Baseball is Back!

This past weekend, the first home games of the season were played at the newly renovated Polk Dement Stadium at Dudy Noble Field. That’s a lot of names for someone unfamiliar. It’s the name of the field and the stadium where Mississippi State University plays baseball. All those names pay tribute to people who helped make our baseball program what it is today. Just the same, most of us shorten the name to “the Dude”.

The Dude got a makeover. Cue the flirty pop song montage. Just kidding. But, truly, our baseball stadium, perennially voted one of the best in the country, got a whole world of upgrades in the offseason. Well, the past two offseasons. Rome wasn’t built in a day. You might ask why we improved a stadium that is storied throughout college baseball fandom. The answer is that in Mississippi we love baseball and we love barbecue. We have perfected one, so we must turn our attention to the other.

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via HailState.com

To get an idea of what the atmosphere is like at an MSU baseball game, we hold the single game, on-campus attendance record. We also hold the top four Super Regional attendance records. When I say we love baseball, I mean half the state will put on their colors, travel to the stadium, and come sweat, sunburn, or double-header will cheer on our beloved Bulldogs. My son thinks the picture I have of him holding a foul ball in his tiny little hands was taken at his first game. The truth is he attended several while he was still in the womb. A girl’s gotta go see her Dawgs.

Back in the 1960s, many stadium upgrades ago, it was common for people to drive trucks around behind the outfield and park. They’d sit on their tailgates and watch the game. Over time, people also started bringing grills and ice chests. They’d parade in until the lot filled up and the rest would be turned away. They’d cook, drink, and watch baseball. When the game was over, they’d pack it all up and go home. It was a tradition.

Sometime in the next decade, an “unfortunate” event occurred when one post-game tailgater couldn’t get his truck to start. Left with few options, he decided to leave the vehicle where it was overnight and deal with it the next day–after the game, of course. By default, this sort of reserved his spot for the next day’s game and people took notice. Others began leaving their vehicles in their spots. Some even towed in trucks that no longer functioned to leave them there all season. The Left Field Lounge was born.

Over the years, instead of fighting the crowds tooth and nail, the university established a set of rules to regulate the Lounge and keep everyone safe. Eventually, bringing in a lounge rig became part of a parade that marked the start of each season. By the time I attended the university in the mid-to-late 2000s, the university built a permanent boardwalk around the back of the outfield fence to better serve the Lounge crowd.

This year, the Lounge looks a bit different. In one area, the largest video board in college baseball looms over the seats just past the wall. And there are now loft apartments overlooking Left Field. The nostalgic side of me hates to see it all change, but the baseball fan in me is in awe. More than one former player for the Bulldogs has commented that when a player graduates from MSU and goes on to play professional ball, they need to be prepared for a downgrade in facilities.

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Since I do not have access to a convenient overhead shot, here is a rendering of the New Dude given as part of the original press release.

Baseball and Bulldogs. Hail State.

 

Better Than Champions

On Sunday evening the Mississippi State University Women’s Basketball team played in the National Championship game. They lost on a heartbreaking shot in the last three seconds. I won’t comment on the officiating, though I want to. As a Bulldog fan, I have loved watching our team play. They work hard and watching them on the court is a beautiful thing.

Off the court, they’re still amazing. Our starting five included the Homecoming Queen, one of the tallest players in college basketball, one of the shortest, the coach’s daughter, and a single mother. They’ve each faced hardships beyond trying to balance getting a college education while busting it to make every practice, every game, every moment count on the court. Together, they are a national story because of their teamwork. Off the court, they’re just as awe-inspiring.

Victoria Vivians is the MSU Homecoming Queen from a tiny interstate town. She wrote an article last year for The Players’ Tribune in which she admitted to being incredibly shy. Being recruited for college athletics, playing on the national stage, and this year being crowned student body royalty hasn’t been easy. Yet, she has handled it with strength, beauty, and grace.

Teaira McCowan is 6’7”. She is a beautiful and talented lady, but she has been open in interviews about not always being comfortable in her own skin. She was 6’4” in middle school. When her brothers would go play basketball outside, she would stay indoors and watch because she didn’t want to be ostracized for her size by other kids. She also talks about being bullied because other kids wouldn’t believe she was their age, believing instead that she had been held back several grades because of her height. McCowan could be a poster child for not letting the bullies get you down. Her teammates jokingly call her a diva, laughing along with her when she gets caught making faces or striking a pose behind them or her coaches during on-court interviews. Now, she’s not just comfortable in her own skin, she’s the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

Morgan William, whose official height is listed at 5’5”, isn’t tall. When she told her father she wanted to play basketball, he didn’t sugar coat it for her about how hard it would be. But she didn’t give up, and neither did he. William’s father would start her day with extra practices at dawn. Drills, sprints, grueling work. It paid off when she was recruited to play for MSU, but it was a payoff that her father would never see. William unexpectedly lost her father during her senior year of high school. She had to take the court in college knowing her father would never be in the crowd, but she carried him with her anyway. Now, she has played in the national title game twice. And has dedicated a legendary Final Four buzzer beater shot to her dad’s memory.

Blair Schaefer is the daughter of head coach Vic Schaefer. Her father has been voted Coach of the Year by the WBCA. That’s a lot to live up to. And it hasn’t always been easy. As an underclassman, she thought seriously about transferring. She wasn’t getting the playing time she wanted, despite her numbers. Coach Schaefer told her she needed to come to his office just like any other player. He separated his role as her coach from his role as her father. No special treatment. Which is what Blair had to remember as she sat in his office and listened to her coach, her father, tell her that she had work to do. He cited her turnover rate, among other things, as reasons she wasn’t getting the playing time she wanted. It lit a fire under Blair. She took a break after the season was over and came back ready to play. Since that moment, Blair has busted her tail and worked her way into the starting five. Off the court, she scored an internship with Entertainment Tonight last summer. Her teammates have witnessed her work ethic first hand and have no doubt about her chances of success. The team says they can’t wait to see her on camera in the future. Her dad might be her coach, but Blair is a stand-out all on her own.

Roshunda Johnson is more than a college athlete. She’s a mom. Her son, Malaki, turned two last week. It’s a struggle and Johnson has said it isn’t always easy, but she has the support of her family and her son’s father. Stil, there are times, especially when she is traveling for games that she only gets to talk to her son on the phone while he stays with his grandmother. An article from earlier this month in the Clarion-Ledger, the leading newspaper in Mississippi, quoted both Johnson and her son’s father when talking about how difficult it has been to come back to basketball. She’s dealt with pain, both physical and emotional, but that hasn’t kept her from success both in the classroom and on the court.

Each of these women has dealt with their own share of obstacles and struggles. They lost the national championship, but every one of them is a winner. More than that, each one of them is a role model for what determination and hard work can do.

So when or if you see Mississippi State fans, like me, wishing our seniors well and giving the team our support and respect even after coming in second, you know why. Trophy or not, these women are champions. We’ll see them as nothing less. The cry of my alma mater is Hail State. It’s a simple phrase, but it can serve as a greeting, a salutation, a cheer, or that thing to say among ourselves when nothing else seems quite right. Our five starters–four seniors and a junior–have bright futures ahead, but they let us be a part of their journey and it has been awesome. To each of them, I say thank you and Hail State.