Offseason Development Shines Over Course Of In-Season Production For MSU Baseball

There are a great many factors that go into developing a good baseball player. Mechanics, awareness, timing, approach, form, patience – all important things. And to be a good hitter or pitcher, you need just about all of those.

What you also need is a good strength program.

At Mississippi State, it’s Brian Neal who is in charge of making sure every player has the physical build, strength and stamina to use the tools and techniques they are given. As MSU’s strength and conditioning coach, it’s his job to make sure the Bulldogs are prepared, and it’s a job he doesn’t just take pride in, but enjoys fully.

If you get him talking about what goes into developing a good baseball player in the weight room, he’ll say himself that he can talk for hours on the subject and not grow weary. We don’t have enough time for that here, but his philosophy can be boiled down to a pretty straightforward approach. When asked how to develop good hitters, he broke it down as such:

“It’s going to come from the ground up, from the inside out, and from back to front,” he said. “What does that mean?”

Good question, I was just about to ask. Go on.

“Well, obviously, from the ground up: we want to develop lower body strength and lower body power,” he said. “From the inside out, we want to work from the core outwards. From the back to the front, I always say, ‘I want you guys to look better walking away from me than you do walking to me.’ So, as you’re walking away, big calves, big hamstrings, big butt, strong lower back, broad shoulders, big triceps. Your backside should be more developed than you front side.”

The same approach, he said, applies to pitchers, as well, where power coming out of the hand starts from the ground. Developing those areas is something he works with players on throughout the offseason. Even during the season, the Player Development crew is the group of redshirting players who continue to work out with Neal as the season goes along.

If you see “Flex Friday” on social media, that’s their weekly workout of the upper body. It came from what used to be Sleeveless Saturday and was followed briefly by Flannel Friday, in which the participating weightlifters wore flannel shirts to the gym. For Neal, it’s just another way to get guys excited about developing their bodies.

That excitement, it turns out, has carried over to the roster as a whole, aided greatly by the presence of new head coach Andy Cannizaro, whose arms are each as big as a fully-grown toddler and whose bench press prowess is enough to intimidate even the strongest of strong men.

Certainly, the process can’t be done in just one year, but looking at a pair of sluggers who made significant improvements at the plate this year provides good insight into just how important this last offseason was for MSU. Below are some of the 2016 and 2017 numbers for juniors Ryan Gridley and Brent Rooker. The 2016 numbers, of course, include the full length of their postseason run, while each has player has time left to build on their 2017 numbers. Even still, the differences are impressive.

Ryan Gridley

2016: Eight doubles, two home runs, zero triples, .345 slugging percentage

2017: 12 doubles, six home runs, one triple, .461 slugging percentage

Brent Rooker

2016: 15 doubles, eleven home runs, two triples, .578 slugging percentage

2017: 29 doubles, 21 home runs, three triples, .843 slugging percentage

From one year to the next, their numbers have nearly doubled across the board for them both, and tripled in at least one case for Gridley.

For Neal, it’s no surprise.

“They’re unbelievable leaders, unbelievable workers. For those guys to be All-SEC at their positions, it’s no accident. I tell them all the time, it’s like they did it on purpose. They’re that good,” he said. “They’re shutting out the lights at night in the Palmeiro Center, working extra after practice and workouts … It’s easy with guys like that because they’re so focused on the end result and being the best possible baseball player they can be.”

It would be easy for the casual observer to think that such improvements came simply from getting stronger and making some changes at the plate. However, Neal says, that’s not necessarily the case. Using Rooker as the example, he explained what the offseason entailed.

As plenty recall, Rooker neared double-digits last year in big hits that were either robbed at the fence or just short of leaving the ballpark. He didn’t have far to go to get the big numbers he’s had in 2017, and when Rooker got back after the summer, it wasn’t even strength that Neal focused on with him to get those extra few feet.

After all, the multi-poistional player was something of a physical freak already. He can squat 500 pounds, he has a 36-inch vertical and he can reportedly run the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. The physical tools were there. Neal just needed to help him hone them.

“He was already strong enough,” Neal said. “So what we wanted to focus on with him was more velocity-based training. We wanted him to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster rate … He’s always swinging a 34-inch bat. That’s going to be constant. So, how can we get him to swing that faster? Adding more strength to him probably isn’t going to help that. But being able to move that 34-inch bat faster through the zone will increase power. We want to be able to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster speed.

“If we got him to a 550-pound squatter, is that going to make him better? Probably not. But if he can move, say, 400 pounds, faster this year than he could last year, and his absolute strength is the same, then we’ve gotten better. We’ve produced more force and produced more power – produced a faster bat through the zone.

“Some of the guys are younger and they need more strength. But with him, because he’s such a freak, he doesn’t necessarily need that. At this point in his career, we’ve got strength, now we need to apply that and be able to move that strength faster.”

The results stand well enough on their own, and the countless awards and honors for Rooker and Gridley and other members of the team speak to the success of both the individuals and the club. And with MSU just starting Regional play this weekend, there is plenty of time left to accomplish even greater feats.

So yes, there’s a lot that goes into becoming a great baseball player, and having an equally great strength coach is a big part of it.

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Ode To Dudy Noble: A Lifetime Of MSU Baseball

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.

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50 Years Of Stories: The History, The People And The Future Of The Left Field Lounge

The History

The legend of how the Left Field Lounge began, despite what one would guess, is circulated by only a few. Those who know the tale, this is the story they tell.

When Mississippi State opened its new baseball stadium in 1967, everything was perfect for those regularly in attendance, save one issue: the smelly farmer. A local farmer, who was also a big baseball fan, would come straight to the games after putting in a day’s work and join his friends to watch the Bulldogs in their fancy new stadium. The trouble was that the farmer smelled like, well, a farm.

After deciding there was no reasonable alternative, the farmer was banished from the stands and sent to the other side of the outfield fence where he could back up his pickup and sit in the bed of the truck to watch the game. And so, the Left Field Lounge was born, growing over the years from one farmer and his truck to dozens of rigs and thousands of fans comprising the greatest spectacle in college baseball.

That legend, like most legends, has a small nugget of truth surrounded by a great many falsehoods and exaggerations, and is far from the real story. But within the convenient and humorous tale is where the story truly begins. The Left Field Lounge really was started by a farmer, even if the parts about his particular farm-ish scent were likely later added by friends who wanted to tease him.

The trouble is, the farmer denies that it was him. Well, he denies it was just him, anyway.

“I wanna say this,” Everett Kennard began when asked what he knew about the beginning of the story, “there are a lot of people that give me credit for starting the Left Field Lounge. The Left Field Lounge was not started by any one person. The Left Field Lounge was organized by a group of which I was a part.”

And it is certainly the case that a core collection of people made up the original group from which the Lounge grew, but any from that time who are asked are quick to give credit to Kennard, and there can be no doubt that the former farmer spearheaded many of the efforts that led to the growth and success of the Lounge over the last 50 years.

“They had a dairy farm out at Oktoc,” Kennard’s friend and fellow Lounge-founder Jimmy Willcutt recalled. “He’d get through with his milking and just come out there and sit in his pickup.”

Early pictures of the Left Field Lounge and the new MSU baseball field. Above: from the 1971 MSU yearbook. Below: From the 1969 MSU year book.
Courtesy: MSU Libraries

Naturally, people started joining him. If anything, it wasn’t that anyone was avoiding the grandstands, but that you could show up late and no one had to pay to watch from their truck in the outfield. You couldn’t charge someone for a seat if they brought their own. At least not yet, anyway.

“From there,” Kennard explained, “people just started pulling up out there, and it’s just like you’ve heard. Somebody brought out a blanket. Somebody brought out an ice chest. Somebody brought out a grill. The Left Field Lounge started and it was just game-by-game. You just pull up there and then go home.”

So, that’s how it began. But, how the Left Field Lounge grew, how it blossomed from a couple pickups to the show it is today, follows the story of Mississippi State baseball itself.

