LAFAYETTE — Dusk is approaching in 1960s Crowley as Ray Robichaux’s weary legs step out of his pickup truck.
This is a typical day for him. He’s just getting home after a long day spent on his feet at the meat market where he works as a butcher — 12, maybe 13 hours after he left with the rising sun. In his hands is a brown paper bag.
Young Tony Robichaux doesn’t yet comprehend what his father is doing for him. He doesn’t yet conceptualize fatherhood as a duty. His adolescent mind is focused on the man in front of him and the contents of that brown paper bag.
Dad is home, Robichaux thinks to himself, and his time is my time.
Ray Robichaux doesn’t go inside, crack a beer and slump on the couch to rest his tired legs. He opens the brown paper bag, reaches inside to grab one of the dozens of baseballs it holds and begins being a father to his five kids.
“He’d teach us baseball,” Robichaux said. “He’d hit to us, throw to us, pitch to us. Some of us were pitchers, and he’d catch us; we’d beat his ankles up.”
Here marks the beginnings of a lifelong convergence between fatherhood and baseball for Robichaux. The two are not mutually exclusive, but intertwined, each offering an instruction manual for how to excel at the other.
Robichaux grew up in baseball. He recalls those summer days when his mother would pile the kids in the wood-paneled station wagon to make the 8-mile trip into Crowley for the kid’s T-ball games by saying, “Chili Fritos and a dill pickle is steak to my family, because we grew up eating at a concession stand all the time. We thought that was great food.”
He earned his way onto the baseball team at Louisiana-Lafayette, then known as USL, where he was a pitcher and has spent the past 29 years of his life as a college coach. Throughout that lifetime in the game, he never lost track of his own origins in it or what it now calls on him to do.
“It starts out with a dad in the backyard with a tee,” Robichaux said. “That’s how this relationship is built. Too many dads around the country use the sport the wrong way, and they ruin their relationship with their child instead of being able to use the sport to grow their relationship with their child. That’s what I try to do here with baseball, and I tried to do it with my two sons.
“Look, I hope they could be good baseball players when they’re playing, but the bottom line is I want them to be men at the end of the day. It’s real explicit.”
As the years passed, Robichaux began to understand the crucial element of his father’s devotion. Every now and then, when he feels fatigued, he’ll think back on Ray Robichaux stepping out of that truck with his brown paper bag, and he’ll find the will to provide that most crucial element to those in his charge.
‘Be a better man’
Sometimes, when he’s leaving the house early to make sure he gets to work on time, Andy Gros will catch himself thinking about Robichaux.
Gros pitched under Robichaux’s watchful eye on the Cajuns’ early-2000s baseball teams, but it’s not necessarily the baseball stories that flood back when he speaks about his old coach.
Baseball was part of it, for sure, but there was always an undercurrent, a deeper truth behind Robichaux’s method.
“He trusted me, he threw me in a lot of pressure games, he made me grow up in that aspect pretty quick,” Gros said. “He always told me, ‘You think this is pressure? Just wait until you get into the real world.’
“I always reflected on that. You think back and say, ‘How could I take that pressure?’ Nowadays, it reflects. You have to be on time for work every day; you’re there for your children, for your wife; everything reflects back on what he’s done.”
Biologically, Robichaux is a father of three, but through his profession he has become a father of hundreds more. The goal remains the same with both, though: They arrive to Robichaux as boys, and he does his best to turn them into men.
“It’s important to us, and what we teach these players is to ultimately leave here and be a better man, and be a better father as compared to being a .400 hitter but a bad father,” Robichaux said. “What does that ultimately give you?”
Yes, the main objective of their day-to-day work is to get better as ballplayers; Robichaux wouldn’t have a job if that wasn’t how he spent most of his day. But to develop just one facet of them while ignoring other more significant ones would mean failure to Robichaux.
“He knows his program and baseball isn’t all about winning and isn’t all about getting drafted,” star shortstop Blake Trahan said shortly after he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds earlier this month. “He puts a lot of stress on guys growing as people and growing as people who have value. He teaches you how to do that the right way.”
The man who has spent his lifetime enveloped in the sport knows there’s much more to life than baseball.
“To me, if our ultimate goal is really to get home, to get to heaven, then I think we should be arming them with some of the tools to reach their ultimate goal,” Robichaux said. “I haven’t read yet that their ultimate goal in life is to be a baseball player. That’s questionable in my opinion.
“I don’t want to teach just baseball, because I don’t want to face the Lord one day and he tells me, ‘I sent you over 600 boys for you to turn into men. I see you turned them into baseball players, but you didn’t turn them into men.’ ”
So Robichaux provides them with that crucial element which he learned from his father. He makes himself available to his players, whether they want to learn the appropriate grip on a two-seam fastball or pick his brain about the mystery of life.
He’s there for them, like a father, when they need him. Then he’d go home and be a father to his own children.
For nearly 20 years, he’d leave the house for early-morning workouts and return late in the day, swinging his weary legs out of his pickup to see his own three kids looking a lot like he did back when he was a child, watching his dad emerge from the truck with a brown paper bag.
He’d make time for them, too.
Justin Robichaux can’t fathom the notion that he would have picked up any other hobby besides baseball while he was growing up in Crowley. Like his father, he was immersed in it from a young age.
