Photo by Aaron Cornia/MSU Athletics
By Billy Watkins
He had to pause and take a deep breath.
Jake Mangum had just been handed his first professional baseball uniform with the Brooklyn Cyclones, the short-season Class A affiliate of the New York Mets. It was gray with navy blue trim, a Brooklyn throwback.
And in the visitors’ locker room, a few hours before a game against the Hudson Valley Renegades in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., Mangum put on the uniform and looked in a mirror.
“It was weird,” he says.
For four years, Mangum had worn the Maroon and White — and occasionally Black — colors of Mississippi State, where he became the all-time hits leader in the Southeastern Conference. Where he helped lead the Bulldogs to four Super Regionals, two College World Series appearances and an SEC championship.
Mangum kept looking in the mirror.
“I remember telling myself, ‘Well, the new chapter starts today. It’s time to turn the page and get on with it,’ ” Mangum said by phone from his Brooklyn apartment. “It’s a moment I will never forget.”
Two months later, Mangum is still adjusting to life as a pro. He is not alone in the process. The player in front of each locker has his own story and dreams. Together, they learn to adapt.
“One minute, you’re playing college baseball. Next thing you know, a switch is flipped and you’re in pro ball,” Mangum said. “They throw a wood bat in your hand. You travel. You’re at the ballpark from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day, getting your work in, working on fundamentals before the game. You’re playing every day, not three or four times a week.”
“It’s a whirlwind at first. But this is what I’ve wanted for a long time — a chance to play Major League baseball. I’m grateful to the Mets for giving me that chance.”
He plays his home games 25 miles from Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. The Coney Island amusement park is visible from the Cyclones’ field.
Through Aug. 19, Mangum was batting .255 with 24 runs scored, 38 hits, 5 doubles, 2 triples, 14 RBI, 12 walks and 21 strikeouts. He leads the team with 13 stolen bases.
Only three teammates have more hits. All three have played more games. Included in that .255 average is a 15-game hitting streak.
Back home in Brandon, John and Stacy Mangum have gone through their own adjustments since their son left for his job 1,200 miles away.
“I look at the batting cage in our backyard — empty,” Stacy said. “I can remember Jake and John hitting off a little tee in the garage when he was really young. That seems like yesterday.
“I cried for 13 hours riding back (from the College World Series in Omaha). I couldn’t stop. I was sad we lost, but more so I knew when he walked off that field he would never put on a Mississippi State jersey again.
“I was wishing we could do the whole four years over again.”
A couple of weeks after the CWS, Stacy was back in Starkville to drop off Jake’s sister, Bailey.
Stacy couldn’t resist.
“I rode by Dudy Noble Field,” she said. “I circled it two or three times. I finally parked and walked around the stadium. I had a good cry there. It was locked so I couldn’t get in. I parked where Jake used to come out after games. I walked over to where I could see the outfield.”
That took her back to the day she was in Starkville when Jake went through his first practice as a Bulldog.
Stacy has a thing for ladybugs. Her late grandmother had a ladybug pin that she considered good luck, and the pin was passed down to Stacy.
“I had collected a few ladybugs and wanted to sprinkle them in centerfield — where Jake would be playing — for good luck,” she said. “So after practice, Jake and I went to eat at Stromboli’s, and then drove back to Dudy Noble. Everybody was gone.
“Jake and I climbed the fence and walked to centerfield. We prayed together. I prayed for him to be a good role model. I prayed for his health and his grades. And then I spread those ladybugs.”
By chance, 15 of them — Jake’s uniform number.
“More good things happened for our son on that field than any mother could ever hope for,” Stacy said. “Sometimes I find myself asking, ‘Did all of that really happen?’ ”
In one way, Jake Mangum and baseball seem like a misfit marriage.
He is “high strung.” He doesn’t hide his emotions. He backs down from nothing.
Here’s how he approaches each at-bat: “When you step into that batter’s box and you don’t feel like you’re the baddest dude on the field, you’re already defeated.”
Every out he makes, even if they are fewer than most, surely nibble away at his insides. His personality and speed would appear to favor football.
Yet, he loves baseball — even the most cruel parts of it. Fail seven times out of 10 at the professional level, and you’ll eventually become a millionaire. That’s a lot of frustrating strolls back to the dugout over the course of a season.
“Going 0-for-5 would’ve driven me crazy,” said John, who starred in football at Alabama before playing nine seasons as a safety with the Chicago Bears. “I mean, I played baseball in high school, but mainly to get out of football spring training.
“Going 0-for-5 drives Jake crazy, too. But he’s able to handle it, to see the big picture. It’s something I always talked to him about. You have to stay level headed. You have to stay even keeled.”
Jake, who played high school ball at Jackson Prep, was never pushed to work out.
“Usually, it would be him saying, ‘Dad, let’s go hit,’ ” John said. “But there were times when I would say, ‘I think you need to take some swings. Let’s go.’ ”
All those sessions with his dad helped Jake learn every nuance of his swing — from both sides of the plate.
“I told him, ‘If you had a bad first at-bat, don’t wait until tomorrow to fix it.’ He knows why he makes outs. If he’s late to the ball, he knows he has to get his front foot down a little quicker. And sometimes he will hold the bat too far from his head. But he knows to check things like that.”
In an era of baseball where the focus is on home runs and launch angles, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Mangum is a throwback. He’s a line drive and ground ball hitter who uses his speed to put pressure on the defense. He is a marvelous outfielder.
“I felt good when I arrived and the Mets said, ‘Go be Jake Mangum.’ And I’m glad they can appreciate a guy like Jeff McNeil,” Mangum said. One of only two Mets’ position players to make this year’s All-Star game, McNeil hit just nine home runs in his first four minor-league seasons. Instead, he sprays line drives to every part of the field. His style of play has made him a fan favorite.
“I remember Jake saying that if the pros wanted to change him, that would be fine,” John said. “But as long as he was State’s leadoff hitter, he was going to keep hitting line drives and getting on base. If he had wanted to hit more home runs, I’m a firm believer he could’ve done that. But he would’ve struck out more, and that’s not what the team needed.”
John also preached playing hard.
“Some don’t buy into that,” John said. “Jake did.”
A lot of kids give up baseball early because of the number of games travel teams play.
“People used to ask us if we were worried Jake would get burned out,” Stacy said. “That never entered our minds. You could see the love he had for the game.”
The Mets drafted Mangum in the fourth round of the MLB draft in June. He was paid an astonishingly low $20,000 signing bonus. A lot of factors go into what teams offer, so that doesn’t necessarily represent the Mets’ view of Mangum’s value.
But here is a real-life fact: One out of three fourth-round draft choices make it to the big leagues.
“I’m sure not going to doubt him,” John said.
Neither am I.
And neither is his mom. She’s already had a sign that things will go well.
Stacy had a trip planned to New York long before Jake became a Met. She was going to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
“It just worked out,” she said. “We went to see Jake play, which was kinda surreal. And Jake had an off day. He wanted to go to Central Park, so we just sat there on a beautiful day and ate ice cream. He’d never been to New York.”
After the game the following night, they went to the rooftop of the Skylark building, which overlooks the city.
“I looked down at my hand, and on a rooftop in New York City there is a ladybug on me,” she said. “I told Jake, ‘Look!’
“Neither of us could believe it. He had the biggest smile on his face. Just another night I’ll never forget.”
With one week left in the regular season, Mangum is batting .258 with 24 runs scored, 40 hits, 5 doubles, 2 triples, 15 RBI, 14 walks and 22 strikeouts. He leads the team with 14 stolen bases. Only three teammates have more hits; all have played more games.