By Rick Cleveland
Twenty-four years ago, Mississippi State’s Rusty Thoms won the hearts of Omaha and fans of the College World Series.
Twenty-three years ago, on a memorable return trip, Thoms paid tribute to those Omaha fans in his own special way.
This week, in Omaha, one College World Series fan paid Thoms back still again.
Warning: This is a neat story. If you don’t want to feel a little bit better today, stop reading now.
Omaha is a college baseball player’s heaven on earth. It is the place every college baseball player aspires to be. Another pack of Mississippi State Bulldogs are there again this June. So far, the trip has been just heavenly. The ‘Dogs have won two straight games in dramatic fashion. They are three victories away from a national championship.
What you need to understand is: Quite likely, no player in the history of college baseball — including these present Bulldogs — has enjoyed Omaha more than Thoms. You can read the full story of Thoms’ Omaha experience all those years ago here.
Here’s the short version: Thoms played the best baseball of his career in the 1997 and 1998 College World Series. At bat, he hit nearly everything they threw him. In the field, he made diving catches all over left field. Fans in the left field bleachers adopted him as their MBP (Most Beloved Player) in ’97. They remembered him in ’98 and showered him with love.
“RUSTY! RUSTY! RUSTY!” they cheered. They made up signs. They made up T-shirt designs. They painted their bodies to spell out his name. It was marvelous.
And when the Bulldogs finally bowed out of the ’98 CWS, Thoms paid those fans back. After the final out, with fans still chanting his name, Thoms emerged from the dugout and trotted out to left field. First, he took off his sweatbands and threw them to the fans. Then, he threw his batting gloves. Then, he tossed his cap. And then, he threw his mitt to some lucky fan.
“Why?” this sports writer asked Thoms later that night.
“I’m not going to need them anymore,” he replied.
Thoms, a superb and clutch college baseball player, wasn’t Major League material and he knew it. He didn’t have quite the arm or the foot speed or the power. This was his ultimate baseball moment and he understood it. He had given his all and now he was giving more. Rusty Thoms got it. All of it. Intuitively, it seemed, the fans did, too. This old sports writer’s eyes become moist just thinking about it.
So this week, this old sports writer used social media to tweet out a link to the story I wrote three years ago about Thoms’ CWS experience. And here’s more proof of how the Internet has made this a so much smaller world. In Omaha, a fan read it. That fan’s name is Judd Merkel. He was 16 years young and sitting in those left field bleachers in 1998. He emailed me. He was the guy who caught Rusty’s cap.
“I remember the guys that spelled out Rusty across their chests in paint, the chants of Rusty that I was a part of,” Merkel wrote. “I remember the diving catches that sent us all to a new level of cheering. I have three young kids now and I tell them the story every time the CWS comes to town.”
Merkel said he wanted to give Thoms his cap back. He sent me his phone number. Meanwhile, Lindsey Dugas Thoms, Rusty’s wife, sent me a note of thanks for linking the old column on social media and re-kindling the memories. She said Rusty and two of their sons were en route to Omaha to root on the Bulldogs. This was Rusty’s first trip back to Omaha since 1998. You can guess what happened next.
Lindsey sent her husband Merkel’s phone number. Rusty called him. They — and their children — met outside the ballpark before the game. Merkel gave Rusty his old maroon cap. The bible verse Thoms had inscribed on the cap was still there.
“I’m not gonna lie, I got emotional seeing that,” Thoms said. “They (Merkel and his family) were so nice. To think, they had had my cap and taken care of it for all these years. And to share this with my sons, who had heard the story all these years, but this really made it real for them. The whole thing is just surreal.”
Rusty Thoms had the cap sitting beside him for much of the game, as the Bulldogs trailed 4-0 and were hitless. Then, it started raining, and he put it on his head.
Then came the eighth inning, and you know what happened next. For Rusty Thoms and Mississippi State, this is a story that keeps on giving.