They did toothpick games with a kid at a famed Oxford diner. They got a standing ovation and handshakes from the Ole Miss crowd after the final pitch of the tense, extra-inning regional final. Here’s how great of ambassadors Washington’s baseball players and coaches were for the university during their long week in Mississippi.
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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OXFORD, Miss. – To get out of the packed, raucous ballpark they call “Swayze Crazy” down here, visiting players have to walk through the concrete concourse beneath the red-brick grandstand. The players have to move among the 10,000 rabid Rebel yellers who are also exiting. All of them, fans and foes, walk out the same, black-painted gates on the third-base side of the stadium.
From there’s it’s perhaps 100 yards up a small rise to the players’ waiting team bus. On this muggy night in the South, Washington bus is parked along a street lined with magnolias – and more red-blooded, red-wearing Mississippians.
This is what Brian Wolfe is leading his Huskies through as they exit Swayze Field. A few minutes ago the Huskies lost 3-2 in 10 innings to Ole Miss in the championship round of the NCAA tournament’s Oxford regional, one of the most intense and exciting college baseball games anyone who saw it can recall. The Huskies are as stunned as they are dejected and frustrated. They just came within a base hit late and then one more win from Washington’s first super regional.
They are also proud. As Wolfe and his teammates make their way through the still-roaring crowd, a line of white Huskies game uniforms trying to part a delirious sea of red, their heads are high.
And then, a startling moment: The same Ole Miss fanatics that had just spent three hours of game time plus a two-hour rain delay screaming against the Huskies began ... cheering them? Many begin to shake the UW players’ hands.
More than 10,000 fans packed Oxford-University Stadium, known as Swayze "Crazy" Field, for Ole Miss hosting the Huskies in the NCAA tournament's Oxford regional. (Josh McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics).
Coach Lindsay Meggs’ all-heart Huskies -- the guys who in UW’s first NCAA tournament in 10 years had taken the regional champions to the brink on their supposedly unable-to-be-overcome home field in two consecutive days -- had won over perhaps the most passionate home crowd in college baseball.
“You guys brought a classy bunch of people to town. We wanted to show our respect to your team and fans,” Russell from Mississippi, @OleMissCoach74, tweeted to me.
He and his friends were among those extending their hands to the Huskies’ hands following Monday evening’s thriller, when UW lost a 2-1 lead in the ninth and then the game and their season in the 10th.
“I know the young men from Washington are down right now but I would like to congratulate them on the way they competed and showed class while representing their university,” Wayne Belk, who works in sales for R.B. Financial Services, Inc., in Batesville, Miss., 30 minutes west of the Ole Miss campus, wrote to me in an unsolicited e-mail late Monday night. “I’ve been watching Ole Miss baseball for over 40 years and I can’t recall a team coming in here that our fans embraced immediately. ...
“This is a good state with good people and I hope that’s what the young men from Washington experienced. ... I hope you will convey to everybody from UW that we really enjoyed having you here. I was impressed.”
PRIDE BEYOND BASEBALL
The most remarkable, lasting aspect of UW baseball’s transformative week in Mississippi went beyond these pressure-packed games between the evenly matched Huskies and Rebels. It was how well these players conducted themselves on and off the field, in less than routine circumstances. It was how they jelled throughout Washington baseball’s best season since 2003 – and amid bizarre rain delays and uncertainties that certainly didn’t help them fulfill their suddenly realistic dream of becoming Washington’s first team to reach the College World Series.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Alex Nesbitt, the seldom-used sophomore pitcher who was outstanding Monday in three-plus, tense innings of emergency relief.
It was his first game in a month and biggest of his life, and he was brilliant.
The Huskies had the tying run at first after pinch-hitter Jack Meggs, the coach’s son, walked with one out in the 10th. But he never made it past first base as the game, regional and season came to an end.
