OXFORD, Miss. — I’m not sure what wakes me up -- the pitter-patter of rain on canvas or the throbbing headache from one too many bourbon drinks. I open my eyes and gaze at the red ceiling of the pop-up tent, the faint morning sunlight allowing me to make out the words UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI on the other side. To my left is a card table strewn with cigars, solo cups and a couple of Faulkner novels. I notice the copy of As I Lay Dying and empathize. To my right, a burly, bearded redhead dressed head to toe in linen snores softly, an empty bottle of 10-year Eagle Rare nestled in his lap.
I hear the sigh of brakes and turn just in time to see a black Ford Super Duty lurch to a halt in front of the right field gate of Swayze Field in Oxford, Miss., where we just spent a rainy night camped out in hopes of getting prime real estate for the college baseball tournament games later that day. A heavy-set guy in his early twenties pops out of the cab toting a bag of McDonald’s breakfast and a smile that only someone who didn’t just spend eight hours sleeping in a foldout chair can tote. He drops down in the seat to my right and turns his grin in my direction.
"Welcome to Ole Miss baseball, motherfucker."
In most areas of the country, college baseball isn’t a big spectator sport. Unlike football and basketball, where collegiate stars walk directly into the limelight of major professional leagues, amateur baseball competes with a massive pro minor league system.
But in Mississippi, where the AA Mississippi Braves are the state’s only pro club, the college game is king. At Ole Miss the baseball games average larger crowds than basketball, and the 7,263 per contest they pulled this season was good for fifth-best in the nation. During a big weekend, like the regional round of the NCAA Tournament I’ve driven down for, they’ll routinely draw greater than 10,000 a night.
Around 2,000 of those bodies congregate in the outfield student section, a rowdy, BYOB event that’s one part SEC football tailgate, one part fraternity field party and two parts Jack Daniels. Referred to simply as Right Field, it’s one of the best places in America to watch a college baseball game.
Perched on a hill just behind the right field wall, the student section spans some 60 yards, from the 390 marker in center to the right field foul pole. Once just a grassy slope, the area was terraced in 2009 as part of an $18 million stadium expansion. I drop an armload of chairs into one of the long, gravel-bottomed rows toward the top of the section. Within minutes, hundreds of chairs line each tier and a string of tents hedge the upper level. The smell of burning charcoal wafts up from the permanent grills laid out behind me.
The green and brown expanse of Swayze Field stretches before me, the hulking white structure of the grandstands and its rows of red and blue chair backs rising above it. Just off to my left is the away bullpen, its location directly in front of the student section no doubt coincidental. The only thing standing between visiting pitchers and a torrent of booze-fueled ridicule is a small, paved service road running just behind the outfield fence.
It’s the first time Ole Miss has hosted an NCAA regional since 2009, and the students plan on making up for five years of lost time. Three teams – Washington, Georgia Tech and Jacksonville State – have made the trip to Oxford to compete in the four-day, double elimination event to decide who moves on to the second round.
An overweight security guard stops me at the gate and gestures for me to open the rolling cooler I’m dragging behind me with a cursory flip of his hand. For a moment I’m concerned – after all, beer is technically illegal on the Ole Miss campus (though liquor is allowed. Welcome to the confounding alcohol legislation of the contemporary Bible Belt). The early afternoon sun glistens on the iced down Coors Lights as I lift the lid. "That gonna be enough for two games?" he grins, waving us through.
Because of a jurisdictional quirk, the student section is technically off campus. Beer is perfectly legal in Lafayette County, and therefore in Right Field. Glass is outlawed (hence the cooler checks) and beverages are required to be poured into an opaque cup, but otherwise you’re free to booze.
The rain from earlier that morning has been replaced by sweltering sunlight, and the steam rolls off the pavement as I make my way back to my seat. The guys are already popping their shirts off. It’s a significantly more laid back atmosphere than the famously formal Ole Miss football tailgates. The girls have traded their sundresses and heels for oversized sorority tanks and workout shorts. One guy is wearing a banana costume.
