The casual observer could be forgiven for waking up thinking the Mississippi State Bulldogs had won their first national title Tuesday night in Omaha. In the hours following the game, cowbells could still be heard ringing in the streets around TD Ameritrade Park. A look inside local restaurants, such as Goodnights, revealed patrons still wearing their maroon gear. Of course, the Bulldogs had been on the wrong end of the scoreboard Tuesday. Surely UCLA Bruin fans celebrated somewhere, but the town belonged to the Bulldog faithful.
The path to that Tuesday night will be longed remembered by Mississippi State fans, a fan base that will still go into its 100-something season of still wanting to capture a team national title. Before Monday, no Mississippi State team had ever competed for a national championship; only two had ever been one win away from such a contest. Sure, there had been individual titles in sports such as tennis and track, and those are great accomplishments. However, those wins will not stir a fan base the way a big three sport will.
So given the events that unfolded over the past two nights, why were Bulldog fans so celebratory in Omaha Tuesday?
See, a funny thing happened on the road to Omaha the past few weeks. A Mississippi State athletic program continued winning where every other team in the past had failed. A fan base, trained by heartache and heartbreak to see the cloud as much as any silver lining, poured their hearts and souls into a team, really believing the team could win. The 2013 Mississippi State baseball team defied the past at Mississippi State and took the Bulldog fan base on what might have been the most thrilling ride in the school's history.
What a ride it was for the Bulldogs. In some ways it had all the drama of an old heroic epic poem. It really was Beowulf for the modern sports fan.
In the early parts of the season, the hero, the Bulldogs, played with gusto, rapidly climbing the rankings and looking like a contender, at least until Central Arkansas came to town. The Bears managed to take two out of three from MSU and start a string of series losses for Mississippi State.
With the audience growing restless, the Bulldogs recovered just in time to make a strong run to close out the season. Mississippi State, led by a former player in John Cohen, bounced back from the previous trials to go from hoping to host a regional to almost becoming a national seed. As with any good drama, the gods would not make it easy for the Bulldogs.
When the NCAA announced the teams in the Starkville regional, the most felt the Bulldogs received the toughest draw: Jaguars from South Alabama that had nearly hosted a regional, a woefully underrated Mercer team, and the old nemesis Central Arkansas. Mississippi State glided past Central Arkansas in their opener, and they knocked off South Alabama the next night to advance to the final. But, as with any good tale, the plot thickened. The Bears rose up off the canvas and dealt the Bulldogs a mighty blow, staggering the Bulldogs to force a decisive Monday night battle in Starkville.
Most Bulldog fans felt a sickening feeling in their stomachs, a knot starting to form. How many times has this story played out with Mississippi State? Memories of the crushing SEC title game in 1998 and of #webelieve quickly took over the thoughts of most Bulldogs, but this drama was far from over. On Monday, Mississippi State took care of business, finally defeating their enemy and looked to a new conquest.
Those conquests, though, are never easy, even if they have been for 17 innings. Who can forget when the skies started to light up to give the Virginia Cavaliers a bit of a reprieve with the Bulldogs winning 5-3 in the seventh? Until that point, the Bulldogs had cruised. Wes Rea had smashed a homerun, and Chad Girodo, the unlikely pitching hero, had mowed down batter after batter.
But now, the baseball gods had thrown another wrench into the plans and another knot into the stomachs of Bulldog fans. With the game forced to resume the following day, how many fans had a sense of dread that something awful would happen? Something awful nearly did happen in the end. In the ninth inning, Jonathan Holder took the Bulldog fans on a wild rollercoaster to close out the game. That inning featured the tying run reaching third and the winning run on second. It featured an error on a routine play, but through it all, the Bulldogs advanced to Omaha.
In Omaha, the Maroon and White faithful rode a rollercoaster of emotions with late inning comebacks and close calls in the ninth. Who will ever forget the homerun that almost was in game one? How can someone forget Holder throwing a picture perfect curveball to Wes Rea to beat Indiana? Surely Mississippi State fans will always remember Hunter Renfroe's final homer, one that managed to defy the odds and leave the park at TD Ameritrade.
Something strange was brewing during those games. The team and its fans seemed to think the Bulldogs would find a way to win each of those games. The rollercoaster really was more of a ride for the kids at the amusement park. This was not Space Mountain. No, it was like It's a Small World.
Full of belief, the Bulldogs waited for the chance to play UCLA for the national title. Full of belief, a mass exodus of Mississippi State fans left the Magnolia State to head to Omaha, and when they got there, they owned the town.
They question is why. Why did so many fans make this trek for this team? Why on such short notice did they come in droves to a place so far away? The fact is, very few teams have ever been as loved and trusted by the fans as this one. This was the team that was so easy to love.
The players on this team had so much personality, and they wanted to share it. Whether it was the towering Wes Rea pounding out clutch hits and looking like he was having the time of his life or the Bench Mobb making music videos, this team screamed "love me." How could Bulldog fans not love this team? Holder, the closer with the long hair and the Johnny Cash music, Trevor Fitts, the man who used powerpoint to grow a beard, Hunter Renfroe, the first round draft pick that catches opossums late at night, Luis Pollorena, the pitcher who played with guts that MSU fans love, Adam Frazier, the slighted shortstop who was an All-American, but not all-SEC, Girodo, the unlikely hero out of the bullpen, and Ross Mitchell, he who used what he had to win games, made this such a fun bunch. Really, all of them did. The list could keep going.
For his role as coach, Cohen cannot be forgotten. For someone who liked matchups, he stayed pretty unconventional to guide this team. Who else uses the bullpen more than the starters? Who else breaks a long tradition to let his team grow facial hair? Who else sends the pitching coach out to make changes? But, it all worked.
In all honesty, the final outcome of game two was never in doubt after the early innings. It was a slow march to a UCLA celebration. However, the Bulldog faithful kept the excitement alive. They loved this atmosphere, and the score was not about to take the joy out of their first time seeing their team play for a national title. That is why Maroon-White chants continued until late in the game and during the trophy presentation. For all this team had done for the fans by giving them a team to really pull for in the national title game, one last show of support was the least they could do.
With a final out, it was all over. The Bruins were national champions, but the Bulldogs and their fans had finally had their day. In the death of that season, something new was born. A fan base finally had that loveable hero, that standard to which they could point. A fan base had the feeling of belonging and the confidence that they could one day know what is like to see their team win a national title. Mississippi State baseball had become a tragic hero.
Instead of finding that cloud, the fans found that silver lining. Tears streamed from many fans, but not so much because they were sad. They cried because they loved this team, a team that never will be again, but the fans did not leave feeling empty. They left feeling confident. To a man, all the faithful kept saying that next year would be the year. Who knows, it just might be. After all, every good story needs a sequel.