June 28, 2013 4:14:22 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University ended the 2012-13 athletics season with thousands of smiles.
On Thursday night at Dudy Noble Field, thousands of fans helped MSU celebrate the baseball team's season and runner-up finish at the College World Series Finals. The school's administration had discussed the idea of having a celebration when the team returned from Omaha, Neb. But school officials didn't account for the event, which was marketed to be a thank you for the players, turning into a thank you to the MSU fans.
"The best recruiting tool we have in this state is these players and then number two is you guys," MSU coach John Cohen said as he pointed to the crowd. "Hopefully, all these players one day will be fathers, and when your child gives you a present, it's the best thing in the world because your child made it for you. I feel like a proud parent because look at what these kids made for us."
With just 48 hours notice, thousands of fans poured through the gates of Dudy Noble Field to be a part of the festivities. Before master of ceremonies Jim Ellis, MSU's play-by-play radio broadcaster, began to speak, three-fourths of the chair-back seats were filled.
"When we're successful in this sport, nothing ceases to amaze me when it comes to fan support at Mississippi State," Ellis said after the ceremony. "When we have success, our people will be here. To keep the fever alive in MSU baseball, you have to host a regional and go to the College World Series every few years."
MSU introduced every member of the 2013 baseball program. Fans led one final MSU roll call of the starters as they walked from the dugout to the field. Speakers at the podium located near home plate included Ellis, MSU President Mark Keenum, Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin, Cohen, and team captains Wes Rea and Kendall Graveman.
"I've seen the fan support for years that it doesn't surprise me," Stricklin said. "We're a community of 30,000 people with nobody around campus right now, but the love affair that exists with this sport and the people will be here long after everybody who spoke is gone."
Keenum received a 'Bench Mobb' hat from sophomore pitcher Ross Mitchell, who said at the podium Keenum was an honorary member of the group that epitomized team's laid-back culture.
For the juniors and senior players expected to leave the program to play professional baseball, Thursday night represented a final goodbye to the fans at Dudy Noble Field.
"I needed to say thank you to the fans of Mississippi State," said junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe, the 13th overall pick by the San Diego Padres in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft earlier this month. "That just had to happen. I'll sign anything, take any picture, and do anything these people want me to do because it was the best experience of my life so far to put on the Mississippi State jersey in front these passionate people."
Like he did in the postgame press conference after the game two loss to the UCLA on Tuesday, Cohen guaranteed he would bring a national championship trophy to MSU. When Rea stepped to the podium, the sophomore first baseman joined Cohen in guaranteeing the program would win a title before his college career was over. Last fall, Rea used Twitter to tell fans to make their hotel reservations and to get their tickets for the College World Series because MSU was going to get there.
"These people cheered us and chanted 'Maroon,White' and we lost," Renfroe said. "Do you know how much that means to all of us? It's crazy to think what they would've done had we won the national championship. They came through the gates two hours before this thing started to say thank you to us, and what they didn't realize was this whole thing was for them really."
After the ceremony, MSU players stayed for more than 45 minutes to sign autographs and to thank the fans. Rea refused to leave the dugout area until he had signed every piece of memorabilia.
"It was important these players and coaches didn't just drift away for the rest of the summer after they got off the bus in Starkville last night," Stricklin said. "This was important for so many reasons, but also to let them know they are loved by thousands of people."
Prior to the celebration, the video board in right field showed messages from MLB players with MSU ties, including Will Clark, Buck Showalter, Jonathan Papelbon, Paul Maholm, and Mitch Moreland. Fans also watched highlights of the season, including action from the NCAA Starkville Regional, the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional, and the College World Series.
"I went from having chills sometimes to thinking about what we experienced positively to kind of tearing up," Graveman said. "From the ups and downs to the good and bad, you kind of wrap it up here in one night."