They call him “Pop.”
You know him as Michael Papajohn, actor and stuntman.
He played Kevin Costner’s nemesis, Sam Tuttle, in the 1999 sports drama “For Love of the Game.” He was the carjacker character in the 2002 version of “Spider-Man,” and he took body blows as Adam Sandler’s stunt double in the 1998 comedy “The Water Boy.”
To members of the 1986 LSU baseball team, he’s known by that three-letter word.
A speedy center fielder on the field and a ringleader of festivities off it, Papajohn’s movie roles pale in comparison to his LSU legacy: He’s the first player in the program’s now-storied history to take the first swing at the College World Series.
It didn’t end well.
“Struck out,” Papajohn said.
On the walk back to the dugout, ESPN’s cameras zoomed in on Pop. More than 10,000 fans watched at old Rosenblatt Stadium. By the time Pop arrived in the dugout, he couldn’t breathe.
“Skip took me in an office, a training room behind the dugout, so the ESPN cameras couldn’t pick anything up,” Papajohn said of that ’86 CWS. “I couldn’t tell you what he told me, but I felt like we were having eggnog around the Christmas tree. Real calming.”
Nearly 30 years later, Papajohn asked his old coach a question about that incident: “What was going on?”
Said Bertman, flatly: “Oh, you were having a panic attack.”
“I was like, ‘You waited 30 years to tell me?!’ ” Papajohn laughed.
LSU’s first trip to the College World Series ended like it started — a disappointing swing-and-miss at the sport’s main event, a 1-2 run that has members of that 1986 team still grumbling. They dropped the ball in the bright lights and succumbed to the pressure on the big stage.
They also reached a place no LSU team had, establishing the foundation for what their coach turned into a dynasty. They were the first step in Bertman’s transformation of LSU baseball, the opening act to the grand show of the 1990s.
They were a hodgepodge group that Bertman and lead recruiter Smoke Laval amassed — a mixture of new junior-college kids from California, walk-on players from Florida and veteran big arms from Louisiana.
They were partiers and hard-workers. They were undersized and overwhelmed.
They were trailblazers and groundbreakers, innovators and pioneers to what’s now, arguably, the greatest college baseball program in America.
“Not to be cocky,” said Barry Manuel, the closer on that 1986 team, “but I really think that group going to the CWS got people starting to believe that LSU can be a contender. I think we opened up that door to the state of Louisiana baseball.”
On Saturday before the nightcap of LSU’s doubleheader against Alabama, about half on that team walked onto the field named for their former coach. They were introduced to a loud roar, serenaded in an atmosphere that, yes, they helped create three decades ago.
“It set the foundation for a great program,” said Rob Leary, the senior catcher on that squad. “We were the beginning.”
Work hard, play hard
A few weeks before his third season at LSU began, Bertman realized this ’86 squad was good enough to reach the sport’s collegiate pinnacle of Omaha, Nebraska. He knew because he’d helped lead five teams to the CWS as an assistant at Miami for eight years.
By Year 3, these were all his players. Those who played under former coach Jack Lamabe transferred or graduated. Bertman gave them good reason to leave.
As soon as school began in the fall, LSU players were expected to arrive for a two-mile run each morning at 6 a.m. They then lifted weights for an hour, went to class and arrived at the field for practice that, at times, lasted a whopping four hours.
There were no NCAA rules governing the length of practice like there are now.
After practice, they ran again. This time, from foul pole to foul pole. A jog from the left pole to the right pole counted as one.
These were called “running poles,” said Mark Guthrie, a starting pitcher in 1986. On one 98-degree fall day, Bertman made players run 48 of them.
Guthrie was there for the start of it all, walking onto Bertman’s first team in 1984 as a little-known rookie from Florida. He saw the beginning of a transformation Bertman admits wasn’t always easy.
“First year, I had to run off a lot of kids,” the coach said. “The work ethic was too hard for them.”
His first group of players expected to have Mardi Gras off, as they had in the past. They were in for a rude awakening.
“What? You think this is American Legion baseball?” Bertman fired back.
By the time 1986 rolled around, Bertman had a group of talented players from the previous three freshman signing classes who didn’t expect such things. He added a handful of hotshot junior-college kids, many from California.
Louisiana high school baseball wasn’t what it is today. Bertman went national to build LSU’s early success.
Among the starting eight position players on that team, four were from California junior colleges, two were from Louisiana and one each hailed from Ohio and Alabama. The pitching staff had a more homegrown feel. Five of the top seven hurlers were Louisianans.
