OMAHA, Neb. — Paul Maloney wants to get one thing straight.
The maroon and white congregation at the end of Row 6 of Parking Lot D at TD Ameritrade Park dates back to Maloney and his wife Traci, who made their first trip to the College World Series in 2007.
But it’s not the Jackson couple who have made their annual event — now in its 14th year and counting — a must-stop for Bulldogs fans making the Omaha pilgrimage.
“It’s not Paul and Traci Maloney’s tailgate,” Paul said. “It’s not a ‘me’ tailgate; it’s a ‘we’ tailgate.”
It’s the Nebraska man and his daughter who got things off the ground. The Iowa family who helped the Maloneys grow their tailgate bigger and bigger. The Bulldog faithful who come back year after year, always in greater numbers.
“If it wasn’t for all these people that help, all the people that cook, all the people that contribute, all the people that help set it up and all the people that help break it down, there would be no tailgate,” he said. “Period.”
‘Let’s go check it out’
In 2007, the Maloneys were watching from home as Mississippi State beat Clemson in the Starkville Super Regional, punching its ticket to the College World Series for the eighth time.
As the dogpile began and the ESPN commentators fêted the Bulldogs, Paul and Traci looked at each other.
“We need to go there to Omaha and see what the heck’s going on,” the Maloneys agreed. “There must be something going on. Let’s go check it out.”
But when they got to Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the former home of the CWS, the first-timers realized how unprepared they were. They didn’t get there early enough to snag a prime parking spot, having to head down the hill to find a space. Under a lone tree providing shade on the scorching day, they parked next to Pete Gunderson of Gretna, Nebraska, and his daughter Becca.
The practiced Midwesterners pulled out things the Maloneys didn’t even think to bring — chairs, a cooler and a grill.
“We jump out of our little compact rental car with nothing, and they’re looking at us like, ‘Who are these sports fans?’” Paul said.
The Gundersons took the pair of Southerners under their wing for the weekend, cooking burgers and getting acquainted. Eventually, they asked the Maloneys if they would be back next year.
Again, Paul and Traci looked at each other and reached a consensus.
“What the heck?” they figured. “Why not?”
The next year, they got the things the Gundersons already had, including a disposable grill from Walmart. In 2009, after seeing an elderly couple quickly assemble a pop-up tent before leaving for the game, the Maloneys added their own “instant shade.”
Year by year, they added more and more equipment. And across from college baseball’s own veritable Field of Dreams, they proved the adage true: If you build it, they will come.
Of course, the Maloneys never meant to.
“Our intent was never to tailgate,” Paul said. “Our intent was never for the tailgate to even occur.”
‘Here comes the Left Field Lounge’
Starting in 2008, the Maloneys began attending more and more Mississippi State home games, introduced by Paul’s childhood friend Steve Wagner to the wonders of the Left Field Lounge.
They hung out on the outfield rig of Denis “Snoot” Everett and his wife Susan, who have been attending Bulldogs games since the 1970s. The Everetts even had a name for their group: The Left Field Lounge Lizards — name coined by Denis, logo designed by Susan.
The Lizards found out the Maloneys had been to the previous CWS and promised to tailgate with them the next time Mississippi State went to Omaha. They had to wait five years, but in 2013, the Bulldogs were back.
The Gundersons, the Maloneys and another set of new friends — the Busings from Logan, Iowa — saw a deluge of maroon and white descend on TD Ameritrade, the event’s new home as of 2011.
“We’re all looking at each other going, ‘Uh oh, here they come,’” Paul said. “‘Here comes the Left Field Lounge.’”
Eight years later, the Lizards banner hangs outside one of the maroon tents that fill Row 6, where the tailgate is invariably held. Before Tuesday’s game against Virginia, dozens of fans in maroon and white congregated, chatting, eating and drinking.
Carlos Sistrunk of Starkville was one of them. He said this year’s tailgate — back on after the 2020 CWS was canceled because of COVID-19 — was scaled back, with members asked to bring their own food, drinks and other equipment.
It was necessary, Sistrunk said, after things got “out of hand” in 2019. Just how out of hand?
“Two hundred cases of beer in one day, out of hand,” Sistrunk said.
Given the quality of the food the Maloneys serve, it was understandable. The ring of a cowbell signals “order up” with duck poppers, venison sausage balls, pig wings — made from the shank of the animal — and more on the menu.
The unique snacks became huge hits with not only Mississippi State supporters but visiting fans, television crews and even local police and security. During one interview with a local news station, Pete Gunderson uttered a line Paul still remembers.
“Most people want ESPN to come to their tailgate,” he said. “We want the Food Network to come to ours.”
An ‘extended family’
Several times, those drawn in by the aroma of the Maloneys’ creations have come to their rescue.
After a rainstorm soaked the couple’s tailgate equipment, the Busings cleared out room in the shed on their Iowa farmstead and hauled the Maloneys’ things in to let them dry. After a couple days, they moved everything back to the downtown Omaha storage unit where the Maloneys typically keep their things.
In 2014, two restaurateurs and a wine distributor from Mankato, Minnesota, couldn’t help but intervene after watching Paul cook bratwurst on a grill. They asked him for the requisite ingredients — a metal pan, cheap beer and an onion — and said, “Get out of the way.”
When the creations — cooked in the brew and glazed on the grill — were finished, the trio offered them to the tailgaters, who asked what they were tasting.
“That’s the same brat you’ve been eating for three days, but you didn’t know how to cook it,” the Minnesotans said.
Invited by the Maloneys, who strive to be “goodwill ambassadors” for the Bulldogs’ baseball program, the trio ended up coming to Starkville for Super Bulldog Weekend the following spring, enjoying the atmosphere even more than the CWS. In 2018, they backed a truck full of restaurant equipment into the tailgate and got straight to cooking.
They weren’t the only ones to change their stripes for maroon and white. In 2015, the Maloneys fed five men decked out in the black and gold of the Iowa Hawkeyes. The next year, they returned in the Dawgs’ M-over-S hats and T-shirts, joining the “extended family” growing every day in Lot D.
“You would have thought they were born and raised in Starkville,” Paul said.
He said he loves the feeling of seeing native Nebraskans don Mississippi State gear. When asked why they’re wearing it, they have an easy answer.
They point to Paul, to Traci, to Pete.
“Because of them.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.