The lounging began in 1967 when the new stadium opened, but it came in the middle of a most extraordinary run for MSU’s baseball team. By the end of 1971, the Bulldogs had won four SEC Championships in the last seven seasons under head coach Paul Gregory, and in 1972, something revolutionary came along and changed the baseball experience forever: lights.

Before the 1972 season, MSU installed lights at Dudy Noble field for the very first time. So then, Loungers not only had the promise of good baseball, but they had all the opportunities that a full day and night could provide.

“Now, there’s when it took off,” Kennard said.

More and more people began to join in the fun, and the experience grew so popular that even visiting fans were finding their way to other side of the chain link fence at Dudy Noble. To this day, all are welcome in the Lounge, but in 1972, in that first year under the lights, the hospitality was a bit more, shall we say, fickle.

Back then, MSU and Ole Miss would play a three-game series in both Oxford and Starkville every season. Midway through the SEC slate, the rival Rebels were in town, and with the team had come a handful of fans. Now, visiting fans were expected and accepted, but a particularly brazen crew of UM faithful – football players, some claim – had not only taken to the Lounge, but they flew an Ole Miss flag from the top of their truck.

Well, that was a bit much for a pair of young MSU fans, and to show their disdain, those two brothers went and took the flag down and promptly burned it on their grill. No other solution could have seemed so natural to them. However, the gesture was less than appreciated by the owners of the flag, and they had, among a few other things, strong words for the Bulldogs surrounding them.

“And it was one heck of a brawl, brother,” said Kennard with a laugh, who watched a massive scrum unfold from his truck in far left field. “They might have had three cops at the game at that time and all three of them came running. It spread up and down left field pretty good.”

That, as is turned out, was the peak of the early years of the Lounge. The last couple years of Gregory’s career saw a slide in success ultimately ending in his retirement. A single and immensely unsuccessful season followed in 1975 under Jimmy Bragan, the head coach whose tenure at State ended almost as soon as it started, and all of a sudden, the Lounge, like the program, was struggling.

Before Left Field Lounge was settled on as the name, the area was called many things, including the Beer Garden
Photo courtesy: MSU Libriaries (1978 Reveille)

But in the fall of 1975 came perhaps the most important moment in the history of Mississippi State baseball, and the Left Field Lounge by association: Ron Polk was hired as the new head coach at MSU.

With what he considered to be a singularly terrible team, Polk managed to wrangle a winning record in his first season in 1976. He followed that up with a junior college-heavy signing class – including one Nat “Buck” Showalter – that helped set the foundation for the career of the winningest coach in MSU history and one of the greatest minds and leaders college baseball has ever produced.

As the wins returned en masse, so did the Lounge. During those early years, a Left Field Lounge Committee was founded, led by Kennard and a handful of others from the original crew, tasked with making sure everyone was happy and, more importantly, safe. The Lounge was growing, and it made sense why.

“Let’s face it,” Kennard said. “Football wasn’t very good. Basketball at that time wasn’t very good. It was what Mississippi State could hang its hat on. That had a lot to do with the popularity of baseball. Yes, people here have always liked baseball, but it got big at Mississippi State because it was the sport that we could stick our chest out and say, ‘this is us.’”

By 1978, people had started building their own sets of miniature bleachers to put in the beds of their trucks, and the contraptions and inventions only grew from there. By the early ‘80s, when Polk had really gotten things rolling, MSU had begun charging for access to the Lounge – which only seemed fair as those in the stadium had to pay for tickets, too – and they started letting people bring their trucks in Saturday morning before game one (this was when weekend schedules consisted of a Saturday doubleheader and single Sunday game) and leave them there all weekend.

The idea was to make things more orderly, and to some degree that goal was accomplished. Trucks would start lining up on Friday, and Kennard would actually arrive as early as Wednesday with his camper that he would ultimately park on the hill by the bathrooms (built so that Loungers wouldn’t have to keep using the cow pasture behind the Lounge – when nature called, it was to nature that man went). MSU would put alerts in the local newspaper that they would open the gate at 10 a.m. Saturday for trucks to enter.

It was nice, at first. But with demand growing and supply remaining static, chaos ensued as those in line at the gate were allowed to enter.

“The best description I can give is the old western movies with the covered wagons and the land rush,” Willcutt, a 1964 MSU graduate, explained. “Everybody tore out. Everybody was trying to get a particular spot. Fistfights broke out. That occurred for several years. It was quite stressful and entertaining for those few years.”

“When they would open the gate, people would come flying in there,” Kennard recalled. “You’ve got vehicles that didn’t run being drug by chains or pushed by people. It was like the Indy 500, man. Gravel going everywhere, those chains flying around like whips. Somebody was gonna get killed.”

That practice eventually came to an end, but not before the storm hit. In 1983, Thunder and Lightning came to Mississippi State when Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark showed up to play for Polk and the Bulldogs. MSU’s program to that point had been very good, but with their arrival, the steps were taken to establish State as great, elite and a national power. And that’s when the big crowds really started to show up. As had always been the case, as Mississippi State baseball grew, so too did the Left Field Lounge.

Following the College World Series run by the historic 1985 team, plans were made to build new, modern grandstands to accommodate the massive crowds flooding the gates to watch the Bulldogs. While that was an easy solution around the infield, the problem of the outfield had yet to be solved. So, Kennard and a few others came up with an idea.

The proposal was this: the Left Field Lounge Committee would identify where each group wanted to set up their rig, assess how much space they needed, and with the help of Kennard’s brother David who was an engineer, they would measure out spaces for each rig and give everyone an assigned spot.

For a couple years the practice was allowed, and for the first time, people could haul in their rigs at the beginning of the season and leave them there all year, but in 1987 MSU announced that they were going to start selling numbered passes for permanent spots in the Lounge. Those passes were to go on sale on the next Saturday morning on a first-come, first-served basis, and that was that. Willcutt, his two sons and David Kennard showed up at the ticket office in Humphrey Coliseum on Thursday and announced, “We’re in line.”

Another man who just happened to be in the ticket office for his own reasons saw what happened and quickly declared, “Me too.” And so the line for the new, permanent lounge began with those five and stretched out for 48 hours of sitting, camping and waiting.

“Word began to get around a little bit,” Willcutt said. “The first night, probably 20-25 people spent the night in the foyer there at the Coliseum. Then word began to spread and on Friday night we may have had as many as 100 people.”

Early on Saturday morning, Polk himself showed up with donuts for the faithful Loungers. Local news station WCBI came out. ESPN sent a crew. Newspapers wrote stories. For those 48 hours, Willcutt and the growing line were a sensation, and he’s still got the stories saved and framed at home. The headline of the Collegiate Baseball Newsletter feature, over a story quoting Wilcutt, said simply, “Ticket to Paradise.”

At 10 o’clock Saturday morning, Willcutt bought the first-ever permanent spot in Left Field Lounge, and his rig is still there today. From then until now, the left field area has hardly changed at all, save for the addition of a handful of rigs on the second row and a few more regulations added for safety purposes.

So then, with that all taken care of, the attention was turned to right field. Up to that point, the Lounge as it is known today only stretched to centerfield. In right field, a small but dense patch of cedar trees had meant there was no space for trucks or rigs, and Polk had been adamant that he would not have them chopped down when he was approached with the idea. After all, it was he who had ordered that they be planted when he first got to MSU.

So for a time, the right field was just made up of individuals or small packs of a few people standing along the fence. Hobie Hobart, now one of the most recognized faces of the Lounge, was a student at MSU from 1985-91 and worked as a manager with the track team. Without a rig to call his own at the time, his solution was to borrow one of the three-tiered judges’ ladders and set up shop in the trees on the fence.

“That’s how I got through six years of college,” he said. “In that one spot.”

Before long, Polk agreed to a compromise of cutting down four specific trees, which would open up enough room for a handful of rigs to come in and officially stretch the Left Field Lounge into right field. Phil Silva, the long-time head of equipment at MSU, was one of the first to come into the new area and set up a spot right next to Hobart and his ladder.

