The appeal of baseball is its timeless elegance. The players may change from season to season, but it’s still three strikes, three outs and nine innings on a glorious diamond of manicured green grass and lovingly massaged brown dirt.
The games tend to blend one into the other, though if you watch closely you’ll invariably see something you never saw before.
But two games, at least in college baseball, stand out for those who have experienced enough.
“Two games all year are different from every other,” LSU’s Paul Mainieri said Thursday, standing literally in the shadows of the grandstands beneath an immaculate blue sky, and figuratively in the shadows of his 34th season as a coach. “One is opening night and the other is Game 1 of the College World Series.”
The ultimate thrill is the season’s ultimate goal, no doubt. But there is something even more magical even about the season opener.
On opening day, a season, a team, a player can be anything. It could be that championship season, and you might be the hero, immortalized the way Warren Morris was when he roped that home run down the right-field line at Rosenblatt Stadium to win the CWS 20 years ago.
Can it really be 20 years? Rosenblatt is gone now, but Morris, now 42, still looks like he could bound out there and give you nine airtight innings at second base.
Maybe that’s because it’s true what they say about baseball — if you keep batting, you can live forever. Have one at-bat like Morris did and you can become an immortal.
There are players on this LSU team — nine of them, fittingly for baseball — who weren’t born when Morris’ bat met ball against Miami. The players change. No game, no season, no team is quite like the other.
But they still drape red, white and blue bunting from the tops of the luxury boxes that crown Alex Box Stadium. And someone will sing the national anthem, and there will be nerves, even for a seasoned pro like Mainieri.
“I don’t care how much you prepare for it; you still have to deal with your emotions,” he said. “I’m 58. Imagine what it’s like when you’re 18?”
Jared Poché, a scrappy left-handed 21-year-old from Lutcher, will throw the first pitch in Friday’s opener against Cincinnati. He started the 2015 opener as well, and LSU’s opening game in last year’s CWS.
But there will still be nerves.
“If you’re not a little nervous, you shouldn’t be out there,” he said.
He wants to be out there. He wants the ball. He also wants his younger teammates, for whom opening night at The Box is a new chapter, to imprint it in their minds forever.
“Take it all in,” Poché said, “and remember this moment for the rest of your life.”
Nothing eclipses the giant football monolith when it comes to LSU athletics. To prove the point, Tiger Stadium looms out beyond Alex Box’s batter’s eye like the Death Star, enormous and ever-present.
But when you think about the last 30 years, dating to the Tigers’ first trip to the CWS in 1986, it’s baseball that has delivered LSU the most consistent success, the most signposts for folks to remember, “I was doing this when that happened.”
Mainieri, then coaching at Notre Dame, admits he was running late for his sister’s funeral because he was in the spell of LSU’s ninth inning in the 1996 CWS final with Miami.
With apologies to Paul’s sister, think what he would have missed.
So many memories. Ben McDonald hurling fireballs. The miraculous regional win at Texas A&M in 1989. The regional against USC the following year. That first CWS title in 1991. Todd Walker hitting .400. Raph Rhymes flirting with .500. Geauxrilla ball — LSU’s 188 home runs in 1997 will never be surpassed — and the leather-gloved artistry of Alex Bregman at shortstop.
This LSU team will be challenged to add another unforgettable year to The Imtimdator billboard in right field. The Tigers can run and pitch, but they have only one returning position player in All-American outfielder Jake Fraley. Runs may be like rare gems.
But on opening day, anything is possible. There could be some young hitter who turns into the next Eddy Furniss. The cosmic tumblers may click into place and deliver LSU an unexpected championship like Virginia last year.
It’s opening day. To pinch a line from movie icon and baseball fan Humphrey Bogart — who once said “a hotdog at the ballpark is better than steak at the Ritz” — it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.