It was a melting pot of a team that bonded — despite those hometown differences — around four seniors: second baseman Burke Broussard, Leary, shortstop Jeff Reboulet and third baseman Jeff Yurtin.
“It’s probably one of the most fun years for me playing baseball,” said Manuel, now a baseball coach at Westminister Christian Academy in Opelousas. “We just had that unique chemistry.”
Said Papajohn: “We had a fraternity-type feel to our team.”
Many from the team gathered at Bertman’s home Friday night. They shared stories from that season. Some are not fit for print. They pored over photos from that year. Some are not fit for print.
Papajohn dug the photos out of his garage, and he showed up at Bertman’s house with them stuffed in a soft beer cooler.
Some things never change.
“A lot of teams, when practice is over with, everyone would go their separate ways,” he said. “We didn’t.”
On Friday night at Bertman’s, they drank cocktails, consumed a few beers and then continued the party at Walk-On’s on Nicholson Drive.
The boys were back out on the town for a few rounds.
In 1986, they partied at Tigerland bars Cilly’s (now The House) and Sport’s Illustrated (now Reggie’s). They ate home-cooked dinners and shot pool at the Silver Moon Café, a small house-turned-restaurant down a dirt road off Nicholson. (“You’d show up there and this elderly black woman would cook homemade meals,” Broussard said.)
They’d pop fireworks in the middle of the fall and hold wild Halloween parties — some, even, at old Alex Box Stadium.
Said Broussard laughing: “We probably got in trouble a little bit.”
Bat girls rode on the team bus to road games, and, in a few old photos, a dozen players are in one giant hot tub during a road trip.
“It was a different time,” Bertman said.
“That’s what made us successful,” Papajohn told Bertman Friday night, “You let us be free off the field.”
On the field, not so much.
“Now looking back,” Guthrie said, “I’ll tell you what we did do: We worked our ass off.”
‘Man, we can go far’
They called them “bleacher creatures.”
Down the third-base line of Florida’s baseball field, seated in metal bleachers and dressed in wild garb, were hundreds of Gators students — hell-bent, all of them, on harassing the opponent’s left fielder.
This was no different when LSU arrived March 1, 1986, to kick off Southeastern Conference play with a three-game series against the league’s powerhouse. Florida had won nine straight SEC East championships and three of the previous five overall conference titles.
The Tigers swept the Gators that weekend, thrashing them by scores of 9-1, 18-4 and 12-5. In the middle of Game 3 on Sunday, LSU players glanced toward Florida’s bleacher creatures.
“They had bags on their heads,” Guthrie said.
“That was the series that I thought, ‘Man, we can go far,’ ” said Leary, a former high school baseball and football teammate of Barry Bonds in California who has spent the past 25 years with major league organizations, winning World Series rings with the Marlins and two with the Red Sox as an organizational staff member.
LSU opened the ’86 season winning 21 of its first 22 games and 28 of its first 30. The Tigers vaulted to the No. 1 ranking. Fans began pouring into the old Box. Attendance records fell, and tickets were a hot commodity, with LSU going from averaging 918 fans in Bertman’s first season to 2,385 in 1986 (and since leading the nation in attendance for the past 20 seasons).
LSU baseball began to change — in more ways than one.
“I remember things changing on the field. The stands changed, the fence changed and I remember getting into an SEC season at our place and the pep band came out,” said Reboulet, who spent 12 seasons in the Major Leagues and is now a financial adviser. “It changed the culture. The look of it changed, but, really, what was changing was the culture of who LSU was going to be.”
Bertman’s team was showing on-the-field success to back up its preseason sales pitch. Dressed in full uniform before the season, players passed out schedule cards at basketball games and while standing on Nicholson Drive.
The Tigers finished 22-5 in the SEC that year, winning the league for a second straight season. They did not lose a series.
“Skip had that thing about him that he could get talent out of anybody, and then that talent would rise,” Manuel said.
Take, for instance, Manuel. He stood 5 foot, 10 inches and weighed 175 pounds.
He finished that season with nine saves and a 10-2 record despite not starting a single game. By the end of the season, he evolved into a shutdown closer with a low-90s fastball, a nasty slider and a catchy nickname, “The Terminator.”
“I came out of high school, and my mechanics were terrible,” he said. “They fixed things, and I took off.”
“Nobody wanted to face him in practice,” joked Broussard, the former University High baseball coach. “He was just wild enough.”
Broussard, the second baseman, was so skinny — he was listed at 137 pounds on the roster — that Bertman joked, “If he fell in the shower, he’d slip down the drain.”