“We had the back end of an old pickup truck,” Silva said, remembering the humble beginnings as he stood on the large rig he owns now. “We built a little platform and put it up in the trees against the fence and just kept building on.”

In the years that passed, more and more trees were removed to make room and eventually the fence was lined completely with those famous Loungers and their rigs. Stretching from foul pole to foul pole, the Left Field Lounge was officially complete.

 

The People

It is a lot more than baseball. I tell people all the time – people don’t throw picnics anymore. This is what the picnics were. My kids have grown up out here.” – Hobie Hobart

What it means to me is the fact that we have a place that friends and family can meet. It’s a lot like anything else. Most of the people here don’t come to watch the baseball game. The baseball game is an excuse to be here. They just come to see friends and family. It’s the atmosphere, to be able to tailgate before the game starts, tailgate when the game is going on, and you never have to leave.” – Denis “Snoot” Everett

You kind of get to still be a college student, you know? You have the responsibilities of the children and all that but you still kinda act like a kid. I’m 60 years old, but I’ll come out here as long as I’m alive.” – Bobby Crosland

The thing with the Left Field Lounge is that it’s not about the rigs. It’s about the people. The rigs are great too, now, but it’s really about the people and the atmosphere.” – Everett Kennard

That, perhaps, is the best way to explain the Left Field Lounge from within: it’s about the people. The view from the outside is certainly impressive, too, as cameras have always highlighted the curiously configured contraptions made of all manner of old trucks, campers, portions of bleachers and even discarded bowling alley seats, all appearing to be held up by nothing more than duct tape, nails or prayers, if not all three. The fog of smoke rolling off the grills before, during and after games, often forming clouds over the outfield, sometimes appears to be the most stable and sensical part of the whole thing.

Twenty-feet high wooden structures full of frat guys stand behind old pickups at field level with bleachers strapped to the back, grills set out on the deck along the fence and children running in and out of their parents field of vision, their shirts, pants and faces all smudged with undecipherable mixtures of dirt, grease and BBQ sauce.

The whole thing is too big now to be considered a family, but it is a community in every sense. Neighbors who have lounged next to each other for decades have watched as families age, change and grow in number. Unlikely friendships have formed, people who would otherwise never have met spending hours on end together in the confines of the Left Field Lounge.

In one spot in right field, the soon-to-be-retired Phil Silva has an old milk truck that he and his crew use for their spot, a group made up largely of current and former MSU and athletic department employees and their friends, some Silva’s age, some younger. Fred Mock, MSU’s Associate Director for Facilities and Maintenance and a retired Marine nicknamed “Honcho,” is one of the heads of the milk truck crew, and he is one of many who has formed an unlikely bond thanks to his time in the Lounge.

See, right next to their group of adults – by definition, if not always by example – is a rig that has belonged to the same fraternity for over a decade. In theory, the two trailers should clash. In reality, they couldn’t get along better.

“This is why the Lounge is special to me,” Mock said. “By nature, I think our fanbase is made up of friendly people, so I think we all just kind of make friends with each other.

“We’re different in right field,” he went on to explain. “We come and go. With this big boardwalk we get more mixing and stuff. We have these fraternities right next door to us. And there are guys in these fraternities that I never would have met if we hadn’t been out here together. One of them sits next to us at church now and we never would have met him if we hadn’t been out here together.”

Sometimes, it’s about the family you make. Others, it’s about the family you have. For Hobie Hobart, the Right Field Tiki Lounge isn’t just a social gathering spot – it’s where his children were raised. Every rig – except, hopefully, the fraternity trailers – has children they’ve watched grow up, adults coming to games now who were babies when the whole thing started.

Silva, Wilcutt, Crosland – like so many others, they’re now out in the Lounge spending as much time tending to grandbabies as they do grilling.

“It’s the family picnic,” Hobart said.

Heck, some families have even been started in the Left Field Lounge. It was during the heyday of the ‘80s that a young man and woman were introduced to each other in the Lounge and eventually went on to get married. Their son Pete was born August 20, 1987, just a couple months after Bulldog pitcher Pete Young was named a freshman All-American and helped lead MSU to the SEC Championship. The name was no coincidence. It was only fitting that the couple name their son, a present-day Lounger himself, in honor of their roots in the Lounge.

And, as Hobart also likes to say, the Left Field Lounge is an ambassador of sorts. It’s an example of what makes Mississippi State – its fans, its baseball program, its home state – so special. It’s not always pretty, but there’s nothing like it anywhere. The way so many great cuisines have been born from poverty and creativity, locals having to work with whatever they can find, so too did the Lounge find its recipe for growth and success in that way.

It’s not just that the Lounge is cool, but that it’s the epitome of southern hospitality in the place that calls itself The Hospitality State.

“It’s such an ambassador for the state of Mississippi,” Hobart said. “We do so many things wrong; we do this right. This is good.”

Or, as Denis “Snoot” Everett more bluntly put it, “Mississippi has got the most unhealthiest people, we’ve got the most poorest people, we’ve got the most uneducated people, and we’ve got one thing that shines.”

Not to say that the state doesn’t have other good things going for it, of course, just as Starkville and MSU, for that matter, have a great many things about which they can brag and highlight to outsiders. But certainly, the Lounge has become a part of MSU’s identity, and that’s why visitors have flocked to it as far back as those Ole Miss flag fliers in 1972.

“We’ve got two traditions: one of them is cowbells, and the other one is the Left Field Lounge,” Silva said. “Everybody that comes, from all the different schools we play, they love Left Field Lounge. They think this is awesome.”

Visiting teams have a long history of enjoying the Lounge, provided their outfielders are able to withstand the heckling of the fans on the other side of the fence. Those who can take the ribbing are rewarded with the open arms and hot grills of the Lounge, regularly being invited to come out after the game for sausage or chicken or whatever is being cooked that day.

Sometimes, they don’t even wait until after the game. Not many years ago, a rightfielder was spotted chasing down a hard-hit liner, catching the grounder with the glove on his left hand while holding on to a fresh piece of sausage with his right hand.

A Michigan State outfielder takes a break for a snack between innings

The hit went for an RBI double, and the snack was finished before the next pitch.

The all-time winningest coach in college baseball history, the legendary Augie Garrido, is quoted secondhand as saying he made sure his Cal State Fullerton team got a trip to Dudy Noble to see the Left Field Lounge one postseason.

“Regionals are a really good time,” Willcutt said, “because teams play in the afternoon, then they don’t play until the next day, so they come and they mingle out in the Left Field Lounge. Augie came down there and told us one night, he said, ‘I’m on the selection committee. I could have gone anywhere in the country. I could have taken my team anywhere in the country, but I wanted them to come see this. I wanted them to see the atmosphere that y’all have here.’”

In addition to running his farm and helping propel the livelihood of the Lounge, Everett Kennard, known by many simply as “The Bus Driver,” was also the long-time director of transportation at MSU. As such, he was regularly tasked with picking up incoming teams at the airport and then taking them back at the end of the weekend.

He got to hear first-hand the reactions that first-time visitors had to the atmosphere at MSU.

“You’d be surprised how many of them got off the airplane hating Starkville, Mississippi before they ever got here,” he said. “Before they left, invariably, they would tell you it was one of the best experiences of their life. That’s because of, partly, the Left Field Lounge. As you well know, everybody took them in out there. Actually got mad at them if they didn’t eat with them. It was really amazing to see the people not want to come here, and leave here saying it was the best baseball experience of their life. That became kind of a goal of the outfield.”

Of course, that interest has extended beyond opponents visiting Starkville. TV broadcasts, national reporters, food and culture magazines and a host of other media entities have made their way to the famous Left Field Lounge to see what it’s all about. Seeing TV commentators leave the press box to spend an inning or three in the outfield is a regular occurrence, and Hobart’s spot in right field has played host to nearly all of them.

