The Intimidator billboard. The Leftfield Lounge. Going Swayze Crazy. Calling the Hogs while sitting 30-deep in lawn chairs behind centerfield. Sir Big Spur strutting through the grandstands and cutting loose a “cock-a-doodle-doo!” Cowbells. Woo Pigs. Beer showers. VFLs and GBOs. Even shirtless professors reading Chaucer down the third-base line on a sunny Music City spring afternoon.
College baseball’s most colorful, creative and crowded atmospheres are not exclusive to but overwhelmingly belong to one conference, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in SRO with eardrums ringing from College Station to Gainesville. The SEC is amateur hardball’s biggest party, seemingly no matter which of the league’s 14 venues one chooses to visit. And these top-ranked environments are also home to some of the top teams in the country, too, with five SEC teams ranking in the top 10 of the latest D1baseball.com poll.
“The experience of these ballparks, ours here at The Box and on the road, is why I am here, plain and simple,” confessed LSU pitcher Thatcher Hurd, who transferred to Alex Box Stadium after one season pitching at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, much closer to his Manhattan Beach, California, home. “This is no slight to where I came from and some of the amazing places I was able to visit during my time as a Bruin, but all over the nation, players are constantly talking about these SEC atmospheres. You see them on TV and it’s sold out and people are going crazy, even for a midweek game that isn’t a big rivalry or a ranked opponent. As someone wants to compete, but also just someone loves baseball, you have to wonder, what would it be like to be in the middle of that?”
There are only four purpose-built, on-campus college baseball stadiums in Division I that seat more than 10,000. All are in the SEC West. There are only nine that can hold more than 7,000 fans and all but two of those are in the SEC, with one of those — Texas’s Disch-Falk Field — slated to join the conference as soon as the 2024 baseball season concludes.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply have a bunch of seats. Those chairs must also be filled. In 2022, SEC ballparks accounted for the nation’s top four teams in total home attendance. Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss all averaged 10,000 per game or more. OK, that’s not entirely true. The Rebs averaged 9,998. SEC schools also accounted for seven of the top nine in average attendance. Again, one of those other two was the SEC-bound Longhorns.
“For someone who has spent his life in this sport, those numbers are just stunning,” Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle said as his team rolled into Omaha, Nebraska, for last summer’s Men’s College World Series. He was in his first season in College Station, where the home team attracted 199,691 fans over 34 home games, seventh-best in the nation. He came to College Station from TCU, where he built a strong tradition of great, smart home crowds over 18 seasons. In 2022, the Horned Frogs drew a remarkable 4,111 fans per game. That ranked 16th in the nation. It would have placed them ninth in the SEC.
Coach Schloss continued: “But it’s not even so much about volume when it comes to the number of people, it’s about the level of volume created by those people. So many baseball games can feel like a pastime. The crowd is just hanging out, chilling. But at so many of these SEC venues, there’s nothing passive or baseball about it. These are college football atmospheres.”
See: The Leftfield Lounge in Starkville, Mississippi, where fans pour through the wrought-iron gates the moment they are unlocked, the green flag on a land grab of roller carts, coolers and grills that seem to start producing smoke the instant those Hail Staters get into the stadium. These days, it is all somewhat organized and corporatized, with fancy new sections and tiers and even a high-rise stack of luxury boxes towering over the Lounge. But the spirit of that section goes back to the late 1960s, when Bulldogs fans started backing their pickup trucks into the ballpark to tailgate overlooking the outfield. Then they began erecting scaffolding towers for better views and to make more room for others. There was so much grilling that State games were often punctuated by smoke delays as thick white charcoal-crated clouds blew across Dudy Noble Field, aka the Dude.
That’s not fog. A full cloud of grill smoke is hanging over the outfield pic.twitter.com/Wa9uT2D1m0
— Bob Carskadon (@bobcarskadon) February 20, 2017
See: The previously mentioned Mississippi mood known as Swayze Crazy, a mindset birthed in no small part because of what was happening in left field over Ole Miss’ archrival. Sick of seeing the folks in Starkville having too good of a time, a team of Rebels leaders formed a committee to infuse energy into their sleepy campus ballpark. That group included Archie Manning, aka the greatest Ole Miss football legend and Peyton and Eli’s dad, but also the shortstop on a 1969 Ole Miss team that made it to the Men’s College World Series.
In ’89, revamped Swayze Field (named for Rebels baseball great Tom, not movie star Patrick) was christened, featuring a widened student section behind the right-field wall. Relatively new but already can’t-miss traditions have been conjured up in that grandstand that is packed with more than 1,000 students, many of whom camp out for hours before big games. Before this year’s season opener, the first game for Ole Miss since winning the MCWS last June, they camped out for days in freezing temperatures. Now they fight to catch a baseball tossed into those seats by an Ole Miss outfielder as he departs each half inning, reminding the students to defend that area during his absence. When the ball is returned, it often carries notes of encouragement — and yes, sometimes phone numbers from coeds — scribbled onto the cowhide sphere. And there are the infamous beer showers, when red and blue Solo cups are shaken empty and then tossed skyward to celebrate every home team home run.
Three Days pic.twitter.com/2dlithYDYT
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) February 14, 2023
“I think that if you can play outfield in the SEC, you can probably do about anything else that life might throw at you,” explained current Corpus Christi Hook Drew Gilbert, who was in the outfield at both Swayze and the Dude as an All-American outfielder for a Tennessee Volunteers team that spent a large portion of 2022 ranked No. 1. “There’s smoke and beer blowing in all over you. And the fans at every school, they’ve done the research. They know where you’re from, what classes you’re taking, your parents’ names, all of it. You want to be angry at them, but honestly, it’s more impressive than anything else.”
Everything about the SEC baseball culture is impressive, even to those who didn’t want to be impressed.
“I really started going to SEC games hard in the mid-2000s, and if I’m being honest, I went into it thinking, ‘Sure, it seems cool, but this has to be oversold. Really, how great could it be?'” recalled Kyle Peterson, ESPN college baseball analyst and an Omaha native who grew up attending the Men’s College World Series and then played in the MCWS and all over the nation as a two-time Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year for Stanford. “But then everywhere you go, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. The facilities, the crowds. We were at Arkansas three weeks ago. They were playing Tennessee. I got there two hours before game time and the line for general admission tickets looked like the line for GA in Omaha for like Game 2 of the MCWS finals. It was a block and a half long!”
So, KP, are you saying that, you know, It Just Means More?
“I’m saying that it is about culture, but it is also about commitment,” Peterson said. “If you go to most athletic departments, places with so much college baseball tradition, and you say, ‘We think we should build a $60 million baseball stadium,’ they’d look at you like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But Kentucky did it, and they’ve never been to the College World Series!”
It hasn’t always been that way. In the larger historic scope of college baseball, which has been played at most SEC schools since the 1980s, or even the MCWS era, which began in 1947, the Southeast schools are relative newcomers to the championship party. While USC, Texas, Arizona State and other schools largely located west were dogpiling in Omaha throughout the latter half of the 20th century, baseball was still an afterthought in the football-first world of the SEC.
The first sound of what would eventually become the Southeastern Conference’s Baseball Big Bang was the clack of Skip Bertman’s cleats on the clubhouse floor of Alex Box Stadium when he was hired as LSU’s head coach in August 1983. Actually, it was his dress shoes, shuffling along as he pushed a broom.
“My predecessor at LSU, Jack Lamabe, he’d had a feud with the maintenance crew because he thought they were stealing from the clubhouse, so he wouldn’t let them come in and clean,” Bertman recalled one year ago. “So the place was covered in year-old tobacco stains and there were towels that had been on the floor for months, covered in mildew. If I had clapped my hands, those towels probably could have jumped out and run out of there on their own.”
Bertman overhauled the Box and the mentality of those who worked there, played there and bought tickets to sit there. He held black tie fundraisers. He had the grandstand reconfigured to create better sight lines. He also packed the LSU schedule with a slate of minor league baseball-like promotional nights to lure families to the ballpark, including appearances by the famous San Diego Chicken. He even had an interstate roadside billboard installed inside the ballpark to list LSU’s baseball accomplishments for no reason other than to force rivals to read it. It’s called The Intimidator. When a new Box was opened next door in 2009, The Intimidator moved across the parking lot, too.
— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) February 11, 2022
“He made the Box a place that everyone wanted to be, a place they had to see,” recalled Ben McDonald, a son of the Baton Rouge area and the anchor of LSU’s first-ever Men’s College World Series visitor in 1986. “And he created a place where Louisiana kids wanted to play instead of leaving for Texas.”
Bertman learned his P.T. Barnum/Casey Stengel approach to the game from mentor Ron Fraser, known as The Wizard of College Baseball, after he saved a nearly extinct Miami Hurricanes program in the 1970s via the same playbook of raising funds and fun. His stories of having to soak old baseballs in milk to make them look white (“They were plenty white but smelled like rotten eggs.”) and using secondhand uniforms (“People asked why the ‘Miami’ was so big on our jerseys. It was to hide the ‘U.S. Army’ logo underneath.”) have become legend, and foreshadowed the future fight of his understudies as they moved to the SEC.
When the Canes won the MCWS in 1982, it was the first national title won by a school east of the Mississippi River in 16 years. His right-hand man was Bertman. Another Fraser disciple was Ron Polk, who was hired by Mississippi State in 1976 after leading Georgia Southern to Omaha. When State and LSU became MCWS regulars, their school leaders became enamored with baseball. When those two started pouring money, resources and creativity into their ballparks, their SEC rivals wanted in, too. And they’ve frequently tapped into that same coaching bloodline to do it. Ole Miss won the 2022 MCWS with Mike Bianco at the helm, a former catcher, team captain and longtime assistant to Bertman at LSU.
“Skip and I have always said that Omaha is like a drug. Once you get your people here, they will do anything to get back here again,” said Polk, the only coach to lead three teams to the banks of the Missouri River in Georgia Southern, Mississippi State and Georgia. He said it two summers ago, standing in an O-Town hotel lobby, surrounded by hundreds of MSU fans, having invaded Nebraska to see their Bulldogs win their first Men’s College World Series title. “Over the years it’s been fun to see schools get their first big tastes of success here. Once you experience this event, all you can think about it is how to get back. And once you see how fun and how big college baseball can really be, you want to recreate that feeling back home.”
After Mississippi State and Ole Miss added their first Men’s College World Series titles over the past two summers, the SEC is now home to eight MCWS championship programs, sharing 14 titles between them. The conference has won eight of the past 13 MCWS titles, split between six programs and three times since 2011, the championship series has been an SEC vs. SEC showdown. Last summer, Ole Miss defeated Oklahoma, who will also join the conference in 2024. Of the eight teams in the 2022 MCWS, four were current SEC members and two will be in the league for the 2025 baseball season. Since 2008, 11 of the 14 members have made it to Omaha, including nine different schools since 2017.
“I don’t see an end to this success coming anytime soon, because I don’t see an end to the commitment these schools and these fans have to baseball ending, ever,” Bianco said last fall, right after his team received their 2022 Men’s College World Series championship rings. “I just know what I see and hear when we are on the road in this league. It’s huge crowds and noise and tailgaters, college football crowds at baseball games. And there’s also a lot of construction cranes. Because the building never stops. It can’t. That’s how you get caught.”