(State plays Central Arkansas tonight in a winner-advances-loser-is-finished Regional championship game. Ask most Mississippi State fans about them most memorable Starkville Regional, they’ll go back to Burke Masters’ game-winning heroics. Must have been something, but I happened to be in Destin covering the SEC Spring Meetings at the time. My most memorable Starkville Regional came in 1997. And it was something. My column the day after follows….)
STARKVILLE — All we could see from the stands or the press box were Mississippi State players in one huge pile at the pitcher’s mound. They kept running in from all directions and making swan dives onto the pile.
Fans — at first tens, then hundreds — raced toward the celebration, high-fiving and hugging one another along the way. The noise — thunderous cheering and cowbells clanging — was constant.
What we couldn’t see was this: Down at the bottom of the pile, his back in the pitcher’s mound dirt, was Eric DuBose. He couldn’t get up. More importantly, he couldn’t breathe.
“At first, it was fun, but then it got serious,” DuBose would later say. “I’ve seen those celebrations on TV before, and I always wondered what it was like to be at the bottom. Now, I know. I was getting crushed. I was screaming and punching. I kept hitting somebody in the gut, and I don’t even know who it was.”
Mississippi State fans everywhere will be glad to know that DuBose was punching with his right arm. He was saving that left one — the million dollar one — for Omaha and the College World Series.
That’s where State is headed following a 4-3 victory over valiant and very, very good Washington.
Later, DuBose was up on someone’s shoulders, waving to a sea of adoring fans. People of all ages, most dressed in maroon, reached up to shake his hand or just to touch him.
“It was,” DuBose would say, “unbelievable. Just unbelievable. I wish everyone could experience a moment like that.”
More than 10,000 State fans shared it here Monday on a most memorable Memorial Day. They were a part of it, too. It was almost as if they had willed it. And it took a lot of will. The Bulldogs had accomplished the improbable. They had won four do-or-die games in a space of 43 hours, and they had beaten Washington twice.
DuBose shows unexpected staying power
Believe this: They would never have done it without the fans, who set an NCAA regional attendance record. State fans hung on every pitch, clamored for every close call, clapped in unison for every rally and gave their dog- tired heroes lifts when they needed them most.
“They wouldn’t let us lose,” left fielder Rusty Thoms said. “It was so hot and so humid, and we were all so tired. But they kept lifting us up. You feel like you can do anything when you’ve got a crowd behind you like that.”
After the post-game pile-up, the Bulldogs saluted the crowd with a victory lap around Dudy Noble, high-fiving fans all around.
Somehow, DuBose had the strength to join in. He had pitched two complete games with just three days rest in between. And he had pitched the second one — against a team that averages 10 runs a game — on the hottest, most humid day thus far in 1997.
“We had hoped to get five good innings — 15 outs — from Eric,” said Pat McMahon, who coaches State pitchers. “He gave us so much more.”
That’s two complete games in four days by a guy who had none during the regular season. DuBose struck out 10 and walked only one. He didn’t have his best fastball, but he had pinpoint control and excellent support from his fielders.
Huskies have gifted gamer in Magruder
DuBose did everything except solve Washington’s splendid Chris Magruder, who banged out two more hits, scored two more runs, stole another base and ripped a ninth-inning home run to keep the Huskies’ hopes alive. Remember that name — Chris Magruder. You will be hearing it for years.
Even as the raucous celebration was taking place, State fans were lining up to congratulate and console Magruder, so magnificent was his performance in this tournament. DuBose won MVP honors, but Magruder was most outstanding — 13 hits in 21 at bats, four doubles, the homer, four stolen bases and a couple of circus catches as well.
“I just hope we earned some respect here,” Magruder said.
Everyone did — the Huskies, the Bulldogs and even the fans, who were seen, long after the game, grown men scooping up pitcher’s mound dirt into cola cups.