It’s a rowdy crowd, but it’s a nervous one. At even the slightest sign of trouble on the field, the disgruntled sighs of "Here we go again," filter out of the throng around me. It’s an insecurity born out of years of heartache and almosts.
Despite over a decade of sustained success, Ole Miss hasn’t advanced to the College World Series – baseball’s version of the Elite Eight – since 1972. To compare the drought to the century-plus struggles of the Chicago Cubs would be an obvious reach, but there is something Cubs-like in the predictable failures and the supernatural interpretations of their causes.
Between 2005 and 2009, the Rebels made it to the super regional round – the last step before Omaha – four times without advancing. They were within one win from the College World Series in three of them.
Some blame Mike Bianco, the head coach of 14 years. Others blame a curse.
In 2009, Ole Miss beat Virginia in Game 1 of the super regional and was just five outs from taking Game 2 and punching their long-awaited ticket to Omaha. With one out in the top of the eighth, Rebel shortstop Evan Button – a name that Rebel fans spit out of their mouths with a bitterness akin to a Chicagoan mouthing "Bartman" – threw away a routine play to first and Virginia went on to win two in a row.
As I crack my first beer of the afternoon, it’s been five years since they made it out of the first round.
This season, of all seasons, seemed like the least likely to bring postseason ball back to Swayze. Having lost their top two spots in the rotation from a year ago, a closer who held the school record for saves and the best catcher in the country in Stuart Turner, Ole Miss was picked preseason to finish second-to-last in the SEC.
Instead, they started winning. A lot. Chris Ellis, previously a talented but inconsistent and oft-injured reliever, developed into a Friday night ace. Catcher Will Allen and first baseman Sikes Orvis went from frustratingly inane in 2013 to arguably the most dangerous slugging duo in the conference in 2014. Ole Miss reached 40 regular season wins for the first time since 2009, went 19-11 in league play and won the outright SEC West title.
During a trip to the pisser, I casually ask the guy in the next urinal if he thinks this could be the season they make it to Oma-
"Don’t even say that word," he snaps in a spurt of furious superstition. "You’ll jinx it."
It’s Saturday afternoon, and the Rebels are leading Jacksonville State, 7-1, in the sixth inning of their opening tournament game. Orvis, the cherub-faced, power-hitting first baseman who finished second in the SEC with 12 homers, connects with a hanging slider on the second pitch of his at-bat and lifts it toward the right field wall. In the dead-bat era of college baseball, there’s not really such thing as a no-doubter, but you know this one has a chance. The ball clears the wall by about five feet, bouncing off the pavement of the service road and up into the terraced rows.
Then comes the deluge.
Every kid with a cup, save of a few panic-stricken girls scrambling for cover from the impending beer shower, flings their drink in the air. There are roughly 2,000 kids in the student section. Assuming the majority of them have approximately half a can’s worth of beer in their cup when they hurl it skyward, there’s somewhere between 10,000 to 12,000 ounces of cheap domestic beer suspended above Right Field.
Out in Right Field
It comes crashing down, and I’m instantly drenched in a mixture of Natty Light, Coors Light and Bud Light. If I’m being honest, though, it feels pretty damn good after two hours baking in the Mississippi sun.
"Shit, I’d just poured a new one," grumbles a scrawny blonde kid with a frat swoop and an obnoxious Hawaiian shirt about three-quarters of the way unbuttoned. "I didn’t even get to take a sip."
He pops open his cooler and fishes out a refill, muttering something about how he’ll be out of beer if the Rebs keep this up.
The heckling is brutal.
One of the Washington parents tells me that centerfielder Brian Wolfe, upon hearing that they were heading to Oxford for the regional, asked his family to take their social media profiles down for the weekend.
