Chris Lemonis talks his players during the Bulldogs victory over Virginia Tuesday night at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. (Austin Perryman/MSU Athletics)

OMAHA — We didn’t have a College World Series last year because of COVID-19. Mississippi State’s Bulldogs, who had competed in the two before that, have returned for this one. State has been to 12 in all.

This one is different.

For starters, there was no opening ceremony. There was no pre-tournament press conference or autograph session. There have been no live post-game press conferences. Practices have been closed to the media. In a pre-CWS email from the NCAA, media actually were urged NOT to cover the CWS.

As is often the case where the NCAA is concerned, there is more than a little incongruity at work here. We’re not having in-person press conferences for safety reasons, yet 24,000 people can cram into TD Ameritrade Park, shoulder to shoulder, with precious few wearing masks. It makes little sense, but then this is the NCAA. Need I say more? After all, this is an NCAA event that makes millions of dollars, yet most of the athletes are not on a full scholarship, and some are not even close.

Rick Cleveland

Your dutiful columnist covered State’s first two games from my living room recliner in Jackson, where, via Zoom, I had every bit as much access to the players and coaches as the media in the press box at TD Ameritrade Park, where I’ll be the rest of the series.

One aspect of the CWS hasn’t changed this year. Mississippi State fans have converged on this clean, sprawling midwestern city in maroon-colored legions that will surely grow this weekend. Dudy North, they call it. 

Chris Lemonis, the Bulldogs’s skipper, talked about it Thursday morning during a Zoom media conference when discussing the Tuesday night’s come-from-behind victory over Virginia. “It was a cool thing to look up there and see our people,” Lemonis said. “It looked and sounded like The Dude.”

Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen estimates upward of 5,000 Bulldog fans were in the stadium for the Virginia game — that, despite the fact that State received an allotment of only 600 tickets. 

“Our people are getting them directly through Ticketmaster, and through the secondary market (scalpers, StubHub, SeatGeek, etc.),” Cohen said. “I think a lot more are coming this weekend and it’s going to be crazy if we’re lucky enough to get in the championship series. I think we could see more than 10,000 of our people here.”

But even perhaps the most supportive fan base in country presents a tricky problem during the first CWS played during a pandemic. 

“We’ve got so many people fans out here and you feel really rude when you can’t sign an autograph or sign a ball for them,” Lemonis said. “We’ve had to tell the players to be careful that we don’t want you signing autographs. For me, the biggest fear is getting a bad test. That’s what you really worry about.”

CWS players are tested every other day while here.

Imagine this nightmare scenario: The Bulldogs get to the best two-of-three championship series next Monday and a key pitcher tests positive. Contract tracing results in his roommate and several others who were in the bullpen with him having to be quarantined. Again, just imagine: You’ve dreamed about this for years, worked you tail off since last fall for this moment, fought through a grueling SEC season, a regional, a super regional, and your bracket of the CWS, and then…

Nobody wants to even think about it.

But Lemonis is right: You have to think about it and protect against it.

The Bulldogs would do well to follow their head coach’s plan Thursday night.

“I’m gonna stay in my room, get on my couch, order some food, and watch the game (Texas-Virginia) tonight,” Lemonis said.

State will play the winner Friday night at 6 p.m. Win that one, and the Bulldogs are in the championship series. This place really would be Dudy Noble North.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.