STARKVILLE — Tucked in between apartment complexes and an extensive housing subdivision in Brandon, on the eastern edge of Jackson, lies an extensive public park space. Shiloh Park contains a couple of tennis courts, a splash park and over a dozen baseball/softball fields, clustered together in tight diamonds yet still spanning almost a mile altogether.
On those fields, whichever happened to be empty at the given time, is where Mississippi State center fielder Jake Mangum became what he is: a ground-covering, full-extension diving center fielder who thinks no ball is out of reach — and he’s right more times than he should be.
Mangum has used that highlight defense — and a pretty good hit tool, one that won the conference batting title as a freshman — to become a draftable talent, meaning this weekend’s series against No. 1 Florida (41-12, 20-7 Southeastern Conference), beginning 6:30 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network+), could be Mangum’s last action at Dudy Noble Field if he so chose.
Mangum was drafted in the 30th round by the New York Yankees last year, a selection that may have come as late as it did as Mangum made up his mind early that he wanted to return to MSU for his junior season. It stands to reason that another successful season (he carries a .342 batting average and a .446 slugging percentage into the weekend) and the leverage of another year of eligibility could tempt a Major League franchise into making Mangum an offer too good to pass up.
If this is it for Mangum, he leaves the school many highlights to remember him by, few of them more impressive than his final outing in Trustmark Park, just over 10 miles west of the Shiloh Park fields that made it all possible. It was after his diving catch in the Governor’s Cup win over Ole Miss — a catch so far to Mangum’s left it was easier for right fielder Elijah MacNamee to make the grab than him — that Mangum opened the window to what made him the defender he is.
"That’s John Mangum right there, that ain’t me, that’s all him," Jake said of his father. "Growing up, me and my dad going out to Shiloh Park in Brandon and he’d hit me pop flies hours on end. As many times as I got up and didn’t want to go work on baseball at all, he dragged me out there. I thank him for that."
John Mangum remembers his only son as one that couldn’t get enough baseball.
"We spent a lot of time there, hitting and catching fly balls. It’s really nothing I did: when your kid wants to put in the time, as a parent you try your best to do it as much as you can," John Mangum told The Dispatch. "That was his deal, that’s what he liked doing.
"I’m sure there were days, but he always wanted to put the time in it. I’m sure there were days where he had other stuff he wanted to do, but when it came time to put in the work he didn’t mind working at it. I’m thankful he has whatever characteristic that is that he wants to do it."
There is no explanation for Jake’s love for baseball: John played football for Alabama and the Chicago Bears, John’s brother and Jake’s uncle Kris played for Ole Miss and the Carolina Panthers and they all got it from Jake’s grandfather, John Sr., who played for Southern Miss. John Mangum said before Jake, the family was all football and frankly not all that gifted as baseball players.
Jake clearly was, and he showed it from a young age. Jake started playing around 5 years old, showed an initiative for it around 8 or 9 and by the time he got to high school, he was more or less done with every other sport. He played football and soccer growing up, but more time on his Dulin Dodgers travel team — where he was teammates with MSU shortstop Luke Alexander — did nothing but affirm his true goal.
"Baseball was it for him, that was his goal and what he wanted to do. It was clear from an early age that’s what excited him," John Mangum said. "It was all about trying to get somebody to offer him a scholarship to play in the SEC."
He got that shot at MSU (28-24, 12-15 SEC), and he’s shown his appreciation by putting his body on the line.
Jake Mangum hits the grass more than any Bulldog and has always been that way. MacNamee, the man with the best view of the catch in Pearl, learned the hard way: in his first fall semester at MSU, he and Mangum had a pretty nasty collision, one so violent MacNamee said Mangum had a concussion.
"I knew after that if he was still going and he’s calling it, he’s not stopping," MacNamee said.
John Mangum added, "I do know he’s just kind of wired that way, to play full speed no matter if it’s a Friday night in Dudy Noble against Ole Miss or a Tuesday night at Jackson State. He plays the same way no matter where he’s at or who he’s playing. He’s full-speed the whole time and I don’t think defense is any different: when he sees one into the gap, he’s not thinking about letting it bounce and throwing it into the infield, he’s thinking about getting an out."
That was never more evident than it was on that Tuesday evening in Pearl. When he relived it, MacNamee described seeing a ball easily in position for him to catch and calling it, but given that experience from last fall he knew it best to check on Mangum. He saw Mangum barrelling in and knew it unlikely that Mangum heard his calls in the loud environment, so he decided to play it safe and back him up.
"When he dove, I thought there was no chance," MacNamee said. "He looked like Superman."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson