OMAHA – This clean, welcoming midwestern city of nearly half a million folks has long served as a Magic Kingdom or Field of Dreams for college baseball. This is where every college baseball player wants to be – and relatively few reach.
Rusty Thoms, now a 43-year-old Madison businessman, came here twice in the maroon and white of Mississippi State, and it is safe to say no college baseball player – ever – appreciated the Omaha experience more than Thoms.
Thoms never won a national championship, but he did win over not only Mississippi State fans but also the hearts of strangers who remember him well all these years later.
Twenty years have passed since the last time Thoms played in the CWS – then held at old Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, so now seems a perfect time to recount his most memorable experience – and the writer’s most memorable experience of covering five of these. Truly, you really had to be here to appreciate it, but I’ll do my best – with the help of Rusty and others – to describe it.
“RUSTY! RUSTY! RUSTY!” the fans, especially in the left field bleachers, chanted, even after the Bulldogs were eliminated.
Thoms’ first trip here had been in 1997, the last year of Ron Polk’s first tenure at State. That was a terrific State team, which finished 47-21 and 19-11 in the Southeastern Conference.
“Rusty played left field for us, but he didn’t have the power to play there in the pros, and he didn’t have the speed to play center, or the arm to play right field, and he just wasn’t an infielder,” Polk said. “He was a line drive hitter who used all the fields. He was a team leader and an honor student who always had a smile on his face.”
Thoms also had a flair for the dramatic, as we shall see.
First, more background: The Bulldogs were to play Alabama in the first game of the 1997 Series, but the game before, UCLA-Miami, went into extra innings. The Bulldogs were killing time behind the bleachers in left field.
“Fans were wrapped around the stadium, waiting for the first game to end so they could get in,” Thoms says. “We started talking to them and one of them asked me if he could have my batting glove that the Mississippi State emblem on it. We had all new stuff so I gave him and some other people my old ones. Turns out, those people wound up sitting in the left-field bleachers. It kind of snow-balled from there.”
Thoms was a fan favorite before his first CWS game ever begun. Then he played well, as State lost that first game to Alabama, then eliminated UCLA in the losers’ bracket before being eliminated by Alabama. By the time State left Omaha, fans in the left field bleachers had made up their own T-shirts that said, simply, “RUSTY.”
In 1998, State returned under first-year coach Pat McMahon. They were a most unlikely CWS participant, much like the current Bulldogs. They finished 14-15 in the SEC, but then got hot at the right time. The No. 4 seed of six teams in the Texas A & M Regional, State defeated Washington, Rice and host A & M twice to get to Omaha.
In Omaha, Rusty’s fans were ready. He was welcomed liked Elvis at the Tropicana. No, really, he was.
State played Florida and National Player of the Year Brad Wilkerson in first round. “RUSTY! RUSTY! RUSTY!” they chanted as he took the field for the first game.
Thoms wasted little time giving them a thrill. With two runners on in the second inning and Wilkerson on the mound, Thoms turned on a Wilkerson fast ball and sent it soaring into the left field seats. Understand, he had hit only two home runs all season. Understand, his specialty was hitting singles and doubles to the opposite field. Never before had Thoms pulled a home run. Did I say he had a flair for the dramatic?
The home run propelled State, the No. 8 and last seed, to a 14-13 victory over Florida, the top seed. It gets better.
Lynda Thoms, Rusty’s mother, did not have tickets in the left field bleachers, but she went out there to see what all the commotion was about. She took photos of all the fans in “Rusty” T-shirts. She took a photo of the five guys who wore no shirts but who had “R-U-S-T-Y” painted on their their chests.
Someone saw the woman in maroon and white taking photos and asked her who she was.
“I’m Rusty’s mother,” she told them, and she became an instant celebrity herself: Elvis’s mom.
“You have to remember Rusty had played left field in front of the Left Field Lounge fans at State,” Lynda Thoms told me all those years ago. “He was used to interaction with fans, and I think he had come to terms with the fact that this was the last baseball he would ever play. He wanted to totally immerse himself in the entire experience and that’s what he did. I think he loved those people as much as they seemed to love him.”
State’s magical run did not last. LSU hit six home runs in a 10-8 victory over the Bulldogs. Next, State played Southern Cal and was eliminated by the eventual national champions 7-1. But…
In that final game, Thoms had two hits and made two running, diving catches. A career .322 hitter, he hit .429 in the 1998 Series. He excelled in the field and he soaked in every last moment.
After the final out, with the fans in left still chanting his name, Thoms emerged from the State dugout and trotted out to left field. First, he took off his sweat bands and threw them into the stands. Then, his batting gloves. Then, he tossed his cap. And then, just as his mama, crying as she watched, yelled, “No, Rusty, not the glove,” he threw his mitt to some lucky fan.
It was almost enough to make an otherwise jaded, then-45-year-old sports writer cry.
When I asked Rusty about it later, he said, “Well, I’m not gonna need it any more.”
All these years later, Omaha fans remember. This week, I mentioned Rusty Thoms on Twitter.
A fan named Brian responded. He was the one who got Rusty’s cap. “Remember it vividly, Rusty … Thanks for the hat,” he tweeted.
To which Rusty Thoms replies: “It happened 20 years ago and people still remember. I’m so thankful for that and to all those fans. That night, I was trying to thank them the best way I could.”
If State wins tonight, the Thoms family – his wife, three sons and a daughter – plan to revisit Omaha for the championship series. His youngest is now 8. Rusty was coaching him in a tournament Saturday.
Says Rusty Thoms: “I want them all to see it and experience it.”
Even then, they can only imagine what happened 20 years ago.