College Baseball’s Stories That LastColumns
BATON ROUGE, La – Emotion. Many people play it close keeping their inner-most thoughts private. Often in our sport, the postseason brings those feelings to the surface. Sometimes it is the end of the season, the finality that serves as a trigger. Other times it can be reaching a goal like capturing a title or winning their way to Omaha.
The more I cover this sport, the more I am drawn less to balls and strikes and more to people and relationships. This week there were some great examples where emotion told the story better than any of us ever could.
Monday, June 12, 2:00 a.m.
Kramer Robertson had just left the Alex Box Stadium field for the last time as a player. The senior LSU shortstop would soon head with his teammates to the College World Series following their super regional clinching victory over Mississippi State.
While LSU went to the CWS two seasons ago, Robertson did not make the trip. He had struggled on the field and by the postseason was relegated to the bench. When the time came for the coaching staff to construct the travel roster, Robertson’s name was not on it. So while Robertson got to experience his team’s super regional victory, the dog pile and the thrill of the chase, he missed out on the payoff, the team’s trip to Omaha.
Now he will lead them there.
Fast forward two seasons and Robertson is a team leader, bats leadoff, one of his team’s most valuable players and was drafted Tuesday in the fourth round by the St. Louis Cardinals. As the night wrapped up in Sunday’s victory over Mississippi State, four Tiger veterans in their last home games were honored with ovations following ninth inning substitutions. Robertson was one of them and was asked what he was feeling as he walked off the turf one final time. He reflected on how much had changed in the past two seasons.
“I was overcome with emotions,” he said to a room full of reporters. “I couldn’t help but think back to not too long ago – my sophomore year when I was here when the team celebrated to go to Omaha but unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the trip. The next day, I remember the day, June 8th. Coach (Paul Mainieri) told me and I packed my bags and I went home.
“I can remember driving home and I just felt like … (he pauses) a failure because of my first two years here. I felt like I had let people down.
“I knew I had to make a decision. I knew I could make the easy decision and go somewhere else and see what happens with my career. Or I could gut it out and try to come back here and prove to people that I could do it.
“I didn’t want to prove the people right who said I couldn’t do it, by making the easy choice. So to experience that tonight is something really special to me. I will cherish this forever.”
Somewhere, another player will be faced with a similar decision. Robertson provides an example when success is not the product of an easy path.
Monday, June 12, 1:45 AM
Brent Rooker had an incredible season. The Mississippi State first baseman ended up batting .387 with 30 doubles, 23 home runs, 82 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. He also played nearly all season at a new position and made just one error in 432 chances.
But he wasn’t always the hyper-productive, buttoned up total package of a college player he displayed in 2017. He redshirted his first season and didn’t play all that much in year two either. He had a solid 2016 season before blossoming this spring into one of the best hitters in recent SEC history.
After those earlier obstacles, one might expect the fourth-year junior to embrace the role of a superstar on the eve of the MLB draft. Instead, we learned about a player who wanted to push the attention elsewhere.
On Monday, Rooker was the 35th overall selection by Minnesota. Hours earlier, Mississippi State’s season had just ended at LSU. After hearing first year coach Andy Cannizaro make an impassioned speech about how proud he was of his team, Rooker was asked about his prospects for the upcoming draft. Instead of commenting on his own future – which obviously was about to change drastically – instead he choose to deflect the attention to Cannizaro, a coach that joined the Bulldog program in November.
“Coach Cannizaro is the best college baseball coach in the country and that is a statement that none of you should take lightly,” Rooker said emphatically while looking out through moist eyes at a crowded room. “He is going to take Mississippi State baseball to places it has never been before. He is going to win the first national championship here. He is going to win multiple national championships after that. I cannot speak more highly about the type of leader he is, the type of man he is.”
At this point I looked over at Cannizaro. The coach sat back in his chair. He exhaled. Like a cork bobbing on the water’s surface, Cannizaro’s composure had been in check seconds earlier. Now, it was not so easy to stabilize. Words can matter. He could only listen as Rooker continued.
“He helped develop my game in places that I have never thought I could reach. He had molded me as a player and as a person too. It has been an unbelievable season to spend my fourth year at Mississippi State playing for him. I can’t thank him enough for everything he has done for our whole team this year.”
Rooker had the opportunity to show appreciation for someone he felt put him in a prime position. He knew his college career was likely over and he felt compelled to say the words that often go unspoken … before the moment slipped away forever.
Saturday and Sunday, June 11-12, Late Night
LSU was trailing. In fact, they were being shut out. Could this be a rerun of last season’s super regional setback to Coastal Carolina? Not if these fans had anything to do with the outcome. Some might say they did.
Kramer Robertson drew a walk to lead off the eighth inning. Mississippi State made a pitching change. Then it started.
A first few bars of a song started over the stadium speakers. A familiar song, one might say a popular song locally. It was supposed to be Garth Brooks singing ‘Calling Baton Rouge’ but no one in the stadium could hear the country singer. Instead, 10,000 or so fans in purple and gold were crooning at the top of their volume. The stadium went from sleep-walking to Mardi Gras in the time it took to ‘hope Samantha dear is feeling fine’.
It was loud. It was lively. And the energy carried over long after Garth had spent his last dime. Superfan Chris Guillot kept them stoked with “Geaux” … “Tigahs” chants. Then the crowd chanted L-S-U and let me tell you, these folks are enthusiastic spellers. Everyone who was there will not forget that eighth inning. LSU scored four because, you know, they were down by three. This was a case where the fans’ emotion and ability to affect the game provided confidence, energy and eventually results.
