Every time Kramer Robertson opens his cell phone, the reminder is there — the image of high disappointment in high definition.
It’s a picture of him from the end of the last game of 2016. On his knees. Head down. In the distance Coastal Carolina’s players, who would go from their upset of LSU in the NCAA super regional to an improbable College World Series championship two weeks later, dance and celebrate on Alex Box Stadium’s hallowed turf.
Robertson didn’t want it to end that way. He couldn’t. Once it was determined that LSU coach Paul Mainieri had indeed spurned deep-pocketed overtures from Texas to be its coach, Robertson decided for good to return for his senior season.
Robertson’s one-word mantra, his watchword, his burning passion and preoccupation is one that has been shared by hundreds of LSU baseball players over the years:
“Omaha,” he said. “I’m going to do anything I can. I could care less about individual stuff this year. I’ve experienced that, and it’s nice. But I want to play in Omaha and win a national championship. That’s all that drives me.
“I’ve never been to Omaha. It’s an obsession for me. I dream about it.”
For a lot of teams and a lot of players, such lofty aspirations could drive them to distraction and send them careening off course far short of the College World Series’ home city in far off Nebraska. Besides, it’s chilly January, and TD Ameritrade Park is probably buried under a blanket of ice and snow — no hospitable place for dreams to sprout.
But at LSU, the goal of going to Omaha and winning a national championship is the constantly burning campfire that Tigers have gathered around forever, it seems. For the program that has won six national championships, only the seventh will do.
It’s not just Robertson’s obsession. No one is immune.
“I know the question will probably come,” Mainieri said during his opening remarks at Friday’s media day. “ ‘Do you feel added pressure because of the preseason rankings or having so many guys back?’ I'll just go ahead and save you the opportunity to ask me that question. I don't think there's any added pressure ever at LSU. The pressure level is always at a very high level, so I don't know how you can ratchet it up any more than it already is.
“Our approach every season is the same. Our goal is to make it to Omaha. Our goal is to play for the national championship and hopefully win it. And that will always be the goal, as long as I'm the coach here at LSU, and I'm sure that that's what our fans expect. Probably you, the members of the media, expect us to have one of the best teams in the country — and I don't see why we shouldn't, quite frankly.”
At LSU, such lofty aspirations are always more than just talk. But this year there’s something more, as though a 2-inch steel plate were buried under Alex Box Stadium’s emerald green grass.
Last year, the Tigers earned their fifth straight NCAA tournament national seed despite having lost all but one position player from a 2015 trip to Omaha. This year, the Tigers are missing only that one returning player from two years ago: outfielder Jake Fraley. Everyone else has come back, plus 2016’s top two pitchers, junior Alex Lange and senior Jared Poché. And closer Hunter Newman, another senior.
The element that has the potential alchemy to change LSU’s perpetual baseball hyperbole to the hard reality of a shiny championship ring is the core of returning players who turned their backs on their pro baseball dreams for one more search for the treasure: Poché, Robertson, Cole Freeman and Greg Deichmann, who was a draft-eligible sophomore picked in the 26th round last summer by the Minnesota Twins.
“I call those guys my fab four,” Mainieri said with a joyful smile (his dimples, how merry).
It’s not just their talent Mainieri likes. It’s their toughness. As Robertson said, he has been through the greatest highs and lows of his life as part of this program. To borrow a line from Henry V (who legend has it could hit for power and average), it’s their experiences that stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood.
Mainieri may look like a benevolent grandfather straight out of Central Casting, but it’s tough Tigers he wants and needs.
“My recruiting style is different,” he said. “I almost try to discourage them. I make it sound so hard. I tell them only the people who like a challenge will love LSU. If you can’t handle the pressure and competition within the team and a demanding coach, then LSU isn’t for you. At LSU, we’re shooting for the moon.”
And Lange, like the rest of the Tigers, knows when the moon rises over that certain ball field in Nebraska.
“For me, I’ll know it’s a good year when we’re on the plane coming back from Omaha June 27 with that trophy,” Lange said, referring to the earliest date the CWS championship series can end. “That’s what this culture and this talent expects, and that’s what we expect.
“The only goal we have is to go out there and bring that national championship back to Baton Rouge.”
That, and to make someone else save a picture of defeat and disappointment on his cell phone.