LAFAYETTE — When Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” he had never met Ron Guidry.
To the legion of Acadiana-area sports fans who followed “Louisiana Lightning” religiously during his standout career with the New York Yankees, Guidry never truly left. He just had to change addresses to ply his trade and pursue his dreams.
But it was that change of address from Carencro to New York that for decades kept him from receiving Louisiana-Lafayette’s highest athletic honor. Despite being the university’s most noted former athlete, Guidry was not eligible for membership in the UL Athletics Hall of Fame.
Until this year, a requirement for Hall of Fame membership since its founding was completion of degree requirements. When Guidry was chosen in the third round of the 1971 Major League Baseball draft, he had to jump at the opportunity for what eventually became a 14-year career with the Yankees.
“Sometimes, when you have a rule that dates that far back, you can’t just flip a coin and change it,” L Club Hall of Fame chairman Ken Meyers said. “But everybody in this community knew he belonged there, and finally we got the rule changed.”
That change let “Louisiana Lightning” truly come home.
“I’ve come full circle,” Guidry said Saturday just before his introduction at halftime of UL-Lafayette’s homecoming football game against UL-Monroe. “Life’s a big road; you take it and you never know where it’s going to lead. And for me, I end up right back home.”
New eligibility criteria were adopted earlier this year to allow for Ragin’ Cajuns athletes whose collegiate careers were shortened by the chance to pursue professional careers.
That group included Guidry, who shuffled through the Yankees farm system for nearly four years before he saw limited outings with the big club in 1975 and 1976. He had a breakout season in 1977 when he went 16-7 and helped guide the Yankees to a World Series win.
The next year was magical. “Gator” went 25-3, one of the top 10 winning percentages in MLB history, and he won both an ALCS and World Series game for the second straight year. Sports Illustrated called Guidry “the man the Yankees couldn’t have won the world championship without” after he finished with an eye-popping 1.74 ERA.
That season, Acadiana fans followed him religiously. Before the days of frequent television broadcasts, local radio station KPEL-AM, then and now the official outlet for UL-Lafayette, carried the Yankees radio broadcasts for games that Guidry took the mound. The promotional spot said, “When ‘Louisiana Lightning’ delivers, so do we.”
That kind of support and following was obvious over the past several days, and again Saturday when fans packed under the UL-Lafayette alumni tent in drizzling rain to get autographs and talk with the 65-year-old.
The support was also obvious during Saturday’s homecoming parade, at Friday night’s official Hall of Fame induction and at a Thursday night reception that filled a Student Union ballroom past capacity and moved Guidry to tears more than once.
“It was emotional because of what it means,” he said. “I had so many family and friends there. A lot of people in that room were instrumental in whatever success I had — whether they were old teammates, young kids in little league ball, a lot of those people were there, and they had a lot to do with that success.”
“Thursday night was one of the best two or three events we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said athletic director Scott Farmer, who joined the Cajuns staff in 2007. “That tells you something about how special that guy is. He’s a perfect reminder for our student-athletes of what they should strive to be.”
The Thursday gathering included taped testimonials from former Yankees Willie Randolph and Chris Chambliss and former Yankees skipper Joe Torre.
“We had called their New York office, and they rolled out the red carpet,” Meyers said. “They did anything we asked. The impact that Ron had, not only in Acadiana but in New York, is obvious.”
Guidry won 170 games for the Yankees before retiring in 1988. He spent the final three years as captain, an honor reserved for Yankees greats. He was enshrined in Monument Park in 2003 when the club also retired his No. 49.
Guidry is the only Cajuns baseball player with his jersey retired, and he has two of them. Both his old USL No. 3 and his Yankees No. 49 are posted on the wall at Moore Field.
“Me leaving here and going and playing in New York,” he said, “doing a good enough job to where they retire your number, and now you come back here years later ... I’m not ashamed to say I’ve shed a tear this week, but it wasn’t tears of sorrow. It was tears of joy.”
The UL Athletics Hall of Fame normally inducts several former greats during homecoming activities. Meyers said that it was by design that Guidry was this year’s lone inductee.
“We worked so hard to make this so special,” he said. “We decided not to induct any other athletes because we wanted to devote the entire program to him. Everybody in this community knew he belonged there.”