Even strangers with no affiliation to MSU, no professional reason to be in Starkville, have made the college baseball pilgrimage. Two years ago, a couple from Chicago saw the Left Field Lounge on TV, and though they’d never been to Mississippi, they agreed that they had to go. Three weeks ago, they were back for their third visit, having made fast friends with Hobart and the whole crew in right field thanks to nothing other than dumb luck and the divine intervention of the Lounge.

That same day, as Snoot was being interviewed on his rig by a videographer, he interrupted a question midway through and said, you know what, why don’t you ask these guys? We met them in Omaha and they flew in from Las Vegas just to be here today, to see the Left Field Lounge for the first time.

The camera panned to two middle-aged men walking across the rig, both already yelling about how much fun they were having and the game hadn’t even started yet.

“The Lizard Lounge” – (close; they’re called the Lounge Lizards) – “is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” the first man said. “It’s heaven. It’s heaven to me. I’d like to die here.”

“This was on my list,” random man from Las Vegas No. 2 explained to the camera. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’m going to Mississippi. I have to see it.’ This is fabulous. This is the best baseball venue of all time.”

“You have to see this place to believe it,” Man No. 1 picked back up. “Pictures don’t do it justice. Look at this place.”

“This is great, you know?” Man No. 2 finished. “Just good people having fun and enjoying baseball.”

And that’s what the Left Field Lounge is. Good people.

 

The Future

Now, the Left Field Lounge is going to change. Again. Like it always has. The way it’s always evolved.

2013 Super Bulldog Weekend
Photo courtesy: Russ Houston, Mississippi State

The day Kennard first drove his pickup from the farm to the outfield, the year people began transforming truck beds to full rigs, and the Saturday morning that Willcutt bought the first-ever permanent Lounge spot are the three biggest moments in the history of the Left Field Lounge.

This offseason will be the fourth transformative event in the storied history of one of the most celebrated attractions in sport. When Mississippi State announced it will be building an entirely new baseball stadium, the first major build since 1987 and the first significant upgrade since the ‘90s, it also announced that it would be constructing a new Left Field Lounge.

Through months of planning, design and town hall meetings, a final conclusion was drawn and a plan set into motion for the future of the Lounge. The rigs, as iconic as they may be, were no longer viable. For reasons of safety, space and accessibility, change was again necessary.

Construction will begin on the new Left Field Lounge this summer after the season ends and the rigs make their exit from Dudy Noble for the final time. In their place, a two-tiered, permanent structure will be put in place around the outfield fence with customizable spots for each group who previously called a rig home, in addition to a few more who will now be able to have permanent Lounge spots for the first time.

In the planning stages, each group of rig owners met with architects to customize their design for their area, settling on their own choices from a variety of possible setups and floor plans.

Each spot will have some added amenities not previously available, including access to electricity, as well as a concourse connecting the entire Lounge with itself as well the stadium structure. Beyond safety concerns, that was one of the driving forces behind the change: making the Lounge accessible to everyone and easier to navigate, ensuring that all who want to have the experience are able to do so, not just those who either own a spot or know someone who does.

And yes, to be quite certain, nearly all involved are sad to see the rigs go and to see the Lounge change. There were plenty who fought the decision, and understandably so, as they wanted to preserve the way of enjoying MSU baseball that they’ve had for decades.

In response to questions and feedback, MSU released a Q&A following the announcement to address the big question: why are you changing the Lounge?

“Preservation of the Left Field Lounge is of the utmost importance to everyone,” the answer began, “but safety, convenience, and comfort are key considerations. The new Left Field Lounge design maintains the ambiance Bulldog fans have enjoyed, removes potential hazards, allows for a permanent student area in right field and provides amenities that maintain this premier location fans have enjoyed for years.

“Your safety is our primary goal – but rest assured, this will be done in a way that also allows the Left Field Lounge to retain its unique culture and appeal.”

After the initial shock, understanding set in for most, even if it took some time to make sense of it.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Willcutt said. “If you ask me, do I like this new change we’re fixing to go to? No, I wish they’d leave it alone. But I’m also a realist. We have been extremely lucky that in all these years, to my knowledge, we’ve not had a serious accident out there. We’re better now on our setups than we have been in the past. In the past, some of the units out there were not as safe as they should be. But we got by with it. It’s gonna go away, and we’ll just start a new era of Left Field Lounge.”

The Left Field Lounge in 1980 Photo courtesy: MSU Libraries

Bobby Crosland started joining the crowds in the outfield when he was a student at MSU from 1975-79, back in the days when he could just drive the truck right in from the street and pull up to his usual spot. He’s been grilling food, watching games and eventually raising kids out there in the 40 years since. He’d prefer to keep the rig and setup he has now, if he’s being honest, but he too knows that change is an inevitable part of life, and the Left Field Lounge is no exception. The key is to roll with it and enjoy it, just as before.

“We’ll adapt,” he said simply. “We always do.”

Of course, the evolution of the Lounge isn’t bittersweet for everyone. Not only did all current rig owners have the opportunity to secure a location in the new Lounge, but a few more spots were created, making it possible for a select few to have permanent locations in the Lounge for the first time.

In far right field in the current Lounge, there is an area reserved for people without reservations. This particular area of the Lounge has no rigs, no trucks and no lines of property or personal space. It’s open to whoever wants it, whoever gets there first.

For years now, a group made up largely of locals who grew up in Starkville or now claim the town as their own has set up shop, becoming a mainstay of the Lounge by arriving early every weekend with grills, coolers, stools and even an outdoor bar with an umbrella and seating for half a dozen in need of rest for their legs.

Next year, they will be among the few lucky groups to have their own spot in the Left Field Lounge for the first time, a permanent location designed and built exclusively for them, a place they can call their own. Chase Hogue, one of many who grew up as a kid running around Dudy Noble, is a part of this group.

“I think it’s the coolest thing MSU has to offer,” he said, “Over a skybox in football. Getting a spot is the best thing to happen to the [group]. Left Field Lounge is one of the greatest traditions in all of college sports, so I’m glad to be a part of it.”

“Getting a lounge in the new stadium is the coolest thing in the world to us,” added Jonathan Parrish, another member of the group. “We love MSU baseball and have literally grown up in the park running around the Lounge, so we look at it as gaining admission into one of the coolest traditions in all of college sports. I know there is a lot of debate on what the university should do with the Lounge and depending on who you talk to the new stadium could be a negative or positive.

“Ultimately, the Lounge is about the people who occupy it more than the structures those people sit on, and the hospitality and recipes get passed on from generation to generation, so the Lounge will always be the Lounge, long after even the new stadium is considered a relic.”

The future of the Left Field Lounge will be defined by the same thing that shaped its past: the people. And at Mississippi State, that tends to be a good thing. If the future looks hazy, that’s probably just the charcoal fog rising from the grills.

 

—————

I call her Mrs. Becky, or Mrs. B., for short. Like anyone who knows her, like anyone who has played or coached baseball at Mississippi State for the last decade, I can easily spot her in any crowd by looking for the color pink. Hat, sunglasses, jacket, shirt, shoes – something she’s wearing will be bright pink, if not multiple somethings.

Fred stands in the middle with the red, white and blue American flag MSU hat. Bet you can spot Mrs. Becky.

I accidentally nicknamed him Honcho when, in a story I wrote about a weekend in the Left Field Lounge, I referred to him as the head honcho manning the grill at his rig. The next week, he showed me that, in celebration of his recognition, the rest of the group had decided to keep the name for him and even wrote “Honcho” on his cup. He gave me a quick history lesson, that the word Honcho is Japanese in origin, having made its way to America via members of the military stationed overseas in World War II, and that it indicates someone is the leader of a group. The “head” I had inserted before it was actually redundant.

