I grew up north of Pittsburgh, so, naturally, I’m a Steeler fan to the core. I may have been swaddled in a Terrible Towel in the hospital. I went to graduate school in Chapel Hill so I’m a Tarheel basketball fan – no matter how many years it’s been since I lived there, the sky is still Carolina Blue to me. I’ve watched teams win playoff games and Super Bowls and national championships. I was downtown Chapel Hill in the driving rain in 1993 celebrating their win. I’ve been married to a college baseball coach for over twenty years so I’ve seen too many baseball games to count. And in all these years, I’ve never experienced anything quite like a Mississippi State baseball game.
I had the chance to go to Starkville, Mississippi in June of this year for the college baseball Super Regional between Stanford (my husband’s team) and Mississippi State. Having lived in the south for seven years I had a few ideas about what to expect (good BBQ, friendly people, a summer humidity that makes every day a bad hair day). And I found those things but so much more. And I learned a couple of things.
1. HailState fans really want to win.
2. HailState fans are friendly.
3. The combination of #1 and #2 is likely to produce a cognitive dissonance that your brain will never fully resolve the whole time you are there. They will blow out your ear drums cheering for their team while handing you a bowl of jumbalaya and a beer. They will genuinely hug you, praise your players, and thank you for your coaches while crushing your CWS dreams into a powder finer than the perfectly manicured baselines. They will shake your hands and walk you to the parking lot after you lose and you will hug them back and thank them and get in the car and be hit with the brutally sudden end of the season and wonder how you could have possibly been smiling just a minute ago.
Their fans embraced our players. They made friends with the outfielders, giving them food, getting hats and selfies in return.
They reposted pictures of our team, promised to follow Stanford if we ended up winning the series. HailState fans on Twitter vowed to come out to Palo Alto for games, a friendliness that was a marked contrast to some other teams. Like in the Stanford Regional when an opponent on purpose bought tickets on the Stanford side and then, seemingly drunk (I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt) let loose a stream of off-color taunts and heckling at such a volume that he was mercifully moved back with his tribe. Before he was relocated (by the ever present, ever respectful but effective red coats) I heard him say he bought his tickets while drunk and thought it would be funny. He was big and loud and obscene and while it was entertaining for a while, it seemed inevitable that he’d either fight someone or be removed. 13,000 fans in Dudy Noble field and rivers of alcohol out in the Left Field Lounge and I didn’t hear one of those kind of guys (then again, once the game started it was hard to hear anything. Every pitch a cheer, every play applause, music and chants the whole game. )
4. There is a new concept for baseball fields and it involves tailgating terraces and LOFTS. Its flagship is Dudy Noble Field, aka The Dude.
I didn’t even know it was possible to have a stadium with lofts and tailgating terraces in the outfield. Now that I have seen it, lived it, I wouldn’t mind bringing it home with me. Sunken Diamond is beautiful and elegant and I do so love watching home runs sail off into the trees but I wouldn’t mind seeing the home runs sail off into a haze of grill smoke either.
I’ve never walked through security into a baseball game behind someone carrying a bag of charcoal. Into the stadium.
I kinda think that if there is ever to actually be a Rapture, a spontaneous rising of thousands of people into the sky, it will happen at The Dude. The energy of 13,000 people who love their team, love every one of their boys fiercely, is hard to imagine unless you are there. The chanting, the music, the wave, the cloud of smoke across the entire outfield, it is unrelenting. It is never quiet there. It is a roar of joy and fun. I felt like I was at a megachurch and Jake Mangum was the preacher.
5. Your visit is incomplete if you don’t get time with ‘Big E.’
Mississippi State was best exemplified for me not by Jake Mangum (a deserved hero, a kid who sounds so amazing we’d all like to have him as a son-in-law) but by Everett Kennard, aka ‘Big E.’ He drove our bus from the Memphis airport to Starkville and by the end of the drive we felt like we’d known him forever. It turns out he’s a Starkville native, drove for Mississippi State sports teams for years before starting his own bus company, and knows everything you’ll ever need to know about visiting Mississippi State.
Before we even made it to the hotel Big E had arranged for the team to go to The Little Dooey for dinner, an outstanding introduction to Starkville.
Big E is tall, strong looking, and chatty, like if Jack Reacher drove a bus and was friendly. He was a tour guide, concierge, a historian (directed us to the Ulysses Grant Presidential Library, which was time well spent). Big E was ours for the duration, stayed at the hotel, ready to take the team anywhere at any time. He shuttled a couple of us to the local airport to pick up rental cars, keeping the big bus and an SUV on site depending on the needs.
Big E seems to know and like everybody, and everybody knows and likes him. On the drive from Memphis he and Dave realized they have a common friend, former University of Arizona head coach Andy Lopez. Big E texted Andy and within a minute Dave’s phone rang. Andy, excited for Dave to have a chance to hang with Big E.
Big E was more than the driver getting a team from one place to another. Big E embodied the hospitality, the warmth, the friendliness of Starkville. He made everyone comfortable and brought every bit of himself to the world through that job. What I learned from Big E is that the job doesn’t define you, you define the job. He took a job and made it a calling and this made me realize we can take any task in front of us and bring our full self to it and give something to the world. As someone who spends more time in the stands than in the arena these days, someone who also drives everyone around to their arenas, I found this heartening.
You could do worse than to follow Big E on twitter @Dogbusdriver
6. There’s no place like home.
When it was all over, when the last out was recorded and the smoke started to clear from the outfield, the final handshakes and hugs exchanged, when the last hope of going to Omaha was gone, home started to look like the best place to be. When the bus pulled into the parking lot outside of the Sunken Diamond, sunny and unseasonably warm, it carried this particular group of players together for the last time (eight players graduated, a different combination of eight were drafted). The end of your college career is emotional enough, but this group seems especially close. Sunken Diamond has been their home, has been the place where they forged a brotherhood, and for all the fun in playing somewhere like Dudy Noble Field, in the end it is those relationships that will be the lasting legacy of their time on the Stanford baseball team. A team, like the military, like a family, has the chance to form deep connections from going through intense experiences together. You might not even like some of those people but you are forever bonded with them in your shared experiences. Only those other people can truly understand your experience because they had it too. My husband’s best friends are still the ones he won and lost with at the Sunken Diamond. It is the thing he tries most to develop for his team, that brotherhood. Of course he wants to win too, but the brotherhood is both a means and an end in that process.
So we are home, and I feel grateful. For the season I just witnessed, for all of the seasons to come. For the players, the fans, the cool evenings, the extraordinary beauty of the Stanford campus and the stunning Sunken Diamond (not a lot of better places to play baseball, it is a jewel). Stanford is a special place and I, for one, am looking forward to showing it off and welcoming fans with the same level of hospitality as the Mississippi State fans. Palo Alto has a lot to offer, it is filled with great restaurants and beautiful hiking trails and lots of amazing people. Stanford is filled with smart people, kind people, charming people, and fans that love their team just as much as anyone in Starkville. People here have done incredible things. Come out and maybe I’ll tell you the full story about the time I was at my mentor’s house, chatting with his elderly neighbor only to discover he invented the laser. Everyone out here has a “Stanford Story” and you’ll be well entertained if you ask them for it.
Thank you HailState fans, we’re here at Sunken Diamond, ready to return the hospitality. Come find your own Stanford story.
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