They weren’t quick enough: by the Wednesday before the first game, a Facebook photo of Wolfe’s girlfriend eating at the Seattle-based hamburger joint Dick’s Drive-In was already making the rounds. The jokes about a girl eating a bag of Dick’s are endless.
By the time Wolfe takes the field on Friday, they have his girlfriend’s name, his mom’s name, his sister’s name, even his favorite movie.
"You don't want to acknowledge them because that's what they want," Washington’s Braden Bishop, who catches his fair share of flak in center field, tells me later. "But it's hard because they're funny, they make you laugh. They crack some good jokes out there.
"Once the play is happening you tune it out. I do have to say though, the closer the ball gets to those guys out there, the harder the play is to make."
The Huskies, whose ballpark back in Seattle seats just 2,000, remain impressively poised in the face of the verbal onslaught. They hang close, pulling to within one run on a two-out RBI single in the seventh. But Rebel reliever Aaron Greenwood holds them scoreless over the last 2 2/3 innings to preserve a 2-1 win.
Not wanting to receive another public reprimand for breaking superstition, I decide against pointing out that Ole Miss is one win away from the supers.
A cart loaded down with hamburger buns rolls down the service road in front of the student section, pushed by a man wearing a navy blue Ole Miss Athletics polo who parks at the base of the hill and nervously eyes the throng of jubilant students above him. Ole Miss has just knocked off Washington in extra innings to advance to the next round, and the concession stand has leftover burgers. This lucky guy has been chosen to hand them out in Right Field.
A single, shirtless student staggers down the slope to investigate. The polo-clad sacrificial lamb takes a deep breath, braces himself, and tears the foil off the first pan of patties.
They come stampeding down the hill like a scene from World War Z, their mania fueled by the thrill of recent victory and the drunk munchies. In seconds the cart is lost from sight, a pair of latex glove-clad hands raised in exasperation above the swarming pack the only sign of the poor cart pusher.
I turn my gaze from the chaotic scene below and out onto the field, where the Ole Miss baseball team is trotting down the first base line for what I presume is another victory lap around the outfield. But they pick up speed, and instead of following the contour of the wall, they hurdle the right field gate, now moving at a full sprint. They’re storming the student section.
The throng at the burger stand wheels its attention and begins tearing en masse toward the team, much to the relief of the cart pusher. Those still in the stands stream frantically down towards the road. Those that have already wandered off in the direction of their cars turn and rush back through the gate. One guy rips the lid off his cooler, dumps it on his friend’s head (full beers and all), hurls it down the hill overhand like a soccer inbounds pass and takes off behind it.
The two groups, athletes and students, collide just behind the bullpen in a seething mass of triumph and jubilation. Someone is tossing cans of beer down from the seats above. Orvis, whose 12th-inning RBI triple won the game, has scaled the right field wall and sits astride of it, beating his chest and shouting toward the sky. Greenwood, the reliever who carried the team down the stretch in Game 2, has popped the top on a Bud Light and is spraying it over the crowd. The players whip their jerseys around above their heads. The students pound their backs and pump their fists. The group jumps up and down rhythmically, chanting and yelling.
College baseball world series
College baseball world series
In the chaos, one kid gets tackled to the ground. He sits on the pavement, his hand on the back of his head, a stunned look on his face. I fix my eyes on him, trying to determine what has him more bewildered: his tumble or the fact that the Rebels are finally going back to the supers.
One of his buddies notices his distress and breaks away from the mosh pit. They exchange a few brief words. The friend fishes into his pocket, pulls out an unopened beer and hands it down. The kid gives the back of his head one last cautious rub, hauls himself back to his feet, takes a long pull from the can and heads back into the chaos.
Five days later, Ole Miss loses Game 1 of the Lafayette Super Regional to Louisiana-Lafayette, the No. 6 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But over the span of the next two curse-shattering days, the Rebels rally back to win consecutive elimination games and advance to Omaha for the first time in 42 years.
All photos courtesy of Joshua McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics (@OleMissPix)