Fred and Becky Mock are what the Lounge is to me, and what Mississippi State Baseball is to so many people. Over the years they have served as, basically, foster parents for scores of Bulldog baseball players, making sure they have someone to take care of them and be sure they’re able to find the things they need while they’re away from home. The Mocks have traveled across the country to watch the team, and they’re mainstays at any home game, Honcho sticking to their rig in right field and Mrs. Becky bouncing back and forth between sitting in the grandstands and standing along the outfield fence.

Go to their rig on any weekend, the one they share with Phil Silva, and you’re bound to find a former player, a parent of a current pitcher perhaps, or even a former manager, coach or trainer. As a kid, I spent countless afternoons and nights in a rig lining the left field bullpen, but now, you’re likely to find me in right field too, as they weekly welcome me like one of their own, despite having no stronger connection to me than Fred having worked with my mom on occasion when she was a Honcho herself as the director of the Shackouls Honors College. I also grew up with the Silva children, but the fact that Mr. Phil knew me in my formative years only weakens my case.

In 2003, the Mocks came to Starkville and visited MSU for the first time. Fred had an interview for a job on campus. When they were in the car with their host, the man was telling them things about the school, laying out some high points, and then he got to something he realized he didn’t have words to describe.

“I can’t explain it,” Mrs. Becky remembers him saying. “You’ve got to feel it and you’ve got to see it. We have something really special here and it’s called Left Field Lounge.”

“The first baseball game we came to, we sat in the bleachers over there because we didn’t know anybody yet,” Mrs. Becky told me while she stood around friends in the Lounge. “We looked out here and we said, wow, that looks like fun. Little did we know that we’d become so involved in Left Field Lounge and make so many friends. And it’s about relationships. That’s what this is about. We’ve had people out here pregnant, and now their babies are big. We’ve raised everybody out here.

“I get it now,” she finished. “If I had known it then, I would have said, take that job immediately, because of the Lounge. We love it out here. I love it. The people are what make it.”

And of course, she added, “I like baseball, too.”

————–

 

It’s beyond baseball, it is … It’s who we are, the hospitality … It’s my favorite place.” – Hobie Hobart

It’s unique to Mississippi State. There’s not another place like it. Anywhere.” – Jimmy Willcutt

In my opinion, it’s the biggest spectacle in college sports.” – Everett Kennard

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SEC Player Of The Year Borges Excelling For MSU Tennis

Nuno Borges, excluding his Portuguese accent, blends in naturally around campus and appears no different than any other sophomore at Mississippi State. He’s shy, humble, respectful and goes about his business quietly, racking up A’s in just about every class he takes – the only two B’s he had as a freshman were, unsurprisingly, public speaking and English Comp I.

He’s on MSU’s tennis team, too, but to see him hanging out at practice, one might assume he was a manager or just a random fan who enjoys the sport. He doesn’t look like one of the best players in the country. At least not until he starts playing.

“He’s the most relaxed, nice guy,” MSU head coach Matt Roberts said. “You watch him walk or jog and you think, this guy can’t be No. 3 in the country, he’s not even that athletic. But you see him hold that racquet. You see him start moving on the court and he glides, he’s so smooth. It’s unbelievable. He was born to play tennis and born to compete.”

On-court Nuno and off-court Nuno are very different people. In fact, on-court Nuno is so different that it nearly scared Roberts off the first time he watched Borges play in a European Championship event in Switzerland two years ago. The laid-back kid he’d met previously on an in-home visit was nothing like the ball of emotion and competitiveness he was watching on the court, and when the match against one of Spain’s top players turned south, Borges reaction was a bit more intense than even Roberts thought necessary.

“He was so emotional on the court, to the point where I didn’t know if he was a Bulldog or not,” Roberts remembered. “But we kept recruiting him and eventually he committed. He comes in and he’s the nicest guy. He’s a team guy. He’s so humble.”

And in addition to being humble, he’s really good. Not just at being nice, but at playing tennis. Borges committed to MSU as one of the top 40 junior players in the world, having been recruited by nearly everyone in America, and in a short period of time he’s already established himself as one of the all-time greats in the history of MSU tennis.

Last week, Borges was named the SEC Player of the Year, just the third Bulldog to ever win the award, and the youngest to have done so, earning the honor in only his second season. He deserved it, too, having risen to No. 3 in the nation’s singles rankings, winning more matches at No. 1 singles than anyone else in the conference (19-3 at No. 1), winning more ranked matches than anyone in the conference (21, including four over Top-10 foes) and racking up a total of 31 overall victories this spring.

Meanwhile, off the court, he’s a lanky sophomore who deflects praise, gets random nose bleeds (including one during the interview for this story) and cares about little more than seeing his team succeed. He didn’t even know he was the youngest to win Player of the Year until it was mentioned in a question. He was more worried about helping his team get ready the NCAA Championships this weekend.

“All my success is due to all of our teamwork,” he said. “We’ve been doing pretty great as a team. It’s not just me. They’re a big part of what I’ve become.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Roberts.

“It doesn’t matter if you play 1 or 8 on our team, you have a role,” the head coach explained. “Yeah, it’s great that we have a player on our team who’s No. 1 and is winning a lot for us, but he’s no different than anyone else. We’re all Bulldogs. We’re all having an impact on this team.”

But that’s not to take away from the season, or for that matter, the career that Borges is in the middle of. As the sophomore put it in his own words, “There’s no secret. It’s just working hard.” And beyond technical development, one of the things Roberts and assistant coach Matt Walters have worked with Borges on is shaping and molding the competitive fire he has so naturally.

The goal is to help him focus his passion and energies in a mature and productive way. It’s a goal that has quickly been reached, thanks to an offseason and fall slate of putting Borges in the right situations to face adversity and learn how to handle it.

An example of his court presence and comfort under fire came recently when the Bulldogs made a run to the championship match of the SEC Tournament a couple weeks ago. Over the course of the weekend, Borges found himself in a tough match against one of the league’s top players as he was pitted against South Carolina’s No. 1 singles player.

Borges lost the first set, then won the second. With everything on the line in the upcoming final set, Borges’ opponent took an injury timeout and went to a bathroom to recuperate before the third set began. Meanwhile, Borges was pacing the court with a near-manic fervor, talking to himself and pumping himself up while Roberts and the team trainer looked on in awe.

“He starts saying,” Roberts remembered, “’It doesn’t matter what this guy is gonna do, there’s no way he can come back and beat me.’ We’re just sitting there like, this is amazing.”

Sure enough, Borges won the final set with relative ease.

“It’s moments that like,” Roberts said, “where Nuno gets that look on his face and you think, man, he could take out Nadal right now. If he makes that decision to be tough and be a machine, no one can beat him.”

With so many wins on the court and A’s in the classroom – Borges actually won the Newsom Award this year, an annual MSU honor given to student-athletes who exhibit success in both sports and education – the future may be even more fun to watch than the present. But for Roberts and those with MSU tennis, it’s easy to just enjoy what’s happening now.

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Cannizaro Discusses Team Mindset, Lineup Versatility In Weekly Presser

This is twice in one week now that this space has been filled with a story about an interview with Andy Cannizaro, but hey, the guy is a great quote. And not just that, but he enjoys talking and having conversation, and he’ll be the first to relay a good anecdote or story when one is available.

Today, Mississippi State’s head coach was asked, among many other things, how the decision came up to take Brant Blaylock, an outfielder who hadn’t pitched since three years ago in high school, and put him on the mound in the SEC. Of course, the reporter asking the question knew why Cannizaro used Blaylock – there wasn’t anyone else. It’s the same reason outfielder Jake Mangum has a winning record as a pitcher this year. It’s the same reason first baseman Cole Gordon is MSU’s Saturday starter on the mound.

At a certain point, it’s almost funny. And when Cannizaro told the story of how all these oddities came to pass, he elicited more than a few laughs from the small herd of reporters standing in semi-circle around him.

Typically, a journalist is trained to not use too many quotes in stories. Anything that can be said by the writer doesn’t need to be quoted from a source. If it’s just a fact, the writer can say it. Use quotes to add opinions, reactions and unique thoughts or observations.

