Like a storm, it had been building all day.
By 3:30 p.m. Friday, as Mississippi State fans scurried to purchase their national championship hats, T-shirts, caps and more at Maroon & Company apparel store before the start of the evening’s festivities, clerks and managers were laboring to keep the checkout lines moving as customers stood in line six or seven deep.
“It’s been like this since we opened (Thursday),” manager Alex Gomez said. “It’s been crazy, both online and here in the stores. We’ve sold 10,000 (items) in two days and it isn’t slowing down. We’ve never seen anything like this, not anything even close to this.”
By 4 p.m. — an hour and a half before the start of the parade — people had already began staking their territory along the two-mile parade route down which coaches, their families and the players from the newly-minted national champion Mississippi State baseball team would travel atop three Starkville Fire Department fire trucks, all decked out in MSU National Championship regalia. The town’s trolley followed behind, bearing Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill, MSU President Mark Keenum, Governor Tate Reeves and other officials to Dudy Noble Field.
While the team was playing the last two games of the three-game championship series in Omaha against Vanderbilt on Tuesday and Wednesday, Lane Langford was moving back to his native Mississippi after 23 years in Pittsburgh. He sat in his SUV in a parking spot along the parade route on University Avenue with his wife, Cara, and their sons, John, 16, and Christopher, 13.
As they pulled into Crystal Springs Wednesday afternoon, completing the 1,000-mile journey, the family was in agreement.
“We all said if Mississippi State won, we were coming,” Lane Langford said. “We just had to. They won and we just jumped back in the car. So here we are.”
For Divi Dubois, 9, of West Point, the highlight came even before the parade started. She had been permitted to walk a few hundred feet to the parade staging area and came skipping joyously back to her family, breathless with excitement.
“I saw the pitcher, the one who threw all those strikes!” Dubois said. “That was so cool!”
Dubois didn’t recall the pitcher’s name (Will Bednar, who was chosen as the College World Series’ Most Outstanding Player) but she recognized him Friday after watching his performance during Wednesday’s clinching game with her parents, Jeremy and Christi Dubois, at Old Waverly’s restaurant.
“Oh my gosh,’” she squealed, recalling her reaction to the
final out of the game. “I screamed! Probably the best part of the game was when we threw all those strikes and then, when the players all jumped on top of each other at the end, I laughed so hard at that.”
Spread out as it was along the parade route, the crowd’s size was hard to estimate.
It was not until the parade had ended and the fans followed the team into Dudy Noble Field that a reasonable estimate could be made.
Capacity is listed at 15,000-plus with a record attendance of 15,586.
Even by a conservative estimate, the biggest crowd of the season — perhaps the biggest crowd in stadium history — had assembled two days after the season had ended. Every seat was filled and the standing-room only areas along the concourse were filled 10 to 12 people deep in places. Cowbells, which aren’t permitted at games, were abundant, turning the stadium into a throbbing, pulsing roar throughout the hour-long ceremony.
They roared when highlights of the game were played on the big screen behind the right-field fence, reacting in manic joy to each big hit as if it were happening in real time, and gave standing ovation after standing ovation as the players and coaches, past and present, were introduced. Ron Polk, the coach credited with laying the foundation of the proud MSU baseball program back in the 1970s, got a standing ovation even though he was 1,300 miles away in Cape Cod, coaching summer baseball.
The crowd was a singular thing, but the stories and emotions attached to the championship were personal.
Dr. Mark Meeks came up from Madison by himself to join the fun. The 1978 MSU graduate practices geriatric medicine, but will retire later this year. (“I’m stopping geriatrics now that I am one,” he quipped).
“For anybody who has followed Mississippi State as long as I have, you begin to seriously wonder if something like this is ever going to happen,” he said. “Part of me still wonders if it’s real. It’s sinking in now. I just had to be here.”
Little Maci Overstreet, just 6 years old, stared in wide-eyed wonder at the sights before her: the fire trucks, the flashing lights of police cars that had blocked off the streets, the MSU cheer squad in the distance and Bully, the team’s bigger-than-life mascot, who was hamming it up with fans along the route.
She likes Bully, but her attention was drawn especially to the cheer squad.
“My big sister plays basketball,” Overstreet said. “But I’m going to be a cheerleader. I can do a handstand.”
“Don’t even,” her great-grandmother, Thelma Neal, scolded in knowing anticipation.
“This child, all she does is go, go go,” Neal said, wrapping an affectionate arm around the child’s shoulders. “She wears me out.”
By the end of the ceremony, that “worn out” feeling was the prevailing condition of those thousands who, emotionally-spent, filed out of the stadium on a muggy July evening.
An hour after the last of the crowd departed, a solitary figure sat on the pitcher’s mound, alone in his thoughts.
It was Will Bednar, the one “who threw all those strikes,” no doubt reflecting on the magical season.
The time of celebration had ended.
The time for reflection had begun.
The great storm, in all its thunderous glory, had passed.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]