Mississippi State played the early game Friday in the NCAA Starkville Regional, which gave Bulldog fans more than 24 hours to kill before Saturday’s winners’ bracket meeting with Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday night.
The Ince family — Jeff and Lisa and their teenage son, Jeffrey — idled away the morning hours downtown, the boys waiting around until 2 p.m. for the losers bracket game between Samford and Campbell while Lisa went shopping for Bulldog gear.
At The Lodge on Highway 12, Larry Buckley bided his time perusing the aisles of clothing before heading to Dudy Noble Field to catch the early game as well.
The Inces have only been attending MSU baseball games for four years. Buckley, meanwhile, will be sitting in the season-ticket seats his father first bought 50 years ago.
Both the Inces and Buckley were among the 8,794 fans who gathered at “The Dude” for the Bulldogs’ 8-4 win over Samford on Friday.
The COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 season, delaying MSU’s bid for a third straight trip to the College World Series. So Friday was a long-anticipated day for Bulldog baseball fans.
“The atmosphere was great, especially for an afternoon game,” Jeff said. “Tonight, it ought to be rocking. It’s always been like that.”
Jeffrey, a speedy switch-hitting middle infielder, is an MSU baseball commit and expects to have a much closer view of the game next spring as a member of the Bulldogs’ freshman class. He will join the Bulldogs roster 50 years after Buckley began his Bulldog playing career.
Much has changed since Buckley donned the maroon and white at Dudy Noble Field in the spring of 1972.
“We just had metal bleachers and people backed their trucks and cars up against the outfield fence,” Buckley recalled. “But there are things Mississippi State had then that they have today. A great field, great teams and big crowds.”
Buckley ended his MSU career the year before Ron Polk arrived at MSU. While Polk, along with LSU’s Skip Bertman, are widely credited with making college baseball a legitimate box-office draw, MSU’s success predates his arrival, said Buckley.
Indeed, by the time Polk arrived, MSU had already won six of its 11 SEC championships, had made it to the NCAA Regionals six times and earned a trip to the College World Series.
“Paul Gregory was the coach when I was there,” said Buckley, whose son, Allen, pitched for the Bulldogs in 2001 and 2002. “He was absolutely obsessed with the condition of the field, and he worked our tails off to keep the field in perfect condition. As far as crowds go, it almost got out of hand. A years or two after I left, I remember coming to a game here against Ole Miss and there was a huge brawl in the outfield with a bunch of Ole Miss football players. Everybody talks about how big Left Field Lounge got over the years, but they almost had to shut it down after that brawl.
“It’s a lot better now, a lot more hospitality,” he added. “I think Mississippi State people take a great deal of pride in that. It was a little grittier back in my day.”
Jeffrey made up his mind to play baseball at MSU when he was in ninth grade and first beginning to draw attention in the travel-team circuit.
“I understood why he would be attracted to State,” Jeff said.
Jeff played third base and was the closer for what was then Memphis State from 1991-94, helping the Tigers to a 52-11 record and to trip the NCAA regionals in ‘94.
“We played Mississippi State every year back then,” he said. “Obviously, you don’t have this kind of stadium because you don’t see this kind of stadium anywhere else this side of the big leagues. But even then, it was still the best atmosphere in college baseball.”
Jeff recalled his first game as a visiting player at MSU.
“I was in the bullpen warming up to come into the game,” he said. “Back then, the fans were right on top of the bullpen. They could reach over and touch you. I remember one of those guys leaning over and offering me a can of Coke, which I thought was pretty friendly. Let’s just say, there was some Coke in that can, but probably half of what was in there was a lot stronger than Coke.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]