Pushing into the aisle Friday night, Kim Mulkey braces herself in the air with both hands along a railing inside Alex Box Stadium, kicking her legs toward the protective netting behind the plate while her son disputes a call.
She clutches an iPhone in one hand, pointing toward an umpire with the other. Kramer Robertson slaps the infield grass as chaos erupts around him.
His mother remains in the aisle, running her hands through her blond hair before a call is rendered that no one’s quite sure how to explain.
On March 28 in Dallas, Robertson was the one in the first row. Aided by questionable contact, Oregon State corralled a defensive rebound and brought the basketball up the floor during an Elite Eight game against Mulkey’s Baylor women’s team.
Mulkey removed her gold jacket and flung it behind the bench. Having flown in after LSU baseball practice, Robertson sat with his elbows resting on knees. The jacket flew by.
“THROW THE DAMN JACKET, KIM,” Robertson tweets. “I’M WITH YOU.”
“That’s her personality,” Robertson says. “I think it’s misunderstood. It’s seen as over the top, temper, but I see it for what it really is.”
Long after the jacket was thrown, Robertson’s phone buzzed. Longtime NFL quarterback Derek Anderson had watched the game, and he tweeted his displeasure with Mulkey’s actions.
One of Robertson’s professors engaged Anderson in conversation. Soon, Robertson was tagged. Uncharacteristically, he responded to protect his mother.
“I don’t feel like she really has anyone else who can,” Robertson says. “She taught me growing up to ignore all that. Obviously, I’m sensitive to it. She’s a coach and I know all that, growing up in the public spotlight. It’s still your mom.”
Back on Friday night, the umpires converge. Robertson is enraged — an atypical outburst from an otherwise-serene shortstop. He tells starting pitcher Alex Lange to “hold me back.” Mulkey remains near the net, looking to defend the boy who has become her protector.
- - -
The weekend began with a roast beef poboy. Extra pickles and extra gravy. Mulkey munches in the passenger’s seat as Friday afternoon, bumper-to-bumper traffic delays her arrival at the ballpark.
Twenty-five minutes earlier, Cheryl Gaude had arrived at the jet hangar sporting a gold No. 3 jersey with “LSU” across the back. She refreshes an app tracking Mulkey’s airplane, which lands and pulls adjacent to the door where Gaude waits.
“They’ve got me on Twitter, Instagram,” the 67-year-old some call “CherBear” says. “Snapchat, I don’t know how all that works. So I stay away from that.”
Mulkey enters the hangar, lagged from a week of Big 12 spring meetings in Phoenix. She hugs Gaude, the “Aunt Bea” of Mulkey’s “The Andy Griffith Show”-style family. She lives in Waco with Mulkey, but extenuating circumstances kept her in Baton Rouge all week.
Then a pigtailed guard with precision passing, Mulkey scored 4,075 points at Hammond High School from 1976-80. Gaude tallied each one, always requiring an extra line under Mulkey’s name in the official scorebook.
Gaude’s husband, Ralph, was on the bench, an assistant coach whenever he felt fit.
Ralph was in the Army, destined for air traffic control school. Married to Cheryl for a year and a half, he drove with three other married men on a rainy afternoon in 1970, all searching for suitable Fort Rucker housing for their spouses.
“There was a large curve where they had to go in the gates, and a car was coming in his lane,” Cheryl explains, as she was told by the three others. “He tried to avoid the guys coming in his lane and slipped off the edge of this highway. It was like red clay; the tires sunk and they rolled down this embankment.”
Ralph suffered irreparable damage to his C5 and C6 vertebrae. He was a quadriplegic. His hands were rendered useless. Instead, he relied on his wrists to feed himself and drive a handicapped-accessible van, which carried Mulkey and others to practices and games.
“Ralph was there every day at practice,” Gaude says. “(Mulkey) just fell in love with him.”
Mulkey signed her letter of intent to play at Louisiana Tech at the couple’s home. When Mulkey took over at Baylor in 2000, Cheryl and Ralph visited Waco, where Kramer hopped on the back of Ralph’s electric wheelchair. The two rode up and down the driveway.
Ralph watched “The Price is Right” as Cheryl rinsed a rag in the bathroom in October 2005. She heard a snort, looked into the couple’s electric bed and her husband was dead. He was 57. Gaude calls it a massive heart attack, but an autopsy was never performed.
Mulkey delivered his eulogy.
“She thought she was going to get through it without tearing up, but she had a hard time,” Gaude says. “But she was very good. She’s good at anything she does, that girl.”
- - -
It was two days before Christmas in 2005 when Randy Robertson told Mulkey that he was unhappy. He was leaving her and the kids. He walked out two weeks later, days after Mulkey’s first victory against Texas.
Gaude and Mulkey had planned for the widow to join the family in Waco on Jan. 6. Gaude called on New Year’s Day. Mulkey delivered the news.
“How long can you stay?” Mulkey asked.
“This January’s 10 years,” Gaude says now. “There’s a plan. God puts you where you’re needed. I needed them as much as they needed me.”
After living with and caring for a quadriplegic for 35 years, Gaude’s a natural caretaker. She entered an abruptly broken home, which was blindsided by what tore it apart. No timetable was set, no plans were written out.
