OMAHA — Over the course of four scintillating seasons at Mississippi State, Jake Mangum did things on the baseball diamond that amazed us all, over and over and over and over again. As a player, Mangum is a rare breed — an electrifying athlete with top-of-the-scales speed, a switch-hitter with an uncanny knack for finding the barrel, a leadoff man with an aggressive swing-first mentality, a premium defender with a rifle arm in center field.
Players like Mangum don’t come along very often. He is a truly great player … but we’ve seen dynamic speedsters with skill sets that compare with Mangum’s before.
However, in 15 years of covering college baseball, I’ve never encountered another player with the combination of Mangum’s physical gifts and his presence, his innate sense for the moment, his true leadership qualities. You often hear coaches and players talk about “leadership qualities,” with respect to clubhouse dynamics and motivational skills and setting a good example for younger teammates. That kind of praise is something of a cliché, even if it’s intended sincerely.
Mangum leads in all those ways, but his leadership transcends the routine. He is the only player I’ve ever seen become a leader for the entire sport of college baseball — and he did it right before our eyes on Thursday night.
After Mississippi State’s magical season ended with a heartbreaking 4-3 walk-off loss to Louisville in the College World Series, Mangum sat on the dais at MSU’s postgame press conference and offered heartfelt answers about his career, his teammates, his beloved program and its Omaha run. And when the questions stopped, moderator Bill Cousins began to dismiss Mangum and freshman righthander JT Ginn from the press conference — but Mangum interrupted him.
“I’d like to say one more thing,” Mangum said.
And then, like a seasoned head coach determined to speak his mind in order to advance the sport, Mangum seized control of the press conference and made an impassioned, eloquent speech in support of converting the “volunteer” assistant position into a full-time role and expanding baseball’s 11.7 scholarship limit. For 90 seconds, Mangum captivated his audience. As always, he displayed impeccable feel for the moment — this was his moment, his last chance to speak directly to a national audience on the sport’s biggest stage, and make the pitch for moving college baseball forward.
I’ve never seen anything like this from any college baseball player. If only every coach in college baseball would display the kind of leadership Jake Mangum showed Thursday night, maybe our sport could progress to the next level.
“College baseball is evolving. It is,” Mangum said. “You know, for four years, I just want to let everyone know, it’s time for a third paid assistant coach in college baseball. There’s a million people averaging watching this game. There’s 30,000 people in that stadium. This is my second time to Omaha. It’s time. This game is evolving. It’s growing. Every year it keeps getting bigger.
“In this dugout, on that field, there was 27 players on each team. You start off with 35, you come with 27. Of those 35, there’s 11.7 on each team on scholarship. Like man, this game is getting way too big for that. These were the best four years of my life, and it’s time to adapt with that. Every year we’ve had assistant coaches that have not been paid who spend hours upon hours upon hours doing all they can for our program. Sleeping in the offices, the scouting reports, dealing with camps. Come on, man. Go out there and watch that game. There’s 30,000 people in that stadium. A million people watching it. Come on. It’s time to change. It really is. Thank y’all, and Hail State.”
It’s also fitting that Mangum’s final words were “Hail State,” because seldom — if ever — has a college baseball player made such an intimate connection with fans as Mangum has made with Mississippi State’s huge, passionate fan base. There’s a reason they call him “The Mayor”; if Mangum ran for any public office in Starkville right now, he’d win in a landslide, and I don’t say that flippantly. Just listen to the crowd at Dudy Noble Field salute Mangum before his final home at-bat in super regionals, after singing along at the top of their lungs to Mangum’s iconic walk-up song — “Your Love” by The Outfield — during the entire break between innings, with Mangum due up to lead off the ninth. Good luck finding a more magical, goosebumps-inducing moment than that in college baseball.
And naturally, Mangum rose to the moment, delivering a hit in his final Dudy Noble at-bat.
Mangum got emotional Thursday night when he started talking about Mississippi State’s fans and the future of the program.
“The guys coming back next year, they’re going to get after it in the fall, and they’re going to be ready to go in February in front of the best fan base in the country,” he said. “It’s not a debate. Come to a super regional in Dudy Noble. There’s no debate. I was very fortunate to be a part of it for four years.”
Then Mangum turned to first-year MSU coach Chris Lemonis — Mangum’s fourth head coach in four years — and his voice quavered, and he fought through tears.
“I want to thank Coach Lemonis. He … Thank you for everything. You’re going to bring the…” Mangum trailed off, took a deep breath, and plowed ahead. “You’re gonna bring the first national championship to this baseball program. You are. And it’s gonna be awesome. You will. I can’t wait to see it. You will.”
When that day comes, the players who lead the way will become folk heroes in Starkville, where college baseball is a religion. But none of them will ever be more beloved than Jake Mangum. Not because he’s the all-time SEC hits leader (and fourth on the all-time Division I list with 383 career hits). Not because he owns the Mississippi State single-season hits record (108, set on Thursday). Not because of any of the records Mangum has broken during his remarkable career.
It’s because of who Jake Mangum is. It’s because of his heart and his soul. Those aren’t clichés, not when it comes to Mangum. Those are the things that make him a generational figure in college baseball.
“You know, about a year ago I got the job, probably to a day or two, and he’s been my lean-on guy the whole time,” Lemonis said. “When you’re coaching a group that’s had four head coaches in four years, you’ve got to be careful because they’ve had so much transition and so much everything. He’s been a great help to me in running the program. Not just getting hits during games or making great plays, whatever it is, but it’s his day-to-day. He cares so much for our program.
“I’ve never seen — he is very loved by our fans, but he gives to our fans. He never turns away an autograph. He never — there’s days he’s stayed two hours, three hours. There was a night when he set the SEC record: He stayed for four hours signing autographs. The give-back of this kid is huge. Not only is he a great player. I mean, you see that every day. But who he is is special.”