As author and sports journalist Steve Robertson contends, a sport team’s rival is that opponent to whom the pain of losing is greater than the joy that comes from beating them.
Only your purest archrival can make you tiptoe around the watercooler the Monday morning following a loss, in hopes of avoiding sneers and giggles from the opposition. Diehard fans have a special affinity for the players that seem to understand what the rivalry means—the ones who shine brightest when fans’ expectations are the most palpable.
Those players seldom need to buy their own beverages when they return to towns of their playing days, even decades after those days are over. They can even make up for an otherwise mediocre career in the hearts of their fanbase if they managed to step up for those heated contests against their mortal enemy. Fans never forget those clutch moments, and it is those pivotal points in time when players can shine the brightest.
Two storied programs in the game of college baseball, the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Ole Miss Rebels, haven’t had what an outsider might describe as a “rivalry” in recent years. Since its meltdown season of 2015, Mississippi State has owned Ole Miss, winning all 7 three-game series and 4 of 5 midweek contests, by a current and collective count of 20-6 with that neutral site Governor's Cup date remaining on April 25 for 2023.
But by the above definition, Ole Miss is absolutely still Mississippi State’s rival. While there are State fans old enough to perform long division who literally cannot imagine what it’s like to lose a year to Ole Miss, more seasoned Bulldogs always have that "this might be the time" fear in the back of their minds when the rivalry series looms on the horizon. For 20 of the past 26 games against Ole Miss, a few Mississippi State players have gone the extra mile to dispel their fans’ fears and ensure that no child in Mississippi ever has to witness Mississippi State losing a series or year to Ole Miss.
The moniker “Rebel Killer” has been used among the MSU faithful with greater regularity over the last few seasons, but players across the generations have earned the label due to their heroics in rivalry showdowns.
Chief among the Old Legends to dominate Ole Miss might be Brantley Jones, who in 1970 pitched a complete game shutout over Ole Miss in Oxford during a winner-take-all SEC West Championship game. His antics started even before first pitch, when he warmed up with an “Archie Who?” button on his uniform (you may have heard of the Ole Miss starting shortstop at the time, Archie Manning, who also played quarterback for the Ole Miss football team). Legend has it Jones intentionally walked what would’ve been the 27th out of the game to get to Manning, who struck out to the tune of Jones’s one-finger salute to the 3-0 losers of the pivotal game (Jones himself refutes both the intentional walk and gesture as mere embellishments to ancient history).
As Ron Polk took Mississippi State to new heights and Tom Swayze’s tenure at Ole Miss came to an end, beating Ole Miss was just something Mississippi State tended to do. Even the greats like Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark operated kind of business-as-usual when the Rebels were in the other dugout, because they weren’t that significant a threat.
And, who can forget the "Mother's Day Massacre" of 1990, when the Bulldogs made their first appearance at the current Oxford ballpark location and swept a series rain-shortened to a Sunday doubleheader by scores of 17-0 and 9-0. Chris George and Bobby Reed were the winning pitchers that day in front of a crowd listed at 2,414, 30 hits in 18 innings for the Bulldogs, 6 for the Rebels. Following the 1994 SEC Western Division tournament in Oxford, the Auburn Tigers briefly held more wins over Mississippi State in the ballpark than the home team did.
Certainly, much of that dominance changed when Mike Bianco took over the head coaching role in Oxford in 2001. Ole Miss caught up and, some say, even surpassed Mississippi State in the 2000s in many respects, although many disputing State fans fondly recall the 2002 regular season finale sweep over the Rebels at home, sending the Bulldogs to the SEC tournament in place of the Rebels. The two even met in Hoover, AL, in 2005, for the SEC Baseball Tournament Championship, a 4-1 MSU win featuring daggers from Jeff Butts, Brad Corley, and Brett Cleveland closing the win. Of course, the 2010s brought a new era of MSU dominance and a new generation of Rebel Killers to the M over S.
Brent Rooker’s Triple Crown season in 2017 (along with Palmeiro in 1984 the only two in SEC history) is the stuff of legend. One of the few Rebel Killers to wear the crown despite really only dominating Ole Miss for one season, Rooker had 5 extra base hits against Ole Miss in 2017 and led MSU to a 4-0 record against their rival, including a sweep in Oxford the same weekend Morgan William beat a certain undefeated women's basketball team in Dallas.
Jake Mangum didn’t get dubbed “The Mayor of Oxford” by failing to rise to the occasion when he took the field against Ole Miss. Not only did he bat .418 in his career against the Rebels, he is 1-0 on the mound vs Ole Miss after throwing 5 innings of one-run baseball in that 2017 road sweep. Jake went 5-5 and reached base 6 times in a rubber game against Ole Miss in 2018, and twice scored on a walk-off base hit after Rebel skipper Mike Bianco elected to intentionally walk him, not wanting to risk the probable damage he could do at the plate.
The player responsible for both of those aforementioned base hits that pushed Mangum home is Luke Alexander. A career .220 hitter, the shortstop managed to put it on the Rebels twice in 2018 with walk-offs, a home run and a double that each scored two runs. His otherwise unremarkable career is still one that will never be forgotten among the Maroon and White Faithful for his exploits at key times against a key team.
This isn’t an exhaustive list (*cough Tanner Allen?), but two newer names entered State fans’ Rebel Killer Radar this past weekend, as State took two of three on an attendance record-setting Super Bulldog Weekend in Starkville.
Hunter Hines is nowhere near done playing against Ole Miss, and it’d be inaccurate to say his batting average ticks up when Rebels are pitching to him. But of Hines’ 8 hits against Ole Miss, 5 are home runs, and 6 came in Bulldog wins. He has 9 RBI in four wins against the Rebels, in which the margin of victory for all four totals only 7 runs.
Dakota Jordan has had even fewer at-bats than Hines against his archrival, but he’s arguably made more of a splash so far for his heroics. After striking out to end a one-run loss on Friday, he tallied two hits and the game-winner on Saturday, when his bases-loaded single sent the largest on-campus crowd in college baseball history into hysterics. He followed that up with a three-run blast to get the scoring started on Sunday, in a game that State won 5-3 to take the SEC series. With 2 home runs and 5 hits this weekend, Jordan is only on this list to follow an auspicious start to the rivalry experience with an explosive second act. The freshman, known as DJ to some, the third "Dakota" hero to others, could potentially be a burr in the Rebel side for two more seasons.
While the book is far from closed for these two players, they have all the makings of great Bulldogs, like so many who preceded them in the diamond wars. They have powered a mini resurgence for Mississippi State this season, and, although nothing is guaranteed, they are both slated to face Ole Miss at least once more this season, and likely four more games next season plus any post-season matches that occasionally occur. Much like the lengthy and legendary list of Jones, George, Reed, Butts, Corley, Cleveland, Rooker, Mangum, Allen, and so many others of the M over S world, Hines and Jordan each have a chance to become and remain a fan favorite in Starkville for years to come—even long after their playing days are over.