Guthrie and Stan Loewer were the primary starting pitchers. Back then, teams played Saturday doubleheaders and a third game Sunday.
“Stan and I were the Saturday guys,” Guthrie said.
Loewer, a junior, was the first player from Louisiana to sign with Bertman. Guthrie and fellow Floridian Craig Faulkner walked on to the 1984 squad with help from former LSU football coach Charles McClendon. A close friend to Guthrie’s father, McClendon phoned Bertman.
“Had a phone call a couple of months ago with Skip,” Guthrie said. “He said, ‘If I knew I was getting two pro guys when Charlie McClendon called, I would have told you, you were crazy.’
“I said, ‘Skip, you didn’t get two pro guys. You got two idiots you turned into pro guys.’ ”
Guthrie, who now runs a baseball development program in Florida, had a 17-year pro career. He pitched in 15 MLB postseason games. He was one of about a half-dozen players on the ’86 team to reach the big leagues — none more successful than Albert Belle, then known as Joey.
Belle was the 1986 team’s big-hitting slugger, a guy who knocked 381 homers in 12 years in the majors. Belle, a Shreveport native who was inducted in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and is now living in Arizona, hasn’t visited LSU since his departure after his junior season in 1987, players say.
Bertman didn’t bring Belle to Omaha when the Tigers returned there in ’87.
“He’s always held it against me,” said Bertman, a 2002 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
The big win
Teams used extraordinary ways to dry a wet baseball field 30 years ago.
Laval sometimes dumped gasoline on parts of the outfield, lit a match and prayed for the best. “He was trying to melt puddles,” Guthrie laughed.
On May 26, 1986, LSU used a different method: A helicopter descended close to the playing surface, using its massive blade to dry the damp field or push water aside. “It was something to watch,” Broussard said.
Hosting its first NCAA regional, LSU met Tulane in the regional championship of the six-team event. The winner would go to Omaha. The regional/super regional format wouldn’t exist for another 15 years.
A rain storm interrupted Sunday’s regional title game and, eventually, postponed it to Monday. The helicopter dried the field enough Monday morning for the teams to restart on a sloppy field in front of 3,000 fans at Alex Box.
The score: LSU 6, Tulane 6, in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Speedy left fielder Rob Hartwig got things started for LSU in the top of the ninth, smacking a ball that ricocheted off the pitcher’s glove. Hartwig rounded first and slipped. He limped back to the first base bag.
“We still tell that story,” Papajohn said. “Skip walked out there to see if he was hurt or not, and Hartwig said, ‘Get back in the dugout, Skip!’ ”
“I go out to him, walking down the right field line. I wanted to (have him) steal second,” Bertman said. “He said, ‘Coach, get back in the dugout. I’m faking it.’
“On the very first pitch,” Bertman said, “he stole second” with a head-first slide.
Broussard’s groundball to second base moved Hartwig to third, and Eric Johnson grounded out. Jeff Reboulet followed with what Leary says was “the defining moment of the season:” a chopping, two-out groundball that Tulane third baseman Tookie Spann couldn’t handle.
A story published in The Advocate the next day paints the picture.
“Reboulet’s grounder then caught a charging Spann on the shoulder,” the story reads. Reboulet beat the throw “by a step,” it says.
Hartwig, after that fake and all, scored what would be the game-winning run — one that sent LSU to the baseball promised land.
“I don’t remember much,” Reboulet said. “It was a dribbler to third.”
In Omaha, LSU lost 4-3 to Loyola-Marymount, beat Maine 8-4 and had its season end in a 4-3 defeat to Bertman’s old team, Miami.
Players admit the nerves were high.
“It was the first time we’d ever been there,” Guthrie said. “Like Skip says, ‘Sometimes, you’ve got to be there before you win it.’ ”
LSU has returned to the College World Series 16 more times, nearly twice as much as the next SEC team. Six of those trips ended in championships. LSU fans flock by the thousands to Nebraska’s largest city — and many still go even if their Tigers don’t advance to the CWS.
Omaha has embraced Louisianans and their culture. There’s a bar, Barrett’s Barleycorn Pub & Grill, designated for LSU fans, and Cajun favorites like jambalaya, gumbo and, even, crawfish are served in the city. Looking back, it’s hard to believe LSU requested only about 200 tickets to the 1986 College World Series.
Learning this, Bertman said he delivered a message to then-athletic director Bob Brodhead: “That’s not gonna be enough.”