By: Sid Salter
What does winning the championship game in the 2021 College World Series mean to the average Mississippi State fan? In a word, everything.
But it’s a mixed bag – joy, relief, redemption, triumph, vindication, and celebration. More than anything, it’s admiration and appreciation for the guts and effort of the young men wearing the M over S logo and sporting maroon and white.
Like the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, the quest for a legitimate national championship in a major sport has been as elusive as the Promised Land – or as our marvelous radio announcer Jack Cristil often called it “the Land of Milk and Honey.”
In the lobby of the Marriott up the street from TD Ameritrade Park after the final game of the CWS, I saw retired Mississippi State University senior administrator Dr. Roy Ruby and his son, Robert, relaxing at a table over longneck beers. Robert recently retired from the FBI.
Ruby, in his early 80s, is a diehard Bulldog who has endured a lot of disappointments watching MSU athletics. But his knowledge of MSU sports lore is unmatched as is his general mastery of MSU’s institutional history and culture.
After the Bulldogs took the 2021 CWS crown and the NCAA national championship that went with it, Ruby shook his head and flashed a wry grin before muttering almost as much to himself as to me in his deep and lilting Mississippi Delta drawl: “I never thought I’d live to see it.”
The joy on Ruby’s face was also visible on the face of other Bulldog partisans, alums like retired Mississippi Court of Appeals Chief Judge John J. Frasier Jr. – now in his 90s and leaning on a cane – the Minter City native who briefly attended MSU before joining the military at age 18. As a member of a 15th Army Air Force squadron during World War II, he flew 35 missions over Europe as a turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator and was awarded the Air Medal.
One of the motivating factors that helped Frasier survive his wartime heroics was his zeal to return to then-Mississippi State College.
The Mississippi State faithful came from all over the state and all over the country to witness the Diamond Dawgs play for the national championship. More than 20,000 State fans laid siege to the greater Omaha area during the CWS. Without exaggeration, MSU fans took over the city and the baseball stadium.
The restaurants, bars and shops were filled with maroon-clad pilgrims from the church that Dudy Noble, Paul Gregory and Ron Polk built and where Boo Ferris, Del Unser, Alex Grammas, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Bobby Thigpen, Jeff Brantley, Hunter Renfroe and so many other Major League Baseball legends played their college ball.
In Omaha, Bulldog and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was perhaps State’s most visible fan along with business leader Richard Adkerson. Palmeiro was there, living and dying on every pitch and educating those around him on how hitters anticipate pitches and the strategies plotted by pitchers. Iconic Polk was there and in demand for autographs and cell phone photos with multi-generational fans.
MSU President Mark Keenum – who as a college student enjoyed the Left Field Lounge with his classmates and is a genuine baseball fan and student of the game – was in the Bulldog locker room just before the final out, helping MSU Athletics staff move the trappings of the coming celebration into place in the dugout to honor our athletes. Later, he exhibited the weary exhilaration of a man who’d completed a marathon.
There’s little wonder. Recent post-season runs in women’s basketball, baseball, and the school’s time at No.1 in the College Football Playoffs rankings during the Prescott era brought MSU millions of dollars in media exposure and contributed to enrollment growth even at a time when demographics would suggest an almost certain decline.
But those measures pale in the shadow of the parade and celebration last week in Starkville and Dudy Noble Field. Everyone in the Bulldog family and in Starkville is standing up a little straighter, with their chests out and smiles on their faces. For in Omaha, our baseball team earned the undisputed right to look friend and foe alike in the eye and say: “We’re No. 1!”