But, in this case, Cannizaro did a great job of telling the story on his own. He doesn’t need a reporter to chop up his words and write another story. So, these are the conversations had between Cannizaro and the press today.

“With a guy like Brant,” one question began, “did you ask him to pitch, or did he come up to you and suggest it?”

Cannizaro: You know what, probably, maybe, let’s call it a month-and-a-half ago, maybe two months ago, we had so many pitchers that were hurt. Like we’ve talked about all year, it is what it is. None of these guys are getting healthy, so we’ve got a limited staff.

So, we were in a hitters meeting and I just kind of threw the question out there: “Guys, like, this is a very serious, real question. Who can pitch? Do we have anybody in this room right now that can go get us some innings, that would like to start throwing bullpens? Who pitched in high school? You know, who had a really good high school career as a pitcher?” And Blaylock was the first guy to raise his arm. He was like, “I can get them out.” That’s exactly what he did. I was like, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, give me the ball.” I said, “Beautiful. You have a pen in 45 minutes with Coach Henderson.”

So, he ran down there and threw his first bullpen and Hendu came back and was like, “Hey, that was pretty good. He’s got feel for commanding the fastball, spun the breaking ball.” It was obviously rusty; he hadn’t done it in three years. So he’s continued to throw bullpens once a week, longtoss, doing those kinds of things in case he needed to pitch. We got him on the mound three weeks ago against South Alabama. He pitched against Alabama last weekend and did a great job for us.

We talk all the time; it’s all hands on deck. Who can help Mississippi State win baseball games? And if there’s a role for you right now, with the number of guys we have on our team, you’re going to get an opportunity.

So, Brant stepped up, put his arm up and 45 minutes later he’s in a bullpen, three weeks later he’s pitching in a game, four weeks later he’s beating Alabama. It’s kinda cool, man.

We talk about taking it back to the USSSA days where you had 12 guys on the team and everybody hit and everybody pitched and everybody played every day. Our team has done a great job of embracing that part of it this year. We’ve got position players that are starting SEC weekend games. We’ve got position players playing positions that they’ve never done before. We’ve got pitchers that are pinch hitting. We’ve got all kinds of crazy stuff going on. It’s a blast to be around our group every day.

Our guys have really embraced the challenge this year and they’ve stepped up each and every day. They’re having a blast playing baseball. We want to try to create an environment where our guys love coming to the field every day, where our guys love playing as hard as they can each and every day to try to help Mississippi State win baseball games. They’ve done that and it’s such a blast to be around these guys right now.

“Did anybody else in that meeting raise their hand and say they want to pitch that we might see this year?” someone asked as a follow-up.

Cannizaro: Yeah! Cole Gordon raised his hand. Jake Mangum raised his hand. So those guys are all pitching right now. It’s been a great team to be around because they’ve bought into the team concept of doing whatever they can to help us win. All of those guys that raised their hand in that meeting have now pitched very meaningful innings for us and have won SEC ball games and done things to help our team win. It’s been really cool to watch.

“So you’re not hiding Josh Lovelady from us, is what you’re saying?”

Cannizaro: Well, I think Josh Lovelady could pitch, but it would be one of those Bugs Bunny things where he pitched, sprinted to the plate and caught it, also.

We’ve got so many great team guys now that are doing everything they can to help us win ball games. It’s a great group, like I keep saying, to be around. They bring it every day. They play as hard as they can. There’s a lot of pride with our guys in terms of just wanting to represent the past that’s been here at Mississippi State.

We have a smaller roster right now of active players than anybody in college baseball, probably. Our expectation level has never wandered at all this year. We expect to win ball games, but it’s the process of getting there that our guys have really embraced, in terms of playing a complete nine innings, being ready to do whatever you can do on any given day to help us win. So, it’s been a really cool group to be around.

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Found In Translation: How Cannizaro, MSU Are Discovering Ways To Win

When tasked with the job of interviewing important subjects and turning their answers into meaningful and explanatory stories, it’s often frustrating when those subjects respond to questions with cliché-riddled answers that offer a high word count but provide very little actual information. In sports, we often call it Coach Speak – saying a great deal while saying almost nothing at all.

In the case of Mississippi State’s baseball team, however, the clichés actually are the real answer lately. There’s more to it, of course, but at this point, head coach Andy Cannizaro is at a bit of a loss to find a better way to explain the surprise run his team has been on in the SEC. Now ranked in the Top 10 in at least one major poll, the Bulldogs have won 15 of their last 18 conference games and are off to their best start in SEC play since 1989, well before any member of this team was even born.

“I keep saying, ‘It is what it is,’ and that’s the best thing I can say about it,” Cannizaro told reporters last week.

The answer came in response to a question wondering if the team ever starts to worry about when this run will come to an end. I mean, look at the circumstances. MSU is without double-digit pitchers, has suffered injuries throughout the lineup, and is playing with that decimated roster just one season removed from losing a dozen players to the MLB Draft.

Most teams in the SEC worry about having to decide how to trim their travel roster down to 27 when the time comes. Cannizaro would be absolutely thrilled if he could get his travel roster up to 27. For any given weekend, he’s lucky to have 23, perhaps 24 available bodies, pitchers and positional players combined.

And yet, the Bulldogs are in position not only to make the NCAA Tournament, not only to potentially host an NCAA Regional, but to possibly repeat as SEC Champions. How can one make sense of that?

“Our guys have done a phenomenal job of taking it day-by-day,” Cannizaro answered by way of explanation, clichéd or not. “We don’t look at the big picture. It’s all hands on deck every single day. We play really hard. We get after teams. Our guys love to compete. We love to play. And that’s why we’ve been winning ball games, because I really feel like we play extremely hard. We don’t give up. We never think we’re going to lose. We play a complete nine innings of baseball.”

So yeah, pretty much all Coach Speak. But it’s accurate Coach Speak, which is why you can’t blame him. Break down each part of his response, and it depicts what’s happening with his MSU team.

“We don’t look at the big picture.”

At some point after MSU got swept in its first SEC series against Arkansas and before MSU swept Tennessee the next weekend in its second SEC series, the players on State’s team had a change in mindset. Up to that point, they had been seeing the injuries and losses pile up and, like many on the outside, were expecting things to fall apart. It was just too much.

But in that week between the two series, something clicked and they all finally realized or admitted that no one was coming to help. If they were going to do this thing, they were going to have to do this thing. As it’s been described to this reporter, they collectively said, forget it, we’re the only ones here, let’s do it.

At that point, they stopped worrying about the big picture, stopped worrying about everything going on and just went into every game with the plan to win, no matter what did or didn’t happen in the days or weeks before. They became a perfect example of, “We all we got, we all we need.” They decided they didn’t need anything more.

“It’s all hands on deck every single day.”

Zero exaggeration here. MSU has pulled in three positional players and stuck them on the mound – and it’s worked. Jake Mangum, the SEC Freshman of the Year last year for his hitting and fielding, has been a regular Sunday starter, and it’s by more parts will than ability. Even getting consecutive pitches to come out of the same slot is sometimes a rarity, yet he’s made it work, and as Cannizaro has shared, Mangum is having a blast doing it. He’s competitive, and this is just another way to compete.

And that’s without discussing first baseman Cole Gordon (2-0 as a starter on the mound) or Brant Blaylock, who is pitching for the first time since he was a junior in high school, yet has a 2.45 ERA and is 1-0 on the mound.

Make sense? Not really. Working? Absolutely.

“We play really hard. We get after teams. Our guys love to compete. We love to play.”

Working with what they have, MSU has taken the SEC by storm. At the plate, junior Brent Rooker gets the headlines, and deservedly so as he leads the SEC in nine offensive categories, but top-to-bottom the lineup is improving every week. In front of and behind Rooker in the lineup, Mangum (59) and junior Ryan Gridley (57) help Rooker make up three of the top six in the SEC in hits.

