Just another coach.
That’s how LSU players say they’re going to think about former hitting coach Andy Cannizaro this week when he shows up for the Baton Rouge super regional in his tight-fitting maroon uniform.
They’ve gone up against their beloved ex-mentor already in similar circumstances, in the final regular-season series at Mississippi State last month. The Tigers swept the three games in Starkville to capture a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship, relegating the former SEC West-leading Bulldogs to third in the final division standings behind LSU and Arkansas.
Now the Tigers need just two wins — two wins to enter the promised land of baseball and steaks and the occasional tornado warning: the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
The same holds true for Mississippi State, of course. That’s why the Tigers have to be all about business, wrapping up the personal relationships and feelings in a wad of sports tape and sticking it on a high shelf somewhere in the Alex Box Stadium clubhouse.
“He’s just another coach this week,” slugger right fielder Greg Deichmann said. “We’ve seen him in the dugout (before). He’s just another coach. It doesn’t faze us.”
Several LSU players have maintained ties with Cannizaro since he left for State in a rush in November, talking, texting on a regular basis.
For Kramer Robertson, though, this week is a time for radio silence. The senior shortstop, LSU’s leadoff hitter with a .317 average that ranks fourth on the team, candidly praised Cannizaro earlier this season for rescuing his career as a hitter.
Maybe one day, Kramer names a son Andrew in his honor (Paul Andrew Robertson might have a nice ring to it). But for now, for him, the goal of getting to the College World Series for the first and only time in his career trumps every other consideration. For Robertson, the way to go this weekend is cordiality, not familiarity.
Asked if he would speak to Cannizaro this week, Robertson said: “I don’t think so. I’ve wished them all the best when they’re not playing LSU. You want your conference to do well. It is weird playing an SEC team next, but they’re the next team in our way.”
It can be hard to simply throw up a wall and give the cold stare to someone for whom you have warm feelings. That’s especially true for baseball, a game that lends itself to conversation between pitches — even between a hitter who just got on board and the guy tending first base.
Senior second baseman Cole Freeman said he wouldn’t try to act any differently toward Cannizaro this week.
“Me and coach Cannizaro were real close when he was here and still are,” Freeman said. “I got really close with his family. They’re great people. He helped me out a ton when I first got here with my swing and my approach. He’s one of the coaches who made me who I am today.
“I’m sure we’ll be talking. About how fun it’s going to be. He’s definitely going to be excited to be back in The Box. But when the game starts, the relationship isn’t going to affect whether I try to get a hit or not. I’m going out there to try to impress him and get a hit every time, beat him and show him how much better I’ve gotten since he left.”
Then, of course, there’s the dynamic between Cannizaro and Paul Mainieri. The LSU coach has acknowledged he wasn’t pleased with the manner in which former State baseball coach (and now athletic director) John Cohen went about gauging Cannizaro’s interest without first speaking to Mainieri.
Then there was the matter of Mainieri twice not mentioning Cannizaro by name during a news conference at the SEC tournament, something he has insisted wasn’t intended as a slight at his former right hand.
“There’s no bad blood,” Mainieri said this week. “Andy was a good worker in our program for two years and now he’s at Mississippi State. I know every year we’re going to have to face them.
“I think we’re better than we were (three) weeks ago, and I’m sure Andy thinks they’re a better team. Hopefully we go out and play up to our potential, and if we do I think we’ll be successful.”
But success for these Tigers is still inextricably tied to the man who helped recruit a lot of them and helped them become better hitters, the man who they now want to beat. As a psychological study, this regional couldn’t be more enthralling.
Just another coach?
Don’t bet on it.