“Rebuilding” is a Rated-R word when it comes to LSU baseball.
Considering how many kids are likely to be in the house any given day or night the Tigers are playing at Alex Box Stadium, best to not use it at all.
No one wants to hear it, anyway. Paul Mainieri knows that as well as anyone, even in a year like 2016 when his team is re…tooling after losing eight of nine everyday position players to the pros.
“Do you think our fans or the people that care about LSU baseball want to hear about a rebuilding year?” the LSU coach asked during Friday’s preseason media day activities. “Come on. That doesn’t exist at LSU.”
Indeed it does not. Not for baseball, anyway.
Over with men’s basketball, they’re eager to include the fact that those Tigers rank 329th of 351 Division I teams in terms of experience in their narrative. But at The Box, there’s no room for such talk. Just like it isn’t an excuse for Kentucky basketball or with that SEC football team that just won the national title whose name is also an R-rated word around these parts.
LSU is to SEC baseball what Kentucky is to SEC basketball and what Ala … — that team in Tuscaloosa — is to SEC football. The expectations never relent.
LSU has won 23 titles of one stripe or another in Mainieri’s first nine years here. The Tigers lead the nation in wins over the past eight years (387) and the past four years (204), and their 54 victories in 2015 was tops in Division I.
But only one of those 54 wins came in the College World Series. By that standard, the purple-and-gold standard in Tigertown, this LSU team didn’t measure up.
They don’t call the big billboard in right field “The Intimidator” for nothing. It’s a constant reminder to the Tigers and their foes alike of the six national championships LSU has won, the six seasons by which all other LSU baseball seasons and achievements are judged.
So the 2015 Tigers led the nation in wins, won the SEC regular-season championship and returned to Omaha for the 17th time? That’s nice. A similar season would be considered “nice” at LSU this year, too.
But until the Tigers add the year “2016” to that billboard — or 2017 or 20-whatever — well, don’t expect a parade.
That’s the deal. That’s what it’s like when you wear the blue basketball jersey up in Lexington or the crimson football jersey in Tuscaloosa or the letters “LSU” across your chest in baseball here. Because they’ve been the best so often, nothing less than the best is going to do ever again.
The Tigers, to their credit, understand that. They accept that. Or they wouldn’t be playing here.
“When you put that jersey on over your head and it says ‘LSU’ across or Tigers across your chest, you realize what you’re representing,” Mainieri said. “You’re representing a state. You’re representing a university. You’re representing a community. But you’re also representing a lot of great ballplayers that came before you, and you expect yourself to perform at that level.”
You can’t set foot at The Box without stepping onto or running into the program’s history. It’s Skip Bertman Field, after all, named after the coach who was architect of this still-robust dynasty. This year’s group of Tigers couldn’t take batting practice Friday without catching a glimpse of legendary LSU pitcher-turned-broadcaster Ben McDonald.
It hits you right in the face. Alex Lange may have had the freshman season of all seasons last year, going 12-0 with a 1.97 ERA. But he still has two years to go. He’s been called the next McDonald at LSU, but he isn’t Big Ben yet.
“We have former major leaguers come around here all the time,” said junior outfielder Jake Fraley, the “lone” in the phrase “lone returning starter” at LSU. “It makes you realize what a blessing it is to play at a school like this.”
As a reminder, Mainieri held a refresher course for his newcomers the other day so they’re up to speed on the entire decorated history of LSU baseball.
“You know, these kids are 18 years old,” Mainieri said. “Many of them don’t know who Skip Bertman is.”
Blasphemy? Perhaps, but no less accurate.
“So I had to tell them the history of who Ben McDonald was and this great game and that great game and these great players, and they go in there and they start to – their eyes get as big as grapefruits and they start to realize, ‘Wow, I need to step it up a little bit because we’ve got a great tradition here at this school,’ ” Mainieri said.
A tradition that doesn’t recognize rebuilding.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.