Gavin Schmidt grew up an LSU fan on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
A Biloxi native, Schmidt rooted for the Tigers for as good a reason as any: His father went to school in Baton Rouge.
But when he stayed with an older cousin at Mississippi State over a football weekend, Schmidt realized what he was missing out on.
“I kind of like this,” the Biloxi High catcher told himself. “Starkville’s a cool place.”
In fall 2018, he enrolled at MSU and signed up to be a manager for the baseball team — a choice Schmidt has never regretted.
In three years and counting as a bullpen catcher for the Bulldogs, he’s met who he expects to be lifelong friends, heard unbelievable stories and experienced heartbreak and frustration right alongside the players on the field.
And this summer, Schmidt got to be part of an unforgettable experience as Mississippi State won its first national title in Omaha, Nebraska.
“We showed up every day of the week and went to work with these guys,” Schmidt said. “It’s just awesome to see. It just makes you feel like a little small part of their success just going to work with them every day.”
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Schmidt was starstruck as soon as he stepped onto campus in the fall of his freshman year.
Everywhere he looked he saw Bulldogs legends in the making: Jake Mangum taking batting practice; Elijah MacNamee running down fly balls. For a newcomer, it was intimidating.
But the adjustment didn’t take long. Within a week, Schmidt was sitting on a shag bucket in right field when MacNamee came up to him. MacNamee introduced himself, which Schmidt still finds amusing.
“It was just kind of funny, like, ‘Yeah, I have no idea who you are, bro,’” Schmidt said. “‘You didn’t just hit all these home runs last year in the postseason.’”
In almost three years since that meeting, Schmidt has become part of the family. He’s met plenty of “characters” while catching bullpen sessions, like seventh-year senior Carlisle Koestler this spring.
When Schmidt asked the veteran Koestler about the craziest thing he’d seen in his baseball career, the pitcher spun a fantastical story about a “ground-rule triple” that occurred when a catcher tossed his mask at an overthrown ball.
Schmidt didn’t believe it.
But on Aug. 3, Curt Casali of the San Francisco Giants was called for a catcher’s balk when he smothered a wild pitch with his own mask. Schmidt saw it on Twitter. Immediately, he realized it.
“Holy crap,” he said to himself. “That’s what Carlisle was talking about.”
Schmidt has heard other stories, too, in the considerable time he spends with the team. Apart from being at practices and games, he lived with three players — Logan Tanner, KC Hunt and Drew McGowan — this year.
And he’s made several close friends from his position at MSU. Marshall Gilbert, a starter on the Bulldogs’ 2019 team, lives in Biloxi, too; the duo has spent much of the summer together.
“He’s one of my best friends, and Mississippi State’s what brought us together,” Schmidt said.
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In March 2020, the Bulldogs faced No. 4 Texas Tech for a two-game, neutral-site set in Biloxi. The players razzed their bullpen catcher, telling him the connection was good luck.
“We can’t lose in Gav’s hometown,” they insisted.
They didn’t. With plenty of Schmidt’s friends and family members in attendance, Mississippi State took both games from the Red Raiders, building some momentum with barely a week left until the start of Southeastern Conference play.
But the Bulldogs never played another game.
The next day, the 2020 season was on pause and Mississippi State’s ultimate goal was canceled. In less than 24 hours, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the NCAA to cancel spring sports championships, including the College World Series.
By the weekend, Schmidt was home in Biloxi for good, his teammates scattered across the Southeast. It was over.
“That was a wild season,” Schmidt said. “We only played a few games, but that was crazy.”
Once allowed back on the field, Mississippi State did all it could do, preparing for a third straight Omaha run in 2021. The Bulldogs swept through the Starkville Regional, then took two of three games from Notre Dame in the Super Regional.
They were going back to a place Schmidt remembered well. He was in the right field bullpen when Louisville eliminated Mississippi State from the 2019 College World Series with a 4-3 walk-off win. The Bulldogs’ hard work hadn’t paid off, and Schmidt’s freshman year was over.
This time, he had another chance.
Two years and two days later, Schmidt was warming up Brandon Smith in the same bullpen when Tanner Allen hit a go-ahead three-run home run as the Bulldogs came back to stun Virginia. Eight days after that, in the very same spot, Schmidt watched as the final out was recorded in Mississippi State’s title-clinching 9-0 win over Vanderbilt.
“I’ve been telling people that I had the worst feeling of my life and the best feeling of my life in the same exact spot,” he said.
Schmidt sprinted out of the ‘pen and across the outfield. His teammates poured out of the first base dugout. They converged in joy to the left of the mound, on top of each other, on top of the world.
“It’s just kind of nostalgic and crazy to be sitting in the same spot and running out into the dogpile,” Schmidt said.
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Hardly 90 seconds later, live on ESPN2, Schmidt clasped hands with pitcher Will Bednar on the infield grass. In the midst of the celebration, the two embraced.
It was Bednar’s last game on a collegiate mound.
Two weeks later, Schmidt was in his truck on the way back to Starkville, listening to the MLB draft on the radio. He was nervous and getting angrier as each team announced a selection that wasn’t Bednar: No. 11, No. 12, No. 13.
“God, when are they going to pick him?” Schmidt thought to himself.
His favorite team, the Milwaukee Brewers — Schmidt is a fan because the Brewers’ Double-A affiliate is the Biloxi Shuckers — seemed to have a chance to snag Bednar with the 15th pick.
Instead, the San Francisco Giants took Bednar at 14th overall.
“I was hoping my Brewers were going to get him, but I’m glad he went 14 to the Giants,” Schmidt said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
One look at his Twitter account proves Schmidt is a devoted supporter of Mississippi State pros past, present and future: He promised “live updates” when he and Gilbert recently went to see former MSU catcher Dustin Skelton and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos take on the Shuckers in Biloxi. Tweets touting Rowdey Jordan, Cole Gordon, Kendall Graveman and more fill his profile page.
Schmidt said he even got a chance to catch Graveman, a star reliever for the Houston Astros, and Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff when they stopped by their alma mater before heading to Arizona for spring training.
“Everyone was like, ‘Oh, how hard was it to catch them?’” Schmidt said. “It was honestly the easiest guys I’ve ever caught in my whole life because they weren’t missing any spots at all.”
He said it’s the same with Mississippi State’s current stars, including Bednar and Landon Sims.
The closer has another year with the Bulldogs while Bednar must ascend the minor leagues, but Schmidt can’t wait to see both in the majors soon enough.
“It’d mean the world to me,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be there when they make it to the big leagues. Those guys are awesome guys — some of my best friends since I’ve been in school.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.