Responding to a question about how his current senior class compares to past classes, Paul Mainieri reflected on the somewhat ridiculous nature of collegiate coaching.
“I get judged as a coach by the efforts of these young people. What a business,” Manieri said. “I’m judged whether or not I’m any good based on what 18- to 22-year-olds do.”
Mainieri’s comments weren’t meant as a gripe. Rather, he was articulating why the success of his LSU baseball teams has much more to do with his players than anything he does as a coach.
That is why waving farewell to a senior, or a draft-eligible junior, is so difficult for him.
“When somebody contributes to your success a lot and they’ve impacted your life (and) they’ve enriched your life, and then when you have to say goodbye to them, it’s really kind of a sad thing,” Mainieri said. “It’s a double-edged sword. You fall in the love with these kids, and then they leave the nest and they go off. But you’re proud of them, and I’m very proud that I have great relationships with so many of my former players that stay in touch with me on a regular basis.
“To me, that’s why I went into this profession, and that’s what makes me feel successful — that what they did when they were here matters to them and still helps them later on in life.”
Mainieri hopes he doesn’t have to say goodbye to eight seniors and a few draft-eligible juniors — like Alex Lange, Greg Deichmann, Michael Papierski and Hunter Kiel — until LSU claims its seventh national championship. But when the Tigers took the field Saturday night against Mississippi State in the Baton Rouge super regional, the end had arrived for this prolific bunch, the final few games at Alex Box Stadium.
The end of baseball in Baton Rouge felt real to players in early May, when the Tigers hosted South Carolina for the regular-season home finale. At the time, LSU’s chances at hosting a regional, let alone a super regional, were far from certain.
The Tigers still believed they could go a late-season run, and they did, winning 16 of their final 18 games before the NCAA tournament. But they embraced the possibility that they would no longer play a home game at The Box.
“We knew some things had to play out a certain way,” Deichmann said. “But ... we took advantage of every opportunity and were able to put ourselves in a good position to play here in the postseason. So at that time, it was kind of a real feeling — but still, in the back of our minds, it’s like we knew that we had a few more games here.”
Mainieri had been preparing seniors like Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman for this moment since February. Before games, while the team stretched, Mainieri would walk up to Freeman and Robertson and reminded them that they had a dwindling number of weeks at The Box.
“They’d be like, ‘C’mon, coach. Stop it,’ " Mainieri said. “Or it would be a midweek game, and I’d say, ‘This is going to be the last time you’re going to play against this team.’ So I’m already preparing them for the inevitable, which is this weekend. There’s a finality about it, and this place has meant an awful lot to these kids.”
Mainieri did this to mitigate the emotions the upperclassmen are sure to feel this weekend. And the 11th-year coach was frank: Only winning the super regional and advancing to the College World Series will make that easier to swallow.
“Playing my last two or three games here going out a winner is a lot, lot different than going out on the opposite end,” Freeman said. “I’m just going to trying to embrace it. I’m going to try to play the best two or three games of my life.”
Though he said he doesn’t need anymore motivation to play well against the Bulldogs, Robertson admitted the final weekend at The Box is meaningful to him.
For a player who struggled in his first two years at LSU and didn’t assume a full-time starting role until last season, this weekend is a culmination of his time in Baton Rouge — one he hopes is inspirational to players who don’t succeed at the beginning of their careers.
Ironically, many of the veteran contributors now — like Deichmann, Robertson, Freeman and Papierski — weren’t on the team or didn’t play major roles when the Tigers last went to Omaha, Nebraska, in 2015.
“When that last at-bat comes, hopefully I’ll know it’s my last at-bat, and hopefully I’ll be able to soak it all in and cherish the moment,” Robertson said. “It will be a cool experience for me. What better way to go out than your last game at Alex Box to send you to Omaha. That will be pretty special, something you dream about. We have an opportunity to do that now, and you can’t write it up any better than that.”