When it did the Huskies shook the Rebels’ hands in a procession near home plate amid the bedlam in the stands. Then every player, coach and assistant shuffled out to short left field to gather as a team. There were tears and heads down, the pain of defeat and finality. But simultaneously, their pride showed through. Even then.
This season was too good to forget.
The most remarkable, lasting aspect of UW baseball’s transformative week in Mississippi went beyond these pressure-packed games between the evenly matched Huskies and Rebels.
Injured closer Josh Fredendall, the senior hoping to medically redshirt for a return in 2015 (Meggs had him here in the dugout for games as the team’s “bat handler”) said after the loss the players all realized: “You know, we did something.”
What they did set up the recently forgotten program for success for years to come.
It was more than the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004. More than the 41 wins, tied for third-most in its history, and 21 victories in the Pac-12, its second-most wins in a league season. In five seasons at UW Meggs has transformed UW from a Pac-12 baseball afterthought to a national contender that came within a couple hits from winning its league.
In this remarkable week in Mississippi, the Huskies became more than baseball players. They became ambassadors for the entire university.
Huskies, they did you proud, 2,400 miles from home.
They did themselves proud, too. Of all the season-ending losses I’ve covered in 16 years of sports writing -- from Super Bowls to World Series to Olympic hockey finals, Rose Bowls and such – this Huskies baseball team strikes me as one of the proudest.
The team that its own league said would finish 10th in the 11-team Pac-12 this season used the energy and vibe from its sparkling new Husky Ballpark as a springboard to being in contention with No. 1-ranked Oregon State for the league title until the next-to-last day of the regular season.
They revitalized the entire program, together.
“The best thing about our team was our chemistry, from day one,” first baseman Branden Berry said. “ “The biggest thing we learned this year was to be able to lean on each other.”
They are a better, tighter team because of it. And they are better young men.
“Y’ALL ARE FANTASTIC!”
Apparently, Ole Miss has never seen anyone play better and with more character and personal grace than these Huskies.
Mississippi’s athletic department personnel and staffers told me multiple times in UW’s six days here that these Dawgs are the best team the Rebels have ever hosted. They cited the talent, the character plus the manners of the players, coaches, parents and fans of the people in purple.
It started Thursday, the day before the regional was to begin. The Huskies went to Oxford’s signature, historic Courthouse Square in the center of town for lunch at the Ajax Café, a renowned spot for soul-filled meals. The Huskies served back a dose of their own hospitality as visitors, doing toothpick tricks with an eight-year-old boy in Ole Miss gear and singing “Happy Birthday Kaylee!” to a young woman who was at first mortified, then delighted by these Dawgs. Wolfe captured that fun on video.
This is a sampling of the hundreds of words, notes, e-mails and tweets I received from Mississippians in the last week:
My gosh those Washington people, most pleasant players, coaches, fans I've ever been around. Honor working with you, @gbellseattle!— brandonspeck (@brandonspeck) June 3, 2014
@gbellseattle I think UW might have opened up an Oxford branch with this regional, I know y'all gained a bunch of new fans this weekend— Shreve (@shreveguthrie) June 3, 2014
I'm officially a fan of @UW_Baseball . That's a classy group of fans, coaches and players. And a hell of a team. Congrats on a great season— Adam Milner (@aemilner) June 3, 2014
And my personal favorite, from Janis Weems of Oxford, @JanisinMS: “Fans are saying the same thing. Classy games with classy UW team. #BUTwearekidnappingGreggBell!”
Wait ... whaaaat?
The appreciation was mutual.
“Best atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” Berry simply said of Swayze Field.
Braden Bishop, the Huskies’ speedy, graceful center fielder, almost made a sensational catch Monday after a long run from left-center to right-center. At one point in the regional he was 6 for 12 and had reached base seven consecutive times in wins Saturday and Sunday against Georgia Tech.
Monday night, after two days of the outfield “Swayze crazies” (mostly) joking back and forth with him, Bishop reached out via his @bradenbishop7 Twitter feed to the Ole Miss fans.
Swayze is a tough place to win. Great team, well coached and loud. Thank you fans the experience was unreal! Good luck the rest of the way!— Braden Bishop (@bradenbishop7) June 3, 2014
Bishop also tweeted: “On my side or against me Ole Miss has the best outfield hecklers in the nation!”
Pretty classy for a college sophomore. Or any rival.
Bishop, along with the jovial Wolfe in right field, had a unique bond with Ole Miss’ fans. During Sunday’s with the Rebels that UW lost 2-1, after again missing out on prime chances late, Bishop complied with the shouted requests from the well-lubricated fans in lawn chairs beyond the right-field fence. Bishop began throwing the balls he was using to warm up between innings over the fence. The fans would pen some not-so-deep-prose on the balls and then throw them back to Bishop.
Those are some ... unique baseballs.
Friday brought an inordinately long rain delay of three hours and then the inexplicable rainout of the Huskies’ regional-opening game against Georgia Tech -- after only about 45 minutes of rain over six hours. The fiasco scrambled the Huskies’ pitching plans and did them no favors by Monday’s championship round. During the delay, Bishop’s engaging father Randy joined those partying Ole Miss fans in the outfield. Wearing a black Washington W shirt, shorts and a huge smile, he got them to chant “LET’S GO HUSKIES!” during the delay.
The Huskies – and the Ole Miss community – loved it.
“IT’S ABOUT LIFE LESSONS”
It’s not an accident that the Huskies did all this, revived the program, proved to the Southeastern Conference and the nation that they are now a baseball power, and wowed an entire state while visiting from 2,400 miles away.
It’s because of the quality of kids Meggs and his staff have signed to UW on little else but the university in general plus the potential for a baseball breakout after the new stadium opened. For those two events to happen simultaneously this spring became a thrilling bonus.
So now what? Where does the program that has arrived go from here?
A strange mix of emotions engulfed the team Monday night into Tuesday morning’s 5 am. bus from the home-spun Inn at Ole Miss through the team’s 8 a.m. flight from Memphis to Los Angeles and eventually back to Seattle. The Huskies were exhausted and still stunned over the sudden ending their scintillating season. Plus, Major League Baseball’s draft begins Thursday.
"As I told our guys, it’s about life lessons... Guys have learned how to commit to one another. They’ve learned how to be young men on the road and represent the University of Washington."
Some of these Huskies who wowed everyone here this week may not be back. Wolfe and fellow departing senior Ryan Wiggins are leaving. Draft-eligible juniors with the potential to go pro include starting pitcher Jeff Brigham, shortstop Erik Forgione, left fielder Robert Pehl and second baseman Andrew Ely.
Tyler Davis, the out-of-nowhere ace who threw UW’s first postseason shutout here on Saturday, is likely to return for his senior season – because he wants to, and because scouts see him and think “too small.” Sophomore mainstays Bishop and catcher Austin Rei will return. Yet much of the team will be reloading, with questions such as whether Fredendall can come back from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery and get a sixth-year medical waiver from the NCAA to pitch. Whether the offense can become more consistent while breaking new hitters into the lineup.
Two assets the Huskies absolutely will have in 2015, thanks to this revitalizing season: Momentum and belief.
"I'm really proud of my team," Meggs said Monday night. "We've come a long way in a short amount of time.
“As I told our guys, it’s about life lessons. I mean, it’s important to all of us. It’s a game, and at the end of the day it’s an important game that’s important to our guys. And it hurts. But we’ve learned so much in a short time. Guys have learned how to commit to one another. They’ve learned how to be young men on the road and represent the University of Washington. And I think we did a pretty good job of that this week while we were here.”
“It didn’t come out the way we wanted it to,” Meggs said. “But I don’t think you will see anybody play harder.”
“I’m really proud of them. And I’m really looking forward to fall baseball. Can’t wait.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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