At the end of the day, baseball is a game, but it would be foolish to call it just a game.
A total of 20,000 people don't cram into stadiums to watch someone play Monopoly. As our country's great pastime, there is something about baseball that is acutely American. It latches on to cities and schools such that it becomes part of one's identity, and oftentimes, in a place like Starkville, Mississippi, becomes the mortar that holds the bricks together.
Everyone has their own story about how they grew to appreciate the game. Mine started with my grandfather. His name was Karl Carlson and he taught me to love baseball and two teams in particular – the Boston Red Sox and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. He grew up in poverty in Mississippi and when, as a child, he wasn't working at a cheese factory to support his family, he would play baseball. He went off to World War II, flying in a B-17 with the army aircorp. When he got back he married my grandma, Kathleen, and then he went to Mississippi State on the GI bill. There, he played on the baseball team for a guy named Dudy Noble. Years went by and he became a professor of electrical engineering at the same school. All three of his children went there, including my mom who played in the marching band, and my uncle, Stephen, who was a pitcher for another guy named Ron Polk.
Years later, when I was young, Papa and Grandma sent my brothers and me to numerous baseball camps at State. Being able to play on that field and learn in those facilities made me feel like a king and is something I remember with tremendous fondness. It instilled in me a love for the game and for the school that has only grown over the years. The line of men in my family that played for the bulldogs ended with me. The coaches at State's baseball camp put forth a valiant effort, but they were coaches, not miracle workers. This is only where my love for the game and for the bulldogs started. Events later in life are where the story gets really interesting.
The Red Sox won the World Series in 1918. They traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 and incurred the Curse of the Bambino. Papa was born in 1923 and spent his entire life loving this team. He loved guys like Ted Williams that could crush the ball and who played with such intensity. He also had a general appreciation for numerous players that weren't on his team because he simply loved baseball. Whether it was someone in the Majors who ran all the way to first base every time or the way he would run to hug me with a wide, toothy smile after I hit a wiffle ball over his backyard fence for a home run, he simply had an appreciation for seeing the game played the right way.
In February of 2004, Papa fell in the bedroom of his house and could not get up. He hadn't broken anything. He wasn't hurt. But he couldn't get up. When we got him to the hospital the news was grim. He had aggressive stage four brain cancer and died a few weeks later in June. Never in his lifetime did his beloved Red Sox win a World Series. Yet a funny thing happened later that year. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees in the ALCS and went down three games to none, losing game three in Fenway by an embarrassing 19-8. No team in history had ever come back to win the ALCS after such a deficit. The 2004 team, however, didn't care about silly things like streaks and curses. Game four saw them losing by one run in the ninth and then Dave Roberts stole second. He crossed home plate later in the inning when a hit from Bill Mueller found a hole. They went on to win in extra innings and in one of the greatest achievements in sports history, won four in a row; winning game seven at Yankee Stadium and then finally beating the Cardinals to win the World Series just a few days later. To happen just four months after Papa died, it was a stunning moment and it felt to me almost as if the team had done it just for him. I told myself then that I had just witnessed the sporting event that would mean the most to me in my entire life.
The 2021 Mississippi State baseball team proved me wrong.
In the many years since Papa died, the fiery passion for the bulldogs was kept aglow by Grandma. She loved her bulldogs just as much as him and she outlived him for a long time. It was always a highlight to call her after any big win in football, basketball, or baseball and hear her answer the phone, "How bout those bulldogs!" She would stay up in the nursing home for even the really late games. I could always call, no matter the time, knowing that she was watching and that she cared even more than I did. Earlier this year, my son was born on Papa's birthday. We were ecstatic to hold this beautiful boy. When I called grandma to tell her the news, I could not communicate with her. This had occasionally been hard because her hearing had waned but she wasn't understanding anything that was going on. A couple of days later we learned that her health was rapidly declining and one week after my son was born, she died.
Shortly thereafter, I purchased another State hat and baseball jersey to be able to keep alive one those parts of my grandmother that lived the deepest within me. It's been said that when someone we love dies, part of us dies too. This is true to an extent. She might be the only one who can make us laugh a certain way that no one else can, or who can make a bad day better when nothing else will. She might be the person whose energy we feed off of when family and friends gather to watch a game. The part of ourselves that is brought to life by only her presence dies and is buried with her.
In the same way, however, while part of us dies with that person, it is also true that through other shared loves and experiences in life, part of them lives on inside of us. We remember some of our friends and family best while watching our team play the game that we have so deeply bonded over. The thrill of a game-winning touchdown pass or of a walk-off home run emblazons them in our minds. This part of them is tattooed on our bones and is the way that their memory lives on inside of us.
State's baseball team had a great regular season. They were ranked in the top 10 the whole way. After Grandma died, the thought briefly passed through my mind that it would be incredible for this team to do what the Red Sox did after Papa died – end a decades old championship drought. Then they got run ruled in the first two games of the SEC tournament. That thought quickly disappeared. Yet, little by little, through regionals and then super regionals, they continued to persevere, making it to Omaha for the third time in a row. They kept winning. They were one game away from elimination or the College World Series Finals in the ninth inning against Texas, and just like the Red Sox in 2004, Brayland Skinner stole second base. As soon as it happened, the commentator even said, "Shades of Dave Roberts," referring to that historic moment 17 years earlier that started it all. A few moments later, I watched Tanner Leggett's walk-off single with a sense of thrilled shock. Could they actually do this? Would baseball give me this incredible gift, just nine weeks after Grandma died? Losing the first game to Vandy was a gut-punch and I was beginning to think that perhaps it was just going to be another strong run. I've been here before. I've got battered bulldog syndrome. Yet, this team didn't quit. They smashed Vandy in game two and forced a third game for the championship. All day at work the next day, I kept saying to myself, “They’ve got to win. They’ve just got to win.”
Outside of playing my last game in high school, I've never cried over a sporting event – though I've been given ample opportunities where it would have been appropriate. But with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, I was unable to contain my emotions. I could not believe that baseball was, once again, giving me such an unspeakable treasure. For many moments after the third out, I watched the dogpile, the trophy kissed and held in outstretched arms, and the players walking around the entire stadium thanking the fans, through glossy eyes, thinking about Papa and Grandma, thinking about spending summers in Starkville at their home, and how much of them was alive with me in that moment.
I will never forget this team, nor will I allow my children to forget them. I will remind them how Tanner Allen hit every baseball that moved, that Will Bednar struck out everyone in the state of Nebraska at least once, how Rowdey this team could get, and how Landon Sims, like Darth Vader, is more machine than man.
Allegiance to one's team and love for the game of baseball is the inheritance of generations. There is something in this game that transcends explanation. There is a depth to the wonder of this sport that can only be experienced, and that one feels a certain amount of shyness even discussing. Almost nothing else can bring people together from such various walks of life and bond them together in such a deep brotherhood. Total strangers gave hugs and high fives, shook hands and chanted "Maroon" and "White" back and forth. It did not matter to State fans in Omaha, at Dudy Noble North, what color your skin was, whether you made a million dollars a year or worked for minimum-wage, what party you were registered to vote for, or how old or young you were. In that stadium, it was a community built around the idea that if you were a bulldog, then you were one of us.
At the end of the day, baseball is a game, but it would be foolish to call it just a game.