OMAHA — In Cincinnati, Jeff Brantley, the former Mississippi State and Major League pitching standout, has kept up with his Bulldogs during commercial breaks while he broadcasts Cincinnati Reds games.
“In between innings. Every game,” Brantley said Wednesday morning from Great American Stadium in Cincinnati, where he was preparing for another game. “Last night it looked like a home game at Dudy Noble. It’s what State fans do.”
In Richmond, Va., Tuesday night, ex-Bulldogs Jake Mangum tore off his Binghamton Rumble Ponies uniform after a 5-2 victory over the Richmond Flying Squirrels, so he could watch State play Vanderbilt in Game 2. The two-hour rain delay in Omaha unexpectedly allowed Mangum to watch every inning. He ate it up.
Here, in Omaha, State fans have packed the motels and hotels at outrageous prices, taken over entire taverns, gobbled down famous Omaha beef and yelled themselves hoarse at TD Ameritrade Park. Most made the 13-hour drive to get here, and some have been here for 10 days. Many came without tickets and have paid exorbitant prices for those.
Mississippi State fans really are a college baseball phenomenon.
“Don’t you just love the passion?” Mark Keenum, the school’s president and a 50-year Diamond Dog fan, said Wednesday, a few hours before State was to play Vanderbilt for the national championship.
“The love our fans have for Mississippi State and Mississippi State baseball is remarkable,” Keenum said. “It’s in our blood. I am just so proud to see so many thousands of our fans here to support our team We are a family, a loyal family, and we want to celebrate together.”
As a student at State — he graduated in 1983 — Keenum says he “drug a rig” out behind the left field fence at the old Dudy Noble Field and rarely missed a game. He was a grad student in 1985 when Brantley, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro were the nation’s No. 1 team for much of the season but couldn’t quite get it done here in Omaha.
“We’ve never won the national championship,” Keenum said. “We’ve never won a team championship in any sport — lots of individual championships but no team championships. We’ve come so close but never quite have gotten over the hump. Here we are on the cusp, so close, and our people want to see it. They want to be part of the history.”
No matter what happens tonight, Keenum said this State baseball team has made its mark — and so have this team’s fans.
“There’s no doubt, athletics puts a university on the forefront in a huge way,” Keenum said. “The exposure Mississippi State is getting here is wonderful. We couldn’t afford to buy this exposure. People tune in and see the passion of our people and watch them having so much fun. It’s like a three-hour commercial.”