“It got to the point where just going to the game and being around the game wasn’t enough,” said Justin, Tony Robichaux’s middle child and elder of the two boys. “Once we started playing, playing wasn’t enough, (and) then practicing wasn’t enough.”
That practice paid off. Both Justin and his younger brother, Austin, pitched for their father with the Ragin’ Cajuns.
The two boys weren’t the only baseball players in Robichaux’s brood. His oldest, Ashley, grew up around the ball players in the locker room and the travel buses and used to outplay the boys in baseball camps. She now has her own baseball-loving son in Lon Paul.
But Justin wants to make an important distinction about growing up as the baseball-loving child of a baseball coach, a claim he’ll make for himself and his siblings.
“He never pushed us to play the game,” Justin said. “It’s always been something that’s been ingrained in both of us ever since we were born and were able to take our own likes and interests.”
No, it was usually the kids pushing dad to the limits, with baseball serving as the primary connection between the three.
“In the summer, in the dog days, he’s out there all day with those guys, then he comes home and grabs me and Austin and we go to the field and stay out there until 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” Justin said. “He never pushed us to go out there. Matter of fact, we were the ones that would always push him to bring us.”
Tony Robichaux recalled one such day with a smile.
He promised his baseball-crazy kids that he’d take them to the field for some batting practice when he was done working, but he lost track of time. There were the practices, the speaking engagements, the fundraising for a needy baseball program.
He arrived home exhausted, well after 10 p.m. His wife, Colleen, shot him a look before informing him that he had two angry boys in their room. He went in the room and apologized, promised to make it up to them. His twin brother, Timmy, ran the Crowley recreation department, so he could get access to the field.
Oh, but his kids knew that, too.
“Uncle Timmy has the keys to the lights,” a young Austin Robichaux said.
“So I put them in the car,” Tony Robichaux said. “We went down there because I remembered my dad when he got out of the car with that brown paper bag and never said he was too tired. I’m throwing them BP, then all of a sudden, here comes the police. It’s 11:30, 11:45.”
Robichaux had to convince the cop that, no, he wasn’t a crazy baseball coach driving his sons too hard, and yes, it was their idea. The officer gave them another 10 or 15 minutes of practice before cutting the lights.
Robichaux smiles when he tells this story. It’s one of those good times when he was there for his kids. There were other times when he wasn’t able to be there, like the state championship games both Justin and Austin pitched in.
“His schedule is very demanding; everybody knows that,” Justin said. “There are times when you look up and he’s not there, but me and Austin both knew. We were mature enough to handle the situation. Yeah, it got tough when you look up and he’s not there, but you know he wants to be there.”
There are moments when he simply didn’t have the time to give to them because he had devoted so much of his time to others’ children. But he was able to recompense some of that time as their college coach.
Robichaux, a deeply religious man, thanks God for giving him seven years as his sons’ baseball coach.
“He gave me time back,” Robichaux said. “In life, it’s very hard to get time back.”
The meaning of the day
As the calendar flipped to Father’s Day, Robichaux packed up his modern version of the wood-paneled station wagon and prepared for a trip north — to Burlington, Iowa, where he will watch Austin pitch in the minor leagues.
“We might not get a lot of sand and sun, but we’ll see the son,” Robichaux said.
He just wrapped up a father/son baseball camp, the purpose of which isn’t necessarily to teach the youngsters how to be better baseball players, but to teach fathers and sons how to use the game to get closer to each other.
Gros and his son were in attendance. It’s a roughly four-hour round trip from his home in Pierre Part, but he makes the trip because he knows he’ll get more out of it than baseball instruction.
“It’s more of a bonding experience,” Gros said. “Coach Robe’s about baseball, but he’s more about life. He’s more interested in how the family’s doing; it’s more talk like that instead of the past and what we did and accomplished while playing ball, you know? He’s more proud of guys that he coached that became good parents and good husbands.”
At the start of the camp, Robichaux plays a video for those in attendance. It’s not one of those Tom Emanski videos depicting teenagers performing drills in perfect synchronicity. Its subject, instead, is an old man well past his athletic prime.
“The video shows an elderly man. He’s cleaning out his attic; his wife is passed,” Robichaux said. “He comes across a box of journals. He’s got his journal, and he finds his son’s journal from when he was a little boy. He sits down and he puts them on his desk and opens them up to the same day.
“In there, in his journal, he writes, ‘Went fishing, didn’t catch anything, hottest, worst day of my life.’ Then he thumbs through the little boy’s journal, and the little boy writes, ‘Went fishing with my dad. Best time of my life.’ ”
Robichaux went silent for a full 15 seconds, overcome by emotion.
Maybe in that span of time he’s thinking back on his own long days spent molding men, when he returned home late and ignored his own fatigue and drew the attention of the police because he was throwing batting practice to his kids under the lights around midnight.
Maybe he’s thinking back on how his father chose being a father over being comfortable.
He gathers himself and continues.
“We spend a lot of our time helping grow other people’s children,” Robichaux said. “We spend a lot of time helping develop other people’s children, helping other people’s children believe that they can do something or reach their goals, to trust in their ability. Sometimes we have to be careful because, when we get home, we’re too tired for our own children.”
Robichaux can think back on his own father, who had every excuse to say he was too tired for his children but always wound up ambling out of his truck with a paper bag full of baseballs.
Robichaux can find comfort in knowing he did the same — for all of his kids.