Meanwhile, Hunter Stovall has returned and is perhaps the best nine-hole hitter in the league, helping to turn the lineup over with steady production while guys like Cody Brown, Josh Lovelady and Tanner Poole, among others, continue to hit in either a consistent or timely manner.

All that while sophomore Konnor Pilkington just plows along as one of the best Friday night pitchers in the league and bullpen stud Spencer Price leads the entire country with 16 saves.

That’s getting after it.

“We don’t give up. We never think we’re going to lose. We play a complete nine innings of baseball.”

Well, last Friday they actually went 13, and that was in the second game of that night’s doubleheader. But the point remains valid. Crazy stat: 20 of MSU’s 28 wins have been comebacks, 11 of those in State’s 13 SEC wins. That is, perhaps, the most unbelievable part of what MSU is doing, at least once one gets past the all the injuries and personnel losses over the last 10 months.

Just as this team doesn’t seem to care if people don’t think they should win before the game starts, they apparently do not care at all if they find themselves as similar underdogs during the game. As they do every day, they’ll just find a way. They’ll MacGyver it and not just hope for the best, but expect the best.

This isn’t a cliché that came out of Cannizaro’s mouth, but it’s one that still applies: MSU doesn’t give up, no matter the circumstances.

“And that’s why we’ve been winning ball games.”

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The Two Matts: Head Coach Roberts, Assistant Walters Reunite To Lead MSU Tennis

About eight years ago, Matt Walters was a rising star on Arkansas’s men’s tennis team. Over Christmas break, he and his doubles partner were at a local athletic club just hitting around. Nothing serious, just enough to not get rusty during the time off.

Then Matt Roberts showed up. A former Arkansas star and team captain himself, Roberts was playing pro tournaments at the time, and he was helping out as an occasional volunteer coach for the Razorbacks when he was home between tournaments.

Matt Roberts at an MSU home match

The two students had no intentions of a serious practice, but the pro walking in was incapable of anything but that.

“We didn’t know he was coming,” Walters said. “He walked in and was like, ‘Let’s train.’ We thought oh, crap. We didn’t really want to, but that’s his personality. If you’re going to be on the court, you’re going to go 110 percent and you’re going to have a purpose.”

“I came in pretty cocky,” Roberts admits now. “like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this drill.’ I didn’t know at the time I was going to be a coach, but I guess I had it in my blood.”

Over the years, the two Matts went their own directions, following the career paths that felt right to them. While their time around each other dropped, tennis stayed central to what each of them did on a daily basis.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016 and Mississippi State fans will know that Roberts had gotten into coaching not long after his encounter with Walters in Arkansas and had gone on to become the head coach at MSU after several successful years a college assistant. Roberts is now prepared to take his team to an NCAA Tournament for the third time in his three seasons as head coach, accruing the second-best all-time winning percentage (.696) in MSU history over that span.

Matt Walters in MSU’s match vs. Tulane

Walters, on the other hand, had turned toward one-on-one coaching, a fitting role based on the way he likes to develop relationships. By last summer, he was at IMG Academy as the personal coach of the No. 1 junior in the world.

The two Matts, the two Arkansas natives and former Razorback stars, were doing pretty well for themselves in their own tracks of life. Whatever story might be told about them, it seemed the majority of it had already been written. The pair were still friends, but the years old story of Roberts’ first experience coaching had already happened. A decade-plus memory of middle school-aged Walters being inspired by Roberts’ success seemingly remained the only anecdote left unshared.

“When I was 12 I was still contemplating whether to play competitive tennis,” Walters said. “When [Roberts] went to Arkansas and developed success, that’s when I chose tennis and saw that a guy from Arkansas could have success. To see that kind of pushed me.”

After all, the two had grown up in the same town, and they even share the same youth coach, a Swedish tennis legend by the name of Thomas Andersson. It only made sense Walters should take some inspiration and direction from the elder Roberts.

But then, last summer, Roberts’ assistant coach at MSU got a job offer he couldn’t turn down. Tanner Stump had been the one man Roberts trusted to help him when he first became MSU’s head coach, the first head coaching gig of his career. How could Roberts replace him? During Stump’s final days, a familiar name came up.

“Tanner leaves,” Roberts recalled, “and I’m wondering, man, who am I going to get as an assistant coach? I started calling around and figuring out who was out there. One day, I’m sitting there thinking about Matt Walters, because he had been at a lot of these ITF Tournaments and I saw him in Mexico. Literally as I think about Matt, Tanner is in the other office and says, ‘Hey, have you called Matt Walters?’”

And so the timelines of the two Matts crossed again, starting a new chapter in Starkville, Mississippi. Not to say it was easy for Roberts to get Walters to Starkville, of course. Walters had turned down several collegiate coaching opportunities, as he was quite happy working one-on-one and traveling the world with his star pupil.

But once again, it seemed Roberts was able to convince Walters of his own convictions.

“It wasn’t a pitch,” Roberts said of their first phone conversation, “as much as just telling him, this is what we do. And we saw eye-to-eye on developing great young men to where they feel confident about anything they do in life. Tennis is a tool they use to grow as men. To focus on that, to focus on their development for professional tennis, and then focus on a team that’s structured in accountability and being brothers, really trying to create a tightknit group of guys with no selfishness.”

“It felt right,” Walters recalled of the discussion. “I flew to Starkville a week later, and I knew it was the right thing to do. It was the right time. It wasn’t easy for me, because the guy I was coaching was like a son to me … I knew, if I was going to go, it had to be right. It had to be something like this with something special.”

And to this point, special has indeed been the right word. The Bulldogs have soared up the rankings as the year has gone along. Now up to No. 17 in the country, MSU finished the regular season 17-7 in year one of The Matts, including seemingly weekly wins over ranked teams and regular upsets of some of the SEC’s top squads. Navigating one of America’s toughest schedules, MSU reeled off seven wins over ranked teams throughout the course of the season. State’s roster features the No. 4 ranked singles player in the country in Nuno Borges, and top-to-bottom the Bulldogs have some of the best doubles play in the country.

And to see the two Matts in practice, it’s obvious why the dynamic has been so successful. They have enough in common – competitive fire, a passion for teaching and developing – to mesh perfectly as a team and enough differences – approach, temperament and life experiences – to each have something new to offer to every young man under their care and guidance.

And they certainly learn from each other, too. Like it was so many years ago, Roberts has something to offer Walters as his career develops.

“I hope he leaves here with the full package and can be a great head coach,” Roberts said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. I think he’s one of the best assistants coaches in the country on the court. I told him that the other day. He has a presence. He’s very positive. He inspires the guys.”

Meanwhile, Walters brings an entirely new set of experiences, as evidenced in one recent practice when rain forced the team indoors. At the end, Roberts was trying to think of a more creative cardio drill to end the day’s work. Perhaps something fun. He asked Walters if he had any ideas. A few minutes later, the entire roster was racing relay style in down-and-backs across two courts that were half two-footed jumps and half full-out sprints, laughing and breathing heavily the whole way through.

“I think we balance each other very well,” Walters said.

As the team dispersed, short conversations took place between individual coaches and individual players. Some were quick reminders, others were pointed recommendations. If there were any admonishments doled out, it was tough to tell by the encouraging and encouraged smiles on each face involved.

Who’d have guessed nearly two decades ago that two Matts from the same town in Arkansas would be working together to bring Mississippi State to the top of the collegiate tennis world?

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Bulldog Greats Celebrate Reunion For Mullens’ Golf Classic

If there’s one thing career athletes have trouble turning off, it’s their competitive drive. Whatever else in the world they may want, they always want to win. Or at the very least, as former Mississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones put it at the Mullen 36 Foundation’s golf classic at Old Waverly on Monday, they don’t want to lose. Especially not to each other.

“Everybody wants to be better than everybody,” the current Kansas City Chief said.

