February 16, 2019 10:03:55 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Over the decades, the baseball facility at Mississippi State has acquired more names than a serial bride -- official names such as Dudy Noble Field and Polk-Dement Stadium, but also more colloquial names like "The Carnegie Hall of College Baseball" or the more familiar and certainly less pretentious, "The Dude."
Of those names, "The Dude" seemed to fit best, both by definition and by culture, as Mississippi State celebrated its stunning $68-million stadium renovation/expansion Friday with considerable fanfare.
The word "dude" can be considered two ways. By definition, it's a term describing a man who is "fastidious in dress and manner." In pop culture "The Dude" represents a sort of rumpled serenity that is impervious to misfortune.
The reinvented stadium immediately fits the dictionary description.
It is a sprawling, sparkling steel-and-concrete wonder with almost every conceivable fan-friendly feature. There's the broad concourse that wraps around the stadium, providing sight lines to the field and dozens of TV monitors strategically placed at every concession, private suites along the upper deck that stretches along both base lines, three "club" dining facilities, a children's play area and the towering "Left Field Lofts" complex featuring 12 well-appointed two-room, 1,100-square foot apartments, including balconies where -- for a price, of course -- fans can watch the action in something approaching luxury.
Gone are the aluminum bleachers that extended down the base lines, replaced with chair-back seats. Gone, too, from behind the outfield fences are the makeshift wood edifices, mounted on the bodies of rusting pickup trucks, which formerly gave life to a style -- let's call it Bubba Bohemian -- unique to baseball at any other place and at any other level.
The changes to Left Field Lounge were among the first to be made in the project's two-year construction phase. Last year, the contraptions were replaced with steel and concrete spaces with secured storage areas, electrical outlets and room for as many as 30 fans, changes that preserved the outfield party places in function, if not form.
The smoke from grills still hangs thick over the New Dude as it did before, and heading into the second season of the new design, any concerns that such a make-over would be akin to ripping the ivy off the walls at Wrigley Field have subsided.
"If anybody was worried about this messing up the vibe, they never understood what was going on out here in the first place," said 1987 MSU graduate and long-time Left Field Lounge occupant Johnny Hays. "It's the people that make it special and we're still out here doing our thing like we always have."
From their choice seats behind home plate, Archie and Sidney McKinnis looked out over the field with satisfaction.
The couple met at MSU as students in the early 1960s and have been coming back to their alma mater for sporting events ever since. Although they live in Nashville, Tennessee, they bought a condo in Starkville four years ago and don't miss any big games. They, along with 8,000-plus other fans, definitely weren't going to miss Friday's christening of the new stadium.
"When they renovated the stadium last time (in 1987), I thought, 'Nobody's going to top this,'" said Archie McKinnis, 76. "I won't say nobody is ever going to top it this time, but I will say it's going to take a long, long time. This isn't just a notch above: It's a whole bunch of notches above."
For all its present splendor, the transformation is not complete.
Beyond the dictionary definition, "dude" carries a pop culture connotation that emerged with the 1998 Coen brother's cult classic film, "The Big Lebowski."
The lead character, Jeffrey Lebowski, known simply at "The Dude," wanders through the film in a bathrobe and Bermuda shorts, sipping White Russians through a series of predicaments that nevertheless failed to shake his inner calm. His line, "The Dude abides," became a catchphrase signifying perpetual mellowness.
The plot revolves around The Dude's efforts to recover a stolen Persian rug that had "really tied the room together."
In a sense, that, too, is what's missing at the new stadium -- its metaphorical Persian rug.
Like a new house that hasn't been lived in, it will be the fans who call the stadium home that provide the personal touches that honor the old quirkiness that has for so long been a hallmark of MSU baseball.
That work has already begun.
An hour before game-time Friday, Hays was affixing a large sign to the railing of his spot behind the right centerfield fence and he was eager to show it off.
With a tug of a pull chain, the sign blinked to multi-colored neon life: "Welcome To Right Field Stark Vegas!"
Hays' friends were all in agreement.
It really pulled the room together.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]