proud of them. Obviously, humiliating time for the program, for the assistant coaches, for me, to be a part of something like that, total nonsense. And the players as well and their families. Nobody bought into that.
“But they bought into us and these kids bought into me, [assistant coaches] Mike Brown, A.J. Gaura, Jake Gautreau, and they did everything we asked. And it was awesome, what a great experience. Great experience for the coaches but great experience for the players.
“They learned it’s a higher education. We’re in college, and they learned fthat rom the most humble, most brutal beginnings, you can turn something into an overwhelmingly positive experience. And that’s what we’ve done. We didn’t get to the final two. We got to the final four. And I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of Mississippi State baseball.
“We had support obviously early on from Dr. Keenum, Coach Cohen and the administrative staff, all those people, our managers, they’re the best but really what you had was each other by each other. The players had the players and the coaches had the coaches and the coaches and players had each other and that was kind of it, and it was kind of rough those first three weeks on the road as you might imagine. That’s just the nature of it.
“But driving home from Baton Rouge on March 31st, 2-7 [SEC] and 14-15 [overall] and I remember talking to Jake saying we’re getting better but we’re not winning. I know we’re getting better. I was positive. So was he. We were positive that we’re getting better.
“But all you had really was faith in your own evaluation of what was going on. And then the next weekend it started to click. L.A. [Luke Alexander] turned things on Sunday with a walk-off. The next thing you know you’re beating somebody good, you won a series finally.
“Then we got on a roll. And then we just thought we were good. And then we were good.”
And that’s when much of the rest of the baseball world came in. To say that MSU had been overwhelmingly written off would be a tremendous understatement in a season built for over-exaggeration.
The Bulldogs took down the Rebels at Dudy Noble thanks to Alexander’s walk-off, and from that moment, the spell was cast. The magic was unleashed. State went on to beat three top-three teams before the regular season was even over, sweeping the No. 1 club in the country to put an exclamation point on its postseason credentials. Once selected, MSU took down a National Seed on its homefield, won five-straight elimination games, made walk-offs and come-from-behind wins seem like the norm and raced all the way to the national semifinals in the College World Series in Omaha, all while putting bananas on their heads.
It’s way too cheesy to consider saying it out loud, but it’s far too true not to express in words: this team captured the hearts of its fans. And they didn’t do it because they were good, not because they were the best or the highest-ranked or the most talented. They were loved for being the Bad News Bulldogs – for being the underdogs, not the top dogs.
Does anybody think Mangum is popular for his batting average or on-base percentage over his personality and exuberance? Who on Earth will say a grand slam defined Jordan Westburg’s season and not a slightly under-ripe piece of fruit set on top of his hat and holstered in his belt?
This story isn’t about baseball. Baseball is simply the vehicle through which it was able to be told.
The 2018 Mississippi State baseball team is unlikely to be discussed in any great detail when those in the future talk about the best teams of MSU’s past. Best is not a superlative this group ever tried to lay claim to. They just wanted to win. They wanted to compete, to enjoy a game together, to prove doubters wrong, and to prove that all their work was worth it. They wanted to make the statement that playing an entire season in an active construction site was more than just a footnote in the history of MSU baseball and its facilities.
This team will be remembered for rally bananas and bleached hair, rain delays and black uniforms. It will be remembered for reaching the Promised Land when every prognosticator in the game expected it to spend the year wandering through the desert.
Who knows what the future holds? Coaches, roster, stadium – they all get the same warning: under construction. Please pardon our progress.
But pardon me, pardon this team, if it wasn’t willing to be swept away like the dust from saws and drills covering the New Dude every day as construction continues.
No one would have faulted this team for giving up when things looked impossible. No one could have blamed them. No one except for themselves, that is. Whatever potential they saw in themselves that so many others did not, they fought for it. They fought with it, and eventually they saw it realized.
This was a team that only reached the peak because it went to the depths of the valley first. That this story ended with a loss seems only appropriate for a team that showed victory can be built on despair.
The final words have been written, the last out recorded on a season that most thought should never have been. This tale was theirs to write, and now it’s one that all will remember.
“It’s a story that’s unbelievable,” Mangum said.