Noie: Baseball paradise of Dudy Noble Field awaits Notre Dame at NCAA Super Regionals

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Well versed even as a freshman in what college baseball means across the Mississippi State University campus, former Mishawaka multisport standout C.J. Fisher had to see it for himself.

So on a Friday afternoon in February of his first year, Fisher, who will be a junior finance major this fall, made the walk from his dorm to Dudy Noble Field – officially called Dudy Noble Field at Polk-DeMent Stadium – where he learned just how seriously folks around Oktibbeha County take their Bulldog baseball in a place that was once a cow pasture on the edge of the 4,200-acre rural campus.

It was Opening Day. Temperatures struggled to make it into the 50s, which in Starkville is bundle-up cold. Fifties in February back in Mishawaka for Fisher often meant shorts and a hoodie. That day down south, the folks were downright freezing.

Dudy Noble Field in Starkville, Miss., is arguably the crown jewel of on-campus college baseball stadiums, something Notre Dame will see for itself during this weekend's NCAA Super Regional.

But it was baseball season, so out they went to the place locals refer to as “The Dude.” No, not the Jeff Bridges charter from "The Big Lebowski," but what many consider the 15,000-seat crown jewel of college baseball parks.

Fisher kind of, sort of knew what to expect that afternoon with Wright State in town. There would be fans. It would be fun. He was stunned to see that the stadium was sold out. There were fans standing two and three deep along the concourse. Fans in the lower and upper decks. Fans in the outfield, especially the area known as the “Left Field Lounge.” Fans – mostly fraternities and sororities – populated center and right field. Fans wearing maroon were everywhere.

For a non-conference game. In February.

Yeah, Fisher thought to himself that afternoon, college baseball might be college baseball on most campuses, but in Starkville – Stark-Vegas as the locals like to say – it’s downright different.

“Until you’ve actually seen it, you’ve never really experienced it,” Fisher said earlier this week by phone from Jackson, Miss., where he’s spending the summer working a banking internship. “I played in a few big games in high school, but when I came to Starkville, the craziest sports experience I ever had was a Mississippi State baseball game.”

TV/start times:Your NCAA Super Regional primer

Beyond this season:Hansen: These Irish having staying power

50 runs in 3 days:Irish bats were smoking in regional

Fisher compares a Mississippi State baseball game to the atmosphere that envelopes Notre Dame football back home. Everyone you know goes to the games, or goes to the stadium to tailgate. Or wants to go. This weekend, when No. 7 seed Mississippi State (42-15) hosts No. 10 Notre Dame (33-11) in a three-game Super Regional series (first game Saturday at 2 p.m., ESPN) with the winner ticketed for a trip to the College World Series, will be like a Mishawaka mini-reunion.

Fisher will trek the 126 miles one way from Jackson, just as he did for last week’s NCAA regional. Former high school baseball teammate Grant Jablonski will come down from Mishawaka. So will former football teammate Ethan Fowler, also a Mississippi State student but working back home this summer. Former Cavemen Braxton Kovach also will be there.

It’s not just baseball, but a happening. Just like those fall Saturdays in South Bend.

“It’s exactly what it is,” Fisher said. “Football’s big for us too being in the Southeastern Conference, but baseball, that’s ours. We expect to win every time we take the field. The whole state just comes out.

“It’s such a good time.”

Mississippi State's baseball palace

Those good times usually begin and continue past the final pitch in the outfield. Fisher believes that’s the best place to be at Dudy Noble, which recently underwent a $68 million renovation. Years ago, the stands were a single deck with metal bleacher seating while Will Clark and Rafael Palmiero were putting Bulldog baseball on the college map, fans used to back their pickups and flat-beds right up to the outfield fences. They’d fire up their grills and kick back in their lawn chairs on their self-made seating rigs and Hail State.

Now, an infield suite will run you $14,000 for the season and the outfield is home to 96 tiered lounge areas that are basically sold out for the year. People can grill and recline and relax. It’s one big social scene for nine innings.

Campbell University learned as much during the regional. After Mississippi State won Monday’s decisive game, members of the Camel baseball team took time to walk along the outfield warning track to offer handshakes and high-fives to State fans that spent the weekend watching them play. In return, the State fans handed out cartons of food. Chicken wings. Fried chicken. Ribs. It was their way of saying how much they appreciated the effort.

Mississippi State annually leads the NCAA in college baseball attendance at Dudy Noble Field, which recently underwent a $68 million renovation.

"You go to Death Valley and play LSU in football, you’re going to get heckled,” Fisher said. “It’s kind of the exact opposite when you play here. It’s a lot friendlier when opposing teams come to town.”

That’s baseball at Dudy Noble, which currently holds the NCAA record for on-campus attendance (15,586) set in 2014 against rival Mississippi.  At one point, Mississippi State owned 15 of the Top 16 attendance marks for college baseball.

This weekend is Mississippi State’s fourth time hosting a Super Regional. It also holds the NCAA Super Regional record after 13,715 fans attended its 2007 game against Clemson.

In comparison, Notre Dame’s home field, Eck Stadium, has a capacity of 2,500. The most fans the Irish have played in front of this season is 1,820 at Clemson.

The last time Notre Dame played a postseason game against Mississippi State in Starkville – in the 2000 Super Regional – attendance for the final game of the series (won by the Bulldogs) was 10,832. At most schools, that would shatter any previous record. At Mississippi State, it was the 36th largest crowd in The Dude history.

Author John Grisham, a Mississippi native, once wrote that “Dudy Noble is college baseball at its finest.”

Fisher seconds that emotion.

“There’s nothing like it.”

People watching and party hopping can be a pastime in and of itself at Dudy Noble, especially when the grills are going and the beverages are flowing. Fisher loves his chicken wings, and insists he’s never eaten wings so unique and so good than the ones that one of his buddy’s dad’s friend fires up on the grill in left field during games. He can taste them right now. The way they’re seasoned. The way they smell. Everything.

“They’re like nothing I’ve ever had,” he said. “Guys out there at games on the grills, it’s like their version of the sport. They’re there to impress.”

Even with all the off-the-field activity, Fisher noticed something different about the crowds at The Dude. They are there to watch baseball. Like, really watch it. Study it. Debate it. Live it. Care that SEC player of the year Tanner Allen (.391 avg.) can move a runner from first to third by going the opposite way with a fastball. Understand how difficult it is for right-handed ace Will Bednar (7-1, 3.17 ERA, 109 strikeouts) to work out of a second and third jam in a one-run game.

At Dudy Noble, they pay attention to the nuances of the game that the causal fans tend to not notice.

“It’s cool down here because no matter the age of the fan, no matter if it’s a man or a woman or a child, everyone’s into the game,” Fisher said. “But when there’s a big game, a big moment, everyone is locked in.”

As Fisher will be this weekend. Watching Notre Dame play —  watching sweet-slugging first baseman Niko Kavadas hit — will take Fisher back to his Northern Indiana roots. As a high school freshman, Fisher was called up to the Cavemen varsity baseball team for postseason. With Mishawaka trailing Penn by one run in the fifth inning, Fisher was tabbed to pinch run at second. He promptly stole third.

Mishawaka decided to put the squeeze play on to score Fisher with the tying run. Fisher took his lead at third. Then he extended it a little further. And further. Instead of delivering to home, the Penn pitcher fired to third and picked Fisher off. The Cavemen lost the game by one.

The Penn pitcher was Kavadas.

“So Niko and I have crossed baseball paths,” Fisher said. “That was a big low in my life.”

He expects a few Super Regional highs this weekend at The Dude, which usually delivers.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI