Baseball can be incredibly rewarding, and baseball can be incredibly cruel.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri knows this, perhaps better than anybody around these parts. The rewards are more plentiful at a place like LSU, where success is demanded and almost always delivered. But it's the cruelty that lingers.
Before going into this season, let’s go back to before it started. It was almost a year ago when Mainieri was introducing his staff to a new reporter — yours truly. Those were good times for Mainieri.
Last summer, Mainieri’s annual pay crossed the $1 million threshold, making him a member of an elite group in college baseball. That’s a reward for a job well done, but a job well done is also a reward in itself, and Mainieri has experienced that plenty in his LSU tenure.
As he sat in his office that day, he was a millionaire who in 10 years had coached four teams that made it to the College World Series, one more that fell one win shy and three teams that had won 50 games.
Even so, as Mainieri sat in his office with his assistants on a late summer day in 2016, a few weeks before the start of fall practice for what everyone figured would be a very good team, he lamented the times his team fell short.
Mainieri won a national championship in 2009, his third year on the job. Another has proved elusive, in spite of his team's best efforts.
It was a late summer day, roughly 10 months before a national champion would be crowned. LSU was a few months removed from a heartbreaking defeat on its own diamond. Mainieri dredged up the painful times that never seem to be too far from his thoughts.
The 2013 team was one of the best ever at LSU. It roared into Omaha with a 57-9 record. It had the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year in Aaron Nola and the national Freshman of the Year in Alex Bregman.
It went 0-2 in Omaha, scoring a measly three runs.
Two years later, LSU reloaded. Bregman was a junior and a Golden Spikes Award finalist, leading the way for a team that led the SEC with a .314 batting average. The Tigers were 53-10 when they arrived in Omaha in 2015.
They sandwiched a win against Cal State Fullerton between two lopsided losses to TCU.
These losses and many more still eat at Mainieri. He has won it all, and he has had great teams come up short. He sat in his office that late summer day and ticked through the years, great though they were, that did not end appropriately.
He is intimately familiar with the dichotomy of his sport, the two-faced nature of it. He understands how fickle baseball is, how all it takes is one unfortunate injury, one bad or, yes, even unlucky day for those great hopes to unravel.
That captures the 2017 CWS, does it not?
Had Eric Walker not gotten hurt, LSU may not have been in a position where it was starting little-used Russell Reynolds in Game 1 of the championship series. Maybe those three runs LSU scored in Game 1 would have been enough.
Had LSU not committed those costly errors early in Game 2, maybe the Tigers don’t fall into an early hole. If Jake Slaughter’s slide were just a little closer to second base or Florida first baseman JJ Schwarz’s throw was just a little off-line to the plate, maybe LSU doesn’t lose Game 2.
If LSU gets to Alex Lange in Game 3, who in their right mind isn’t going to pick the Tigers?
Those things are within the realm of possibility, but they did not happen. It was a very good LSU team, finishing 52-20, but it narrowly missed its chance to be considered among the greats.
The 17-game winning streak near the end of the year, the back-to-back defeats of "unbeatable" Oregon State to reach the championship series — those should be the things remembered about this team. Unfortunately, that’s not the way this usually works.
When enough time has passed to consider this team's place in history, perhaps a few months from now when it is getting ready for fall practice, thoughts instead will focus on the narrow gap that separated the 2017 team from LSU's six great ones.
In this difficult game, it's the cruelty that lingers.