Appearing as celebrities for the golf tournament, dozens of former football Bulldogs made their way to Starkville over the weekend and to West Point on Monday to support their old coach, and several more from a variety of sports volunteered their time and fame for the day. Bulldog greats like Erick Dampier, Will Clark and Jonathan Papelbon spent their Monday golfing at Old Waverly, too.

Among the football players, however, the gathering turned quickly from reunion to friendly competition as the one-time teammates who have gone on to great achievements were left to argue about who’s done the most and who will be the best.

“It’s always about trash talking and catching up,” Jones explained. “We’re just talking trash, catching up and having good laughs.”

Moments later, 2012 first-round NFL Draft pick Fletcher Cox was being heckled mid-interview by 1982 first-round NFL Draft pick Johnie Cooks.

“We’ve got Johnie Cooks over here,” Cox told the camera by way of introduction. “He’s like the 10th best player here that went to State. I think he’s just hurt that I’m here.”

Of course, Cooks was likely the loudest talker of them all, calling Dak Prescott “rookie” any time he referred to the Pro Bowl Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Cooks, a former Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants, took great pleasure in reminding Prescott of the one divisional rival he didn’t beat in his first year.

“Oh yeah,” he would say at the end of a compliment to Prescott, “you never did beat the Giants though, did you?”

Former first-rounders Fletcher Cox and Johnie Cooks

Such is the nature of athletes, and particularly so when the ones coming together have such strong relationships to begin with.

“It means a lot,” Cox said. “It’s kind of like a reunion. I haven’t seen Vick [Ballard], Cam [Lawrence], Gabe [Jackson] and all those guys in a while. It was great to catch up with these guys and talk a little football, talk about life and how everything is going.”

“It feels good to be back in Starkville, catching up with the guys, just going over things,” Jones added. “I feel old, you know? I feel old. I’m coming back for Coach Mullen’s charity event and all. But it’s great to catch up and I can see guys I’ve played with, guys that are legends in the program.”

For many, the foundation tournament provided an opportunity to come back to Starkville for the first time in a while. Guys like Prescott and Jones hadn’t returned since their rookie season began last August, and it had been closer to years, plural, since Cox had made it back.

And it certainly was nice timing with Super Bulldog Weekend taking place in the days leading up to the event.

“It’s been fun,” Prescott said. “Everything I had imagined. Just being away, it’s the first time I’ve come back since the season. Getting to throw the first pitch out, the spring game, it was a great weekend, as usual.”

“Man, I love it here,” former Thorpe Awar winner and current Chicago Bear Johnthan Banks said. “I was fortunate enough to be able to get a scholarship 15 minutes away and stay at home. The fans, the people – there’s nothing like it. It’s a great place. Awesome atmosphere.”

Noticeable in the crowd of former Bulldogs was the number of guys who played for Mullen since his arrival at Mississippi State in 2009, football stars who blossomed under his guidance and many of whom went to great lengths to be in town for the weekend. Without fail, each mentioned what it meant to them to be able to do something for their old coach.

“It’s great to come back and support Coach Mullen,” Cox said. “That’s his biggest thing is support the ones that support you. He supported us, so we return the favor and support him. I think that’s what’s really important about being here. I know it means a lot to he and Megan.”

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What It’s Like To Hit A Home Run: Dropping Bombs With Brent Rooker

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.”

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Historic Run Ends In National Title Game For Schaefer’s Bulldogs

What do you say, what do you do, when you’ve already poured it all out? How do you hold your head high when your heart has dropped so low? You can’t speak to what you’ve done unless you also confess to what happened.

Mississippi State played in the National Championship game on Sunday night. And on that same night, South Carolina beat Mississippi State 67-55, winning a National Title for the Gamecocks, and losing one for the Bulldogs. It was the third time USC beat MSU this year, and every single one of those losses took away a championship MSU would otherwise have won.

Those are the facts of the game, and for those in the MSU locker room, the facts are as cold, hard and miserable as the dead of winter.

When the PA announced there was one minute remaining and a glance up at the scoreboard told the Bulldogs they were still down by double-digits, a few tears began to fall. When, with 44 seconds left, Vic Schaefer removed the players on the court and inserted each player who had not yet seen action, the crying began in earnest. As those on the court came off, MSU’s head coach hugged them, told them he was proud of them, and attempted to remain in control of his own emotions. Once each had sat down, Schaefer took a moment to walk down the bench.

“Good job, seniors,” he told his four veterans.

It was the most he could muster and still remain in the moment, but it was also the truest thing he could have said. They did do a good job. They did a great job, in fact, and they will go out as the winningest senior class ever at MSU by a wide margin. Of course, they’d have liked to extend that record by one more.

They had come so far just to fall short.

But still, they came so far. The entire team did. They spent most of the year at No. 2 in the country, and after a rough end to the regular season, they bounced back by powering their way through the toughest road to the title game the NCAA Tournament could possibly provide.

MSU beat the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and the year’s leading rebounder, then turned around and toppled the one-seed with the biggest lineup in basketball. Their reward was to be charged with doing the impossible. And they did it. At the end of the run, Troy, DePaul, Washington, Baylor and UConn were all left reeling and looking back at the team that ended their season.

“As our athletic director just reminded us,” Schaefer said, “there were 347 teams today watching that game on TV, and we were one of the two still playing.

“Today doesn’t define us,” he continued. “It certainly doesn’t define this season. We had a great year.”

Without question, this is a team that will be defined by its wins. It will be defined by the records it set. It will be defined as the best in the 139-history of the school, the first Mississippi State team to ever play a game with the National Championship on the line.

Perhaps more than anything, at least to those who watched them over the course of the year and followed their run to the title game, this team will be defined by its character. The country fell in love with Morgan William when she scored 41 points in MSU’s Elite Eight upset of Baylor and dedicated the performance to her late father. Five days later, America was in awe of “Itty Bitty” when her jumper fell through the basket as the buzzer went off and the Bulldogs pulled off the biggest upset in basketball history.

Sportswriters in Dallas to cover the Final Four were baffled when they saw the talent MSU put on the floor, because they just didn’t understand where it came from. Their recruiting rankings and reports just didn’t add up to the product that was right in front of their eyes.

“How is it,” multiple reporters asked Schaefer and his players, “that you’re the only team here without a McDonald’s All-American on the roster? I mean, you don’t even have one.”

Heart, Schaefer would tell them. You can’t measure it. Tough defense doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. Neither do clutch or determination. And that’s why Schaefer thinks MSU fans love their team so much. He believes it’s because of the relationships forged between players and fans. He feels that the way his team plays the game is endearing to the people of Mississippi.

“When we’re in The Hump, we get louder cheers when one of our girls takes a charge than we do for any big three-pointer,” he said. “I think our fans appreciate blue collar.”

It’s the same reason MSU fans first loved Dak Prescott so much, Schaefer continued. Sure, he’s good, but mostly, he’s tough.

“He never ran to the boundary,” Schaefer said. “He was gonna run you over.

“Our girls,” he finished, “don’t run to the boundary.”

No, they ran to the very end. When the final second ticked off the clock of the 2017 season, the Bulldogs were still on the court. In a season where State knocked over nearly everyone in its path, they finally suffered their own defeat. And to see their faces, to hear their strained voices as they tried to answer questions from both within and without, falling from the top of the mountain hurts a lot more than falling at the start.

But, to be sure, the view was worth it, and the final fall will only serve as motivation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In the locker room, when Schaefer is speaking with his team, he has four rows of seats in front of him. The front row is for the seniors, the second is for the juniors, the third for the sophomores and the fourth for the freshmen.

“Are we disappointed? Absolutely,” Schaefer recalled telling his team. “But I challenged the second and third row: OK, now it’s your team … Don’t minimize this moment. How you feel? Remember it. Wrap your arms around it. Use it as fuel.”

Even loss can lead to victory.

“I’m still waiting for the confetti to come down and my kids to be able to stand there in it,” Schaefer said. “We’ll be back.”

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