Baton Rouge was pummeled by rain in the hours leading up to Saturday’s opening game of the NCAA baseball tournament super regional between LSU and Coastal Carolina, but the people whom the nasty weather should’ve worried most didn’t blink.
The LSU tarp crew is a collection of current and former students responsible for keeping Alex Box Stadium in pristine playing condition, no matter what Mother Nature has in store. When the heavy stuff started to fall and lightning started zigzagging across the sky, it looked like they could be in for an arduous night.
But this crew is a well-informed one, thanks in part to how visible it is. Good luck finding another college baseball tarp crew with a Twitter account nearing 3,000 followers.
“It’s definitely taken on a life of its own in the past two or three years,” said Zach Rau, the all-volunteer group’s elder statesman, who is on his seventh year pulling tarps and dragging infields.
During last weekend’s regional tournament, the tarp crew might have gotten the most air time of any group that took the field. Its minor celebrity might have hit new heights after it endured terrible conditions to pull the tarp 18 times during the five-day tournament.
So the experts felt compelled to help prepare them for what might be in store for the super regional. Local meteorologists delivered daily reports informing the crew members that they were not likely to go through the same hell they went through during the regional round. WBRZ even came up with a graphic that estimated how many times the crew would have to pull the tarp over the weekend.
“Every day between Tuesday and Friday, we got a new tweet from a meteorologist in the area,” said LSU senior Adam Henderson, who is about to wrap up his third season with the tarp crew.
The official estimate for the super regional: Zero to five pulls.
They didn’t really need the meteorologists’ help, though. The members of the tarp crew have grown accustomed to developing skills that wouldn’t otherwise apply in their day-to-day life, so of course they have their own radar guy.
“Joey Vinning is sort of our amateur meteorologist,” Rau said. “He’s the one that kind of keeps everybody clued in.”
There is not one member of the group who aims to become a field and turf manager; this isn’t on-the-job training. They pull the tarp, drag the infield, paint the foul lines, stencil the logos and dry out wet spots on the field for different, harder-to-explain reasons.
“It’s a volunteer thing; we’re not professionals,” Henderson said. “Just off the top of my head, we’ve got an aspiring journalist, a finance major who just graduated. We’ve got a fiscal analyst, we’ve got two engineers and just some kids in undergrad trying to get out of the Lockett (Hall) basement.”
Rau, who studied history as an undergrad, said he was at virtually every home game from 2010-14 before graduation, and a professional career limited his time to help the tarp crew.
He is an LSU fan. He enjoys being able to hear the chatter between players and coaches in the dugout from his spot near the field. He enjoys how intimate spacious Alex Box Stadium feels when he’s standing near the on deck circle.
But he also gets to spend time with his friends during the game.
“It’s weird, because guys like (Vinning) and Andy Robichaux, I was in band with them for two or three years, and I’m actually closer to them now since I started doing this,” Rau said. “We do a lot of things together, we tailgate for football together, we hang out all weekend if we can.
“It’s definitely more than just an organization where you’re affiliated. We’re all really good friends, and that’s kind of what sort of separates it. It’s almost like a team in that regard. You kind of do everything together. I don’t know if it’s like that at other ballparks.”
Sometimes, they meet in a parking lot and dance.
The first time the tarp crew got Alex Box Stadium going with a mid-inning dance routine came in 2012. Rau said it started as a joke. Nobody was really planning on dropping his tools in the middle of dragging the infield dirt to break out in a choreographed dance routine.
That was until Eric Fasbender, the former assistant director of athletic facilities and grounds, said they should do it. So they came up with a hasty routine and performed a number. They would be better prepared for the ensuing dances.
“Basically, someone would think of something during the week, we would get there early, we’d pump some music through someone’s stereo system in their truck or car out in the parking lot, learn it out there where nobody could really see us do it,” Rau said. “Then we would run through it the fourth inning before we had to go drag so it was fresh in everybody’s head.”
Over the course of the past couple of seasons, dancing has become the group’s calling card. But there are rules.
“The first thing we’re asked when we go into the stadium is, ‘Are y’all dancing tonight?’ ” Henderson said. “We try to limit that. We can’t dance this weekend, and we don’t dance whenever there’s rain imminent. Ultimately that’s been what people hone in on. We only get cheers for two things: whenever we dance and whenever we pull the tarp off. Hopefully we don’t have to pull the tarp off anymore this season.”
As of early Sunday night, it appeared the meteorologists’ prognostication was going to be spot on. The tarp crew got through Saturday’s game without having to pull the tarp, and some ominous clouds turned lighter as game time approached Sunday.
But the tarp crew would have been ready if the skies did open. They might have even found a way to enjoy it.
“No one is there because they have to be,” Rau said. “Genuinely, everybody who is there wants to be there. I think all of us come from backgrounds where we were part of some sort of team.
“You get to be part of a team unto yourself, but not only that, you get to support the team on the field and you get to support LSU baseball.
“That’s sort of the one thing I like to get across: We’re there because we want to be there. We get something out of it more than just catching the game — you have a team feeling about the whole thing. That’s what makes it special.”