But there are other times when an emotional attachment to a team can be present without affecting an outcome or even trying to. A great example came the next night. The game started late, moved like an alligator in a snowstorm and had a pair of rain delays. The second delay came in the ninth inning, nearing 1 a.m. in a lopsided game on a work night. If there was ever a time you could get a pass for an early exit, this was it.
However, when the final out was recorded in the 14-4 LSU victory, more than half the capacity crowd remained. The fans surrounded the field as the LSU players took a victory lap around the stadium. Few left. At 2 a.m there were still thousands of fans soaking up the victory.
As I wandered around the infield waiting on the postgame interviews, I couldn’t help but wonder what made these fans not only stick around into the middle of the night, but refuse to leave even after they had seen the victory lap. It was as if no one wanted to leave because this moment meant so much to so many.
I had to try to understand why. I asked LSU fan Bryan Harper, who had hosted me in a tailgate earlier in the weekend if he could help an outsider try to understand what the heck went on in the wee hours after LSU’s CWS clinching victory. Harper, clad in throwback Wally Pontiff jersey, provided this perspective from inside LSU fandom.
“So I can’t speak for other schools and surely there are similar cases out there, but I do know that LSU baseball fans are huge on tradition, almost to a weird level. Victory laps after regionals were a big deal at the old Alex Box, just like Chris Guillot and his wife with the ‘Geaux’, ‘Tigers’ crowd chants and of course the ‘K Lady’ yelling ‘strike him out’.
“In fact, I remember UNC Wilmington taking a victory lap at the old box in the early 2000s after a good showing against LSU. I believe they had knocked out Tulane the night before and LSU fans loved that.
“Also, Stony Brook took a lap too back in 2012; just one of those things that the fans will always wait around for, apparently even if it’s 2 a.m. on a Monday morning.”
Winning is fun. But this was about more than winning. It was about an emotional attachment to your school, your team or even your family. Faces of joy followed by the feeling of “we did it!” And ten years from now being able to tell the story, “you remember that night with the victory lap at 2 a.m.?”
Yeah, I will remember. And I kind of get it now.
Tuesday, June 4, all day in Starkville
It was a moving day at Mississippi State and you can take that two ways.
Craig Jackson and his Left Field Lounge Lizards had packed up and left the spot they had held for decades. In some ways it was just like they had done at the close of the past thirty or so seasons. But this time was different. To steal a line from George Jones, “this time they were over her for good.”
The rigs and trailers that made the outfield terrace the most unique setting in college baseball closed shop permanently last week. Progress has pushed them out. The new stadium will have a place for fans to watch from the outfield but for folks like Jackson and his friends who remodeled a cotton trailer, added in bucket seats from a junked car and had disposal tubes running from various spots in the rig, the concrete slabs just aren’t a suitable substitution. They fear the loss of charm and ingenuity is a change that will turn their spring family setting into a stale, corporate money grab.
Jackson, who has been shooting photographs of MSU baseball for various outlets for twenty years, told the story of how the Left Field Lounge started, evolved and now as far as he is concerned, ended. He and many of his friends are frustrated by the uncertainty of what awaits and are contemplating their role moving forward in Mississippi State baseball.
“When I came up here in 1984, my first season, if you had a game ticket you could drive your car into left field (behind the fence) and park,” said Jackson. “By 1985 and 1986, they were starting to park out there are leave them for the season. From 1987 until now, you never paid more than $250 a year for left field.”
Those days are over.
For some, they have been coming to the outfield for decades. Kids have grown up out there (with extra ‘aunts and uncles’ watching after them), moved off and returned with kids of their own (who now also have extra ‘aunts and uncles’). The setting has drawn in people from all across the country.
“There was a guy who heard this was the last home weekend for the left field lounge,” Jackson recalled about LSU’s visit in May. “He had flown in from Denver. He said, ‘I just had to be here for that last game’. He sat though the rain delay and everything. He said, ‘I had read about it and I had heard about it, I just had to see it’.”
Jackson isn’t sure what he will do next season without the lounge to call home. Every spring for decades, he and his buddies have cheered, heckled and fed half the SEC. Living the games from the outfield is much of part of their lives as a sport can be. The unknown is scary and they have more questions than answers at this point.
What do you do when the emotional tie that bound you to a place is gone? Jackson said some of his cohorts are eager to see what the new digs will provide. For others, like some of the older Lizards and perhaps not unlike the tradition-loving LSU fans described above, the loss of their unique party pad is a punch in the gut to their way of life, way more damaging a super regional loss to a conference rival.
“I love coming out there,” said Jackson. “I love the people that I met. It was great just to go sit out there. Now I doubt very seriously I will ever go back.”
Baseball can be cruel game. It makes you feel things, some you wish you didn’t have to. It can also be a game of redemption taking “failures” and bench players and turning them into the model athletes we cheer for. We keep coming back, year after year, for stories like these.
For many of us, we relate to the everyday player who didn’t have the easy road because all of us have something we struggle in, no matter how it may look from the outside.
We embrace the traditions, especially those unique to our clan that even rivals can appreciate, even if they may cuss us while we do them.
We search for the stories that make us feel; pride, joy, anger, despair. And those are the stories that last.