It is tempting, in this short space, to talk about people. I could write pages about the young men who’ve played at Dudy Noble. I could go on and on about those electric moments, such as Burke’s grand slam, back to back home runs by Clark and Palmeiro, Raffo’s monstrous shots, Showalter’s .459, B. J.’s 19 strikeouts, Thigpen’s throws to the plate, Pete’s dirty uniform, the easy grace of Jody Hurst chasing fly balls, and on and on. If they’re just a bunch of kids playing a game, why do we talk about them years after they’re gone? And it would be easy to write about Ron Polk and the house he built and the throngs that fill it. It is a credit to him that we are disappointed when we don’t make it to Omaha. We expect it. He’s spoiled us.
But I can’t write pages here; perhaps another day. So I’ll just talk about the place.
I guess every ballpark, in earlier times, was something else. Great things come from humble origins and all that, but it’s difficult to believe Dudy Noble was once a cow pasture. I discovered it early in March of 1975 while a sophomore at State. This was before Polk, and the crowds were small.On those cool spring nights, I would take a thermos of coffee and sit by myself in the bleachers by first base. I was 20, older than some of the kids I was watching, and had just recently hung up my spikes because I couldn’t hit a junior college curveball. I was sad because I wasn’t playing, yet I loved to watch the game. It was a pleasant place to be in the spring, but the park wasn’t magical, yet.
The following year State hired Ron Polk, and Dudy Noble snapped back to life. He won, as he always has and always will, and suddenly the stands were full, the crowds were loud, the trucks and trailers appeared in left field, the Lounge was open for business, and the clouds of barbeque smoke became a symbol of baseball success at Mississippi State. We outgrew the old park, and he convinced us to build a new one.
The older I become, the more I find myself drawn back to Dudy Noble. There are many reasons. It’s great baseball played by very talented kids. The game is pure and uncorrupted by money. The place is filled with memories, both of my college days and of the great games and moments since then. It’s a wonderful place to unwind. The mood is festive. Time is meaningless. The game is played without a clock. There are no telephones in Left Field. Deadlines are more distant. Appointments seem insignificant. Regardless of wins and losses, I always feel better when I leave Dudy Noble than when I arrive. There are few places of which this can be said.
Several years ago, during a regional, Brigham Young played one of the early games in the first round. The gang I hang out with in Left Field always adopts a visiting team. It’s nothing official…like everyone, we live in fear of the NCAA and its regulations…It’s just our effort to make sure these kids are well fed and taken care of while visiting Starkville. We sent word through our sources to the BYU players, and during the late game a bunch of them arrived at our truck in the Lounge. They were hungry, and tired of fast food. State was playing, and Dudy Noble was packed. We fed them for three hours. Late in the game, I sit next to one of the BYU players and watched with amusement as he tried to eat crawfish. He’d already been served spareribs, pork shoulder, catfish, frog legs, steak and smoked sausage, and as we watched the game I helped with the crawfish. A dense charcoal fog hung over left field. The mob pushed toward the fence. Jim Ellis boomed from an amazing assortment of speakers. There was a constant roar.
The kid was awestruck. “Unbelievable,” he kept saying as he looked around. “Unbelievable.”
I’ve seen this reaction many times from ballplayers, and for some reason I always feel compelled to share my knowledge of Dudy Noble and its legends. I filled his ear. Someone passed up a plate of boiled shrimp, and quickly forget about the crawfish. I told stories about Polk, many of them true, and of the stadium and how it was built and the record crowds and the history (my version)of the Left Field Lounge. I unloaded a dazzling array of statistics of past teams and players. I told tales I knew to be false (how could he know?). It was quite a performance, really.
He didn’t hear a word. He ate his shrimp and watched the chefs at play in the fog. He studied the zany architecture of the trailers and trucks and vans packed together. He stared at the crowd of 9,000 rowdies who had gathered for a college baseball game. “Unbelievable,” he said again. “I wished I played here.”
I wish I had played there, too, but I never came close. And so I return year after year to watch the best of college baseball, to see old friends and make new ones, to cook and eat, to see the show. There may be larger parks, but not larger crowds. There may be prettier parks, but I doubt it. Dudy Noble is college baseball at its absolute finest.