LAFAYETTE — If success is a drug, pride is its side effect.
When the key ingredients of that drug are no longer at hand, sometimes the side effect lingers to incapacitate the man in need of his fix.
What happens to a team when it isn’t only fighting the nine players across the diamond, but also an ill-founded belief of itself borne on the strong shoulders of those who are no longer there?
Success should be chased, never avoided, but a team must also handle the trappings of what comes with it. This is a story about the struggles associated with understanding you’re not something you thought you were, but also about the potentially freeing illumination of self-discovery.
“You don’t have to admit that you’re not as good,” Louisiana-Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux said. “You just have to admit that if here’s what you’re good at, then be good at what you can do.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns built themselves into a 58-win dynamo last season, a tightly knit, highly combustible nine-man bundle of fireworks primed to go off at any moment.
They were, in Robichaux’s words, “arrogant.”
The Cajuns were true alchemists, morphing a roster of under-the-radar high school players into pure gold, all at once.
They were the anti-formulaic mid-major. They didn’t beat the big boys by being crafty, beating superior talent with execution and baseball smarts — though they had plenty of that.
No, they pummeled them at their own game, with impunity. What’s more, they knew they were going to do it.
But if pride is a side effect of success, opportunity is its byproduct. By overwhelming so many of their peers a year ago, many of the Cajuns — both players and coaches — earned the opportunity to let their success flourish at a higher level.
The arrogance was whisked away to minor league ballparks largely unobserved. The pillar of dominance was stripped to its framework.
The pride remained.
“It was a lot of pressure to be someone we weren’t, to be the offense that we had the last two years,” said senior Tyler Girouard, one of the few everyday holdovers from last year’s team. “That’s not the offense we have this year.”
Thirty-seven games into the 2015 season, the Cajuns hope they are done trying to jam the leftover pride from last season into the cogs of an entirely different machine.
The Cajuns knew going into this season that they weren’t last year’s team, simply because so many members of that team are gone.
The obstacle was not only learning a lesson about which team they actually were and accepting it as truth, but also learning to play a more fundamental style.
“People understand that we’re not that kind of offense anymore,” senior first baseman Greg Davis said. “We can score runs by moving the ball behind runners, hitting the ball in gaps and staying on top of the ball, whereas last year we’d get a walk, a base hit and then hit a bomb and we’re up by three runs. I think now we understand that we don’t have to hit a home run to be successful.”
The operative word in that last sentence is “now.” When you’ve found success through a particular style, it’s hard to let go of. The Cajuns socked 142 home runs the past two seasons, more than any other team in the NCAA.
Despite changes to the baseball designed to encourage better power numbers, the Cajuns are well behind last season’s pace in the home run department, with 28 in 37 games through Saturday. If the Cajuns play 68 games this year, like they did in 2014, they would finish with 51 — 17 fewer than the 68 they mashed last season.
Early in the season, they were trying to hold on to a ghost. The big innings they hung on the board with regularity were increasingly fleeting, and they couldn’t make up for the mistakes brought on by their inexperience. The result was a record hovering right around .500.
“I think that’s why we struggled up front. A lot of the old guys, or more experienced guys, in our lineup, we wanted to be that team that we were last year,” Davis said. “It’s just not our identity this year.”
It took a while to click, but perhaps the Cajuns have found that arrogance doesn’t only come with leaving a trail of devastation in the pock-marked trees beyond the left-field walls at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field.
It can also come with bleeding your opponent from a hundred tiny cuts in the form of sacrifice bunts, well-executed hit-and-run plays and a heavy-handed pitching staff that mercilessly pounds the strike zone.
This requires a level of perfection last year’s team and its bombs-away approach didn’t need to attain, which will in turn make winning games more difficult. Lately, the Cajuns have minimized their mistakes and have seen a return to winning baseball, ripping off a six-game winning streak last week.
“Last year, I know we were able to kick the ball and we were able to still be in games,” Girouard said. “We realized (this year) that we were taking ourselves out of games, and now we have to clean that stuff up to win the close games. We’re starting to accept that, and execution is important to how we’re going to play the game.”
So, that question again: What happens to a team that fights both itself and its opponent?
Does it wilt under the pressure of trying to be what it is not? Or does it discover its own identity and go on fighting a fair nine-on-nine fight?
The answer depends on the character of the team.
“There’s a buy-in process,” Robichaux said. “Every man was born with this disease called pride. Somewhere along the way, you’ve got to realize, ‘Do I want to play a small part of something big, or do I want to play a big part of something small?’ ”
In the process of making this decision, the Cajuns might just discover themselves. Their pride might have weighed them down to start the year, but success has a habit of sticking around — even if must take a different form.