By: Bob Carskadon
STARKVILLE, Miss. - Down by two runs in the bottom in the final inning, eyes locked on the pitcher, Sam Lenahan stood at the plate staring a six-game losing streak and the possibility of being swept by a division rival right in the face.
Behind her, Mississippi State’s dugout was somehow more crowded than it had been all day, sounding like a subway packed with auctioneers - cheering, chanting, clapping and stomping rolling through the enclosure and out onto the diamond.
Standing on the third base line, Vann Stuedeman knew this was their chance.
Down 3-1 with one runner on base, the entire dugout of Bulldogs could feel it coming. Months of training, miles of running and buckets of sweat rested on what happened next.
The pitch came.
The bat cracked.
With her back on the fence, the outfielder shoved her glove into the air.
For a moment, no one knew.
Then, behind the wall, three fans threw their arms up and started to cheer, just as the empty glove opened and came back down.
The dugout erupted. Stuedeman jumped and the crowd hit its feet.
Down two runs since the second inning, MSU had clawed its way back into the game.
Tied 3-3, it was almost inconsequential that MSU went on to win the game in that final inning, though it seemed like a given when the team crowded around Lenahan as she hit the plate to end her home run jog.
- For the second time, the MSU softball team was kind enough to host me and let me learn a bit more about them.
Call me an honorary coach, a guest coach or some dude standing by himself at the end of the dugout with a notepad, I got to spend pre-game, in-game and post-game with Stuedeman’s team when they hosted Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
I arrived shortly after batting practice, during a little bit of down time before they hit the field.
Just in time, however, to see one of the game day traditions. One I was a little surprised by.
With Top 40 hits playing through the building, a group of the girls gathered in a circle, game-ready in uniforms, cleats and the like, then kicked around the little hackysack. The whole team did it again just outside the dugout when the game was about to start.
Some were good. Some were not. But as I type this, I realize that while it had very little to do with softball mechanics, it got the team where they needed to be. Loose, and just as importantly, not nervous.
- With the game about to begin and starting lineups announced, I got to see a nice twist on one of my favorite moments in sports.
Be it softball or baseball, few things are cooler than outfielders, infielders and the pitcher and catcher standing together in their respective areas of the field for the National Anthem, bodies turned toward the flag, hands over hearts. Saturday, a youth league softball team was in town from Tupelo. Whether by position or random assignment, a few each accompanied MSU’s players on the field.
Another fun moment: the ceremonial first pitch.
It was Daddy-Daughter Day at the park, so Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin, asked to throw the first pitch, brought his two daughters with him. After some warm-ups near the bullpen, all three took the mound and each threw their pitch at the same time.
- Once the game starts, it’s not the sights, the strikes or the pop outs you notice. It’s the sounds. By the end of seven innings, my notebook was filled with descriptions of what occupied my ears.
The crowd made noise, certainly, and there was a constant stream of chants, cheers and clapping from players both in the dugout and out.
Plenty more came from the press box, with free T-shirt giveaways, coupon winners and a few other fun games between innings.
One such a contest gives a fan the chance to pick either a Hail State cup, or take a chance on whatever is inside a mystery box. While Auburn warmed up on the field, MSU’s dugout couldn’t help overhearing as a young kid gambled and hoped for something better than the cup.
“It’s a box of popcorn!” the P.A. exclaimed, “but it’s empty.”
“That’s so mean!” the dugout agreed.
It’s OK. They gave the kid a souvenir cup anyway.
- In the top of the second inning, the Tigers scored their first two runs, much to the dismay of the Bulldogs.
On the sideline, Stuedeman met with her team. Their first at-bat did not yield any runs, but they made constant contact with the ball throughout the first inning. Those hits will fall, she said.
“Focus on your momentum,” she told them before they got ready to step to the plate again. “Don’t worry about what they just did. You have momentum.”
Later in the same inning, Stuedeman turns from her perch at third base to speak to her dugout.
She’s telling her team what she sees from the opposing pitcher. Telling them exactly how to get a hit.
- When rain started to fall, I wondered if bad weather was coming and realized I had no way to know.
In the dugout, on the field, you’re completely cut off from the rest of the world.
No cell phones, no radios and no TVs. The P.A. may have access to the Weather Channel app, but the press box might as well as be Tibet for as much contact as you have with anyone else mid-inning.
It’s all softball.
- Throughout, the cheers constantly coming from the dugout are entertaining.
“Here we go, A.O.!”
“Animal D right here!”
“We got some Dawgs up in here!”
And anytime something bad happens, a chorus of “So what?” reigns down from teammates.
Any lack of enthusiasm or optimism is only momentary.
Looking for a hit late in the game, someone will leave the plate without one. Walking back into the dugout, cheering teammates lined on either side, the disappointment is obvious. Eyes looking straight ahead, glancing at no one, reaching the end of the bench and, for just a moment, standing stock still.
Then, they shake it off. They stand up next to their teammates and start cheering for whoever is next at the plate. They won’t stay upset for long.
- In the sixth inning, still down on the scoreboard, Stuedeman walks over and tells me, “This is when the magic happens. Just watch.”
“End of the game, this our time,” she turns and belts out to her team.
Several outs later, it’s back to the big moment. Down 3-1, Lenahan is at the plate.
Standing to the side while the previous batter was at the plate, a foul tip came rocketing to the gap between the protective net and the dugout wall. As the ball came flying in her direction, Lenahan stood at the mouth of the dugout, threw a gloved hand up and swatted the ball out of the air, preventing it from getting to her teammates inside. Without blinking, she turned her head right back to the plate.
“She was locked in,” Reach told me after the game. “That’s when I knew.”
He asked her what her plan at the plate was, just to make sure she had one.
“I’m gonna crush it,” she told him.
This moment, this snippet of time, is why that dugout was full.
Wins and losses, though important, are ultimately inconsequential.
Every inch they ran, every pound they lifted, every ball they hit and every bruise they took for months and even years were for this. Only one was at the plate, but all were involved.
The final outcome of victory or defeat was far less important than their journey to just have the chance for it. They trained for the opportunity to compete. They practiced not just for themselves, but for each other.
Little can mimic the euphoria of what happened next. The team celebrating at the plate after the tying home run, the hugs in the dugout and the cheers around the stadium.
But Lenahan would’ve received the same welcome had the ball flown two inches lower and been an out. They were all in it together.
As part of my job, being a journalist, I haven’t cheered at a game of any kind in nearly five years. There’s a strict rule of no cheering in the press box for all who enter, not to mention the sense of detachment one needs to properly and objectively cover sports.
But there’s no rule against cheering in the dugout. When Lenahan hit the tying homer and when Briana Bell drove in the winning run, I let it go. Hands raised in the air, I yelled. I smiled, I high-fived and I jumped around the dugout with everyone else.
I wasn’t happy because my alma mater won a game.
I was happy because, spending that day with them, having seen what they do in the offseason, I felt, at least in that moment, like I was a part of something.
Like any good story, you can’t help cheering for the main characters.
- After the game, just outside the dugout, families, friends and a host of children met the team, both to celebrate, and to hunt for Easter eggs spread around the park.
After smiles, laughs, hugs and a few autographs, Stuedeman and her team met to finally talk about the game.
“I don’t even know what to say,” she said. “That was huge.”
Both her and her assistant coaches spoke, game awards were handed out and a fair bit more clapping and cheering was heard.
Maybe I was the only one to see it, maybe others noticed and didn’t say anything, but as her team headed to the locker room, Stuedeman turned for her office, looked down at her hands and smiled, tears in her eyes.