She cooked, mostly. She takes blame for spoiling Kramer rotten. He’d wake her up at 1 or 2 a.m., only wanting a peanut butter sandwich. She’d oblige, not wanting the boy to wreck the kitchen.
“He was a mess,” Gaude says.
He was 11, attempting to take charge as the man of the house. He taught himself to shave. Threw bullpen sessions to his mother, who sat on an overturned bucket until an unfortunate incident.
“I hit her in the ankle one time,” Robertson laughs. “She threw her glove down and said, ‘Never again.’ She’s never played catch with me since then.”
Mulkey can’t recall the day. It was in the days following the divorce. She lay in her suddenly spacious bed. At long last, she fell asleep.
“I feel this little body get in that king-sized bed on the other side, and I’m thinking, ‘(Kramer’s) never done that,’ ” Mulkey says. “I don’t know if he just thought ‘That’s my mom and I want to be by her.’
“He never asked; I never said anything. I’d just wake up the next morning, and there he would be, his little side of the bed. I don’t know if in his little 11-year-old mind he felt like he had to be the guy in the house. I don’t know. And I’ve still never asked him.”
- - -
The auctioneer opens “The Phantom of the Opera.” Robertson stood on stage in the prologue of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, delivering his lines. It was a promise to a theater teacher at Midway High School.
“It was one of the most awkward things I’ve ever done, but when I was done with it, I was glad I did it,” Robertson says. “Mom was in the first row at that watching. Very proud of me.”
There was no critique. Just a hug and a commendation.
This was not sports.
In the 15th game of his college career, Robertson led off for the first time ever. He struck out four times in four at-bats. Made an error, too, as LSU beat Purdue 4-2.
Most mothers, Mulkey says, would wait for the phone call from a pity-seeking son. “Baby, it’s OK; you’re just a freshman,” they would say.
“Not the message he’s going to get from me,” Mulkey says. “The message is, ‘Hell, you had that many at-bats and you couldn’t figure it out? I would have pulled you before then.’ ”
Outsiders see dysfunction. But this is sporting life between these two. Both know the perception it carries and, as you’d expect, neither cares.
Gaude functioned as a sounding board.
“And she needs that sometimes. I never tried to say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that to him,’ ” Gaude says. “Kim does so much for those kids. That is her life. She’d quit her job for those kids if she had to.”
Robertson and Mulkey are identical. Both have an uncanny desire to win — an acute assault on their athletic task at hand. Hindrances are met with agitation, Mulkey’s shown more outwardly than Robertson’s.
It began early. Makenzie, three years older than Kramer, was instructed to never let up against her younger brother. Kramer could not beat his mother in a race until he was 12. Not in one-on-one basketball, either. Not until he hit a growth spurt.
“She lets up when there’s nothing to do with sports,” Robertson says. “Maybe. She’s fun; she’s got a great personality. Loves to sit around the pool, joke around. She’s got a great sense of humor. When you see her away from sports, she’s a completely different person than anyone would imagine.”
- - -
Robertson’s cap is filled with paragraphs of social media vitriol. He’s less active there now, a sign of his maturation into the team’s unquestioned leader, No. 3 hitter and starting shortstop.
Scuffling through his first two seasons, he let the outside voices get into his head.
“People are finally seeing that I am a good player and I wasn’t just recruited because I had a big name because of her,” Robertson says. “I think people see and are respecting the fact that I am a good baseball player and have worked really hard to get to this point.”
Robertson sits in a coffee shop surrounded by studying students. He tells of a time he walked into a Texas restaurant and the hostess asked him to sign the phone book with his photo on the cover.
“I can’t even write in cursive,” he thought.
He met President George W. Bush at age 14, sat with him and First Lady Laura surrounded by Secret Service agents while his mother coached her team. Fame and criticism has followed him his entire life.
Insecurity produces fear. Mulkey says she did not raise insecure children, so such scrutiny does not deter them.
“It’s nice sometimes to show him running the bases after that home run instead of showing me in the stands cheering,” Mulkey says.
Robertson selects his words carefully while answering what has become the most sensitive question of this 30-minute chat.
When people stopped calling Peyton Manning “Archie’s boy,” that’s when the recently retired quarterback knew he had made his name. Robertson recites that story.
“I think that’s kind of what I want to do,” he says. “I want to be known as Kramer before I’m known as Kim Mulkey’s son. But I’m never going to be tired of it. It’s never something I’m not proud of. Who wouldn’t be proud of having her as a mother?”
- - -
The umpires converse and the inning finally ends. LSU got three outs on one swing of the bat. What was ruled, beyond that, is anyone’s guess.
Robertson begins the home half of the inning on deck. Mulkey does not speak when he’s on deck. In the batter’s box, that changes.
“She’s the only person I hear,” Robertson says. “I would recognize her voice, honestly, before I heard (coach Paul Mainieri’s). I’ve heard it my whole life.”
The game ends. LSU wins 5-4. Gaude smiles as she ascends the staircase to greet her surrogate grandson. Mulkey’s admittedly “about to blow a gasket,” still wondering how the umpiring crew came to some decisions.
Robertson is the last person on the field, fulfilling each reporter’s request for an interview. His family waits.
“That maturation into a visible leader that everyone can see,” Mulkey says, “that makes me smile more than anything else.”
The routine started all over again Saturday night.
“I don’t know,” Robertson says, “if there’s anything else she’d rather be doing.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome.