Baseball is a funny game.
Funny strange. And funny ha ha.
You can hit the ball like it’s been launched out of battleship turret, and it finds a glove for an out.
You can just barely tick a piece of the ball, and it goes for a triple.
To keep from getting mentally undone by the inherent unfairness of it all and the slag heap of games they must pick through, baseball players will do and say some pretty odd things to maintain the equilibrium between relaxation and concentration.
Even in the midst of intense, do-or-die pressure, the kind LSU and UL-Lafayette will be experiencing in this weekend’s NCAA super regional at Alex Box Stadium, there will still be plenty of hilarity and weirdness to be found.
In the LSU dugout, the question might be, “How’s the bear?”
In the UL-Lafayette dugout, the question might be, “How’s my beard?”
Earlier this season, a group of LSU players were strolling through the Mall of Louisiana when they happened by the Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Throwing caution and their status as cool college dudes to the wind, they bought a bear. And named it Lil Brown Suga. And started bringing Mr. LBS to their games.
Lil Brown Suga has a perch in the LSU dugout. He goes on road trips. He has a Twitter account with nearly 2,100 followers (this writer included). He’s cousins with (he claims) Ted the bear of movie sequel fame.
“We don’t know if it’s officially good luck or not, or if our team started clicking, but we seemed to start playing good baseball since we brought him around,” said pitcher Zac Person, who is considered by his Tigers teammates to be Lil Brown Suga’s prime guardian. “If it’s good luck, we don’t want to get rid of it. We don’t want to risk it. We’ll keep him around as long as we’re winning.”
Everyone loves winning, but could you imagine LSU football coach Les Miles or UL-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth allowing his players to keep a stuffed bear on the bench?
Yet these are just the sort of things baseball coaches have to embrace — or at least put up with.
“My personal philosophy is, within reason, I want the kids to have fun,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “If it keeps them loose and laughing, they’ll play better.”
Last season, few teams played better than the Ragin’ Cajuns. They went 58-10, earning a national seed and the right to host an NCAA super regional at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field in Lafayette.
Winning for the Cajuns bred an aversion to shaving. Beards became as much a part of the Cajuns’ uniform as caps and cleats. Some were better than others. Former second baseman Jace Conrad’s beard was rumored to be condo for critters.
When UL-Lafayette’s season ended up one win short of the College World Series, the razors came out.
But in April after a win at Southern, coach Tony Robichaux agreed to welcome back the facial fuzz.
“About that time the freshman pitchers started to gain some experience and momentum. We told them, if you wanted to do it from this point, that’s fine — as long as there’s no craziness or stupidness,” said Robichaux, who doesn’t truck with either.
Again, some beards are better than others. Shortstop Blake Trahan sports a trimmed-up look, while right fielder Dylan Butler’s goatee is something he calls a “mini Jace Conrad.”
“We lost all those guys last year, so we came into this season and Coach Robichaux said we would have to earn the beards,” Trahan said. “He thinks we have earned them, so we’ve started to grow them back, and hopefully we’ll wear them a bit longer.”
The Tigers might be tempted to say that’s crazy, since they think they’re going to win the super regional just as much as the Cajuns do.
When LSU players hit a double or better, they make a swirling crazy hand gesture as they settle into their base.
Baseball and softball players often adopt some sort of signal as the season wears on. Tigers shortstop Alex Bregman is the instigator of this particular sign language. It means, “The pitcher was crazy to throw me that pitch.”
“It’s kind of caught on,” Bregman said. “The (LSU) softball team started doing it. People in the stands are doing it. I went to the Miracle League (on Tuesday night, a baseball league for children with disabilities) and one of the kids was doing it. It’s kind of spread rapidly. I like it.”
What if a pitcher gets mad for the hand signals and throws at you next time up?
“He’d be crazy for doing that, too,” Bregman said with a grin, “because we’ve got guys who throw harder.”
If all the bears and beards and gestures seem a little cray cray, well it is, especially considering this weekend’s series could be the biggest in Louisiana since Tulane beat LSU in the 2001 super regional at Zephyr Field.
But know this: The beards or the bear will be rocking Omaha, Nebraska, next weekend in the CWS.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.