LAFAYETTE — Local baseball fans won’t get the opportunity to see Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn in the San Diego State dugout this weekend ... at least, in person.
If they look really close, somewhere around the SDSU bat rack during the opening game of Friday’s NCAA Lafayette regoinal, they’ll see what the Aztecs have adopted as the next-best thing.
Gywnn, who in 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres became a southern California icon, is not with the team he’s coached for a dozen years as he continues to battle the mouth cancer that has forced two surgeries since 2010 and forced the former San Diego State All-American to take a leave of absence in late March.
One of baseball’s all-time greats has been replaced by a bobblehead.
Gwynn might not be there when SDSU takes on Mississippi State in Friday’s 1 p.m. regional opener, but the Aztecs will have Gwynn’s bobblehead sitting next to their bats. That’s only fitting because Gwynn won eight National League batting titles and hit .338 with 3,141 hits in his major league career.
Freshman infielder Ryan Alvarez is saddled with making sure that what he calls “little Tony” is on hand when needed. He’s had that responsibility since a 6-3 mid-week win over Long Beach State on May 6 when assistant coach Mark Martinez was searching for a motivational tool.
“We went out to pregame that night and poked his head out, and I told the guys that Tony was with us,” Martinez said. “They went crazy.”
Since then, the Aztecs are 10-3 and won the Mountain West Conference tournament title last weekend. Before “little Tony,” San Diego State had lost four out of six.
Gwynn has not coached the Aztecs since March 25. He has already undergone two surgeries on his right cheek since 2010, including a complex operation in February of 2012 when a facial nerve was removed after it intertwined with a tumor in that cheek. A nerve was grafted from Gwynn’s neck to help regain facial movement.
Martinez is in touch with Gwynn regularly ... the real Gwynn.
“He laughs about it,” Martinez said. “If our kids are using it to rally behind, he’s all in.”
Cajuns junior second baseman Jace Conrad, already the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first selection as Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, has added an even bigger honor.
Conrad was selected to the Louisville Slugger first-team All-America squad as chosen by Collegiate Baseball magazine, with that team announced Thursday. Cajuns pitcher Carson Baranik was a third-team selection on that squad.
Conrad is the first first-team All-America selection for UL-Lafayette since 1999, when pitcher Phil Devey was a first-team pick on the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association squad.
Baranik, who is scheduled to start the Cajuns’ second game in the regional, was the Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year after going 10-1 with a 3.30 ERA.
The last Cajuns All-America pick came in 2010, when pitcher Zach Osborne was a third-team selection on the American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings squad. Shortstop Blake Trahan, now a sophomore and the Most Outstanding Player in last week’s Sun Belt tournament, was named to Louisville Slugger’s Freshman All-America squad last year.
Overall, 17 UL-Lafayette players have earned some form of All-America honor since Tony Robichaux took over as head coach in 1995.
Rain, rain, go away
Conrad said the bleak weekend weather forecast won’t be a factor for the home team.
“We trained all year to overcome adversity,” he said. “We can’t control if it rains. If it rains, we’ll go indoors to get ready. If we have to push games back, we’ll do that. We’ll be ready no matter what times we play.”
The Cajuns have been splitting time between practicing outdoors at Moore Field and going inside the Moncla Indoor Practice Facility during the week. Jackson State and San Diego State did the same on Thursday in their pre-tournament practice sessions.
“This morning’s workout was really good,” Robichaux said. “The weather’s been a big issue, but we’ve been able to keep our practices going indoors. We warned our players to stay in control of things they can control, and we can’t control the weather. If we get rain delays and time delays or anything, we told them to just stay the course and be ready to go when it’s time to go.”
No big deal
Robichaux said Thursday that before Monday’s practice, he and his staff talked to the team about the probability the Cajuns would ascend to the No. 1 spot in all the major college baseball polls. UL-Lafayette was ranked second in all four polls last week, and top-ranked Oregon State struggled with three losses in four games in the regular season’s final week.
“We pulled them up and warned them,” he said. “We said that if being number one guaranteed you to get to Omaha that we’d talk about it. But because it doesn’t guarantee you anything, it’s a non-issue.”