Fall Report: Miss. StateFall Report
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Everything’s different for Mississippi State in Andy Cannizaro’s second fall as head coach. Well, his first-and-half fall, really. That’s one difference: he’s actually had a full fall to work with his players and focus on implementing his aggressive style of play at the plate and on the basepaths. Last year, Cannizaro didn’t arrive in Starkville until early November, after John Cohen moved up to athletics director.
And it’s hard to miss the other big difference at Dudy Noble Field: Dudy Noble Field itself. While the Bulldogs take batting practice, giant steel beams loom large behind them, the skeleton of college baseball’s most ambitious stadium project. Construction on the $55 million facility never stops as the Bulldogs take BP, with construction fences encroaching on the field down the lines. For that reason, MSU has played modified scrimmages inside the Palmeiro Center nearby, which features a full turf infield but no outfield — so Cannizaro stands behind second base and calls out whether a ball hit past the infield is a single, a double, an out or something else.
It’s an unorthodox fall for sure, but you won’t find anyone in Maroon complaining. The Bulldogs will play some real scrimmages on a full field in Jackson, Miss., this weekend. But they’re perfectly content to improvise their practices in Starkville, because the new Dudy Noble Field is going to be spectacular. Some fans inevitably bemoaned the loss of the old Left Field Lounge rigs — they have been replaced with a tiered patio structure that runs from foul pole to foul pole, and fans will be able to customize their new plots. It will be less haphazard, more up-to-code and safer, and it should preserve Dudy Noble’s unique atmosphere, even if some of the old character will be lost.
But fans are overwhelmingly excited about the new ballpark, which they earned with their decades of intense support of the baseball program. As Cannizaro moves from the Palmeiro Center to the playing surface at Dudy Noble and back again, he stops to chat with fans and boosters who are delighted to meet him, and he thanks them warmly for all their support. Cannizaro knows what college baseball means to this place, and he knows how fortunate he is to be here — especially since he became a head coach after just two and a half years as an assistant at LSU. Talk about the fast track to the big time.
“You knew the history of the program, Ron Polk and Will Clark and (Jeff) Brantley, and it just keeps going. Mitch Moreland and (Jonathan) Papelbon to (Hunter) Renfroe — and I’m forgetting guys, but you know the history,” Cannizaro said. “And when you get here, you know about the Left Field Lounge from when we came here in college and played in a regional here, and as an assistant at LSU. But it’s not until you get here every day that you feel how special this place is, that you feel the passion of the fan base. It really is the best fan base in college baseball.
“It’s like college baseball heaven, dude. As crazy as it sounds, it’s like Field of Dreams. That’s like the feel that you get here. The fans want you to win, they support you, they’re behind you every day, practice is crowded. They love college baseball here, and it’s pretty special to be a part of.”
MSU’s enormous, passionate fan base embraced Cannizaro in a hurry last year, especially as he shepherded an injury-ravaged club to 40 wins, a 17-13 SEC record and a trip to super regionals last year, defying any sane expectations. Eight pitchers were lost to injuries last year and a ninth was dismissed from the team, leaving the pitching staff very thin — but still the Bulldogs willed their way to a standout season.
The recruiting class that arrived in Starkville this fall includes just one high school pitcher and one juco transfer arm, but the staff is getting huge reinforcements from the legion of pitchers coming back from injury.
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