LAFAYETTE — The crowd at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field rose to its feet. The tall kid in a No. 40 jersey with “Louisiana” across the chest strode to the mound with confidence.
He got set in his stance, stared down the target and fired. Nobody was wringing his hands over the outcome of the pitch. There was something different about this scene than what usually happens when No. 40 pitches.
This came at the beginning of the game, not the end. His delivery was unorthodox, but not in the way the usual No. 40’s is. The snarling face of a closer plying his trade was replaced by the smile of someone having, quite literally, the time of his life.
Dylan Moore, the usual No. 40, tracked the ceremonial first pitch from Justin Myrick, known to Moore and friends as Double J.
“Not JJ,” Moore mused. “Double J.”
Moore is an All-American, both in terms of the honor and the ideal. He is, by any statistical measure, one of the best college baseball pitchers in the naion. He is, by the statistical measure, one of the brightest students on campus. He’s tall and handsome and engaging. He has just about everything going for him.
Double J is disabled. He suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 4 years old after a horse kicked him in the head. He won’t ever live a normal life, not by the usual definition.
What Moore and others have done is try to make Double J’s normal as normal as possible.
The crowd chants his name. Double J doesn’t have the icy nerves of his star baseball player friend, and those nerves might’ve gotten the better of him as his pitch sailed high and wide. Moore hauled it in with a swipe of his mitt, trotted out to the mound and ensnared his best friend in a bear hug.
Moore led Double J over to the rest of his teammates, most of whom Double J met for the first time earlier in the clubhouse. He stood among their ranks next to Moore as the national anthem played over the stadium speakers, and he didn’t seem to care that he was openly weeping in front of his new friends.
“He was saying that it was the best day of his life,” sophomore pitcher Gunner Leger said.
The final notes played, the team gathered into its customary circle for its last hype session before it took the field. There in the middle of it was Double J, all 6-foot-8 of him, putting the “Ragin’ ” in Ragin’ Cajuns.
The team took the field, Double J returned to his family, whom he insists call him Justin. Double J is reserved for friends. This moment in time meant everything to him, and a crack in a mother’s voice proves it.
“I’m sorry; I’m very emotional,” Betty Myrick said, recalling the day Double J took the mound. “Because what these young men have done for my son is way beyond words I could say. Justin looks up to these young men. The way they treat him, you couldn’t ask for anything better. That experience for Justin was just …”
Betty pauses to search for the words that eluded her earlier.
“There’s just no words.”
Moore was able to find the words after that day. What might’ve been surprising to those unfamiliar with the situation was the choice of words from someone who has already compiled many memorable moments in his short career.
“This was my favorite experience at the Tigue by far,” Moore wrote in a Facebook post. “I want to thank all the fans and our coaches for making this a very special day for my best friend Double J! There are things that are more important than baseball, and this kid inspires me to be better every single day.”
But really, what can Moore be better at? When pressed, Tina Moore can identify one skill her oldest son hasn’t mastered.
“Singing might not be his forte, or dancing,” Tina Moore said. “He fancied himself to be a good singer when he was younger, but he wasn’t going to make it on ‘American Idol.’ ”
Moore has options in case that singing career doesn’t pan out. Tina Moore realized that when she had to stop getting into full gear and lowering herself into a crouch to serve as her son’s catcher when Moore started hurting her hand with his pitches at age 12.
He is a devastating closer for an elite college baseball program. He set the single-season saves record for Louisiana-Lafayette as a freshman, taking over the closer’s role in March and going on to save 13 games on his way to multiple Freshman All-America honors.
He’s been even better as a sophomore. There was a stretch of 18 games this year he’d allowed just one earned run over the span of 30.1 innings. He’s matched his own saves record while holding opponents to a .153 batting average. The Cajuns are 22-2 in games in which he has appeared.
“It’s crazy when he goes out there,” Leger said. “The whole dugout, everybody’s just relaxed. You know that he’s got it.”
By nature of his role, every time Moore appears, it is a high-leverage situation. The games are always close, the pressure always on. When he first arrived on campus, in the fall of his freshman year, he struggled to control his racing heart when he took the mound. That has since changed with the help of one of coach Tony Robichaux’s ubiquitous metaphors.
“He brought me over one day my freshman year in the fall,” Moore said. “He said, ‘You know how you’re in a car and the light turns yellow and you speed up to get through it? Well, when you’re pitching, you see the game starting to get yellow to red, you slow down. You don’t want to speed up and spin out of control. You slow down, take a deep breath and get through it that way.’ ”
Moore is unconvinced his stuff is any better than anyone else’s. He figures he gets by with the deception created by the quirky hitch in his delivery, hiding the ball just an instant from hitters trying to zero in on his release. That hitch is natural, his father Clint Moore said; he’s got the photos from youth baseball to prove it.
But it’s never really been about the stuff. Not entirely, anyway.
“His ability not to let the situation get too big is, in my opinion, incredible,” senior catcher Nick Thurman said. “I get nervous calling the pitches, I couldn’t imagine throwing them. For him to do that with the amount of confidence he does is impressive.”
That confidence had to be forged, Clint Moore said. When Moore was a youngster, he was one of the more unathletic kids on the team. Everything he has — besides the quirky delivery — was earned.
“He was a lot of times not the best player on the team,” Clint Moore said. “He had to work to become the best. He learned at an early age that he had to work harder than a lot of kids.”
Clint and Tina Moore made sure the focus of that hard work wasn’t one-dimensional. When 10-year-old Dylan told them he dreamed of being a college baseball player, they told him his grades had to be up to par. So Moore poured his energy into his studies, too, with results that were almost as predictable as his outings as the Cajuns closer: He was the valedictorian at his eighth-grade and high school graduations.
“He ultimately decided that grades were a competition just like baseball, and he wanted to beat everybody in grades, too, which he has done,” Clint Moore said.
That hasn’t changed even with the demand his college baseball schedule places on his time. Moore is double-majoring in pre-law and Spanish, takes 18 hours every semester and currently has a 4.0 GPA to show for it.
“Finals week was a pretty big grind,” Moore said. “I didn’t sleep very often. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. If you really want to keep the grades, you’ll do it. You’ll stay up and study after the game. You’re not just going to have these good grades and then, because you have a baseball game, not study and make a bad grade.”
Maybe it was these traits his high school counselors saw in him as a high school junior when they reached out to see if he’d be willing to serve as a mentor for a seventh-grader named Justin Myrick, who’d just moved to the small community of Hughes Springs.
It started casually enough. On Fridays, Moore visited with Double J, usually to play games on the Xbox Kinect, a console on which users participate through a motion sensor. The idea was to help Double J with his motor skills in a fun setting, but Moore quickly found he was the one having fun. Their relationship started to blossom, and Double J soon found himself included with Moore’s friends outside of their Friday sessions.
“We ended up spending time with him outside of school, going to movies and going bowling, just making him feel like one of us,” Moore said.
It wasn’t as if Moore was just one of the guys. He was a decorated high school pitcher who went 47-2 in his last three seasons of high school baseball, including a brilliant 17-0 campaign with a 0.91 ERA in his junior year when he met Double J. His athletic prowess gave him some social sway.
High school is a tricky time. Kids can be cruel and pick on outsiders for no reason other than them being different. Moore went out of his way to make sure Double J never felt like an outsider despite the head injury that made him unique from kids his age.
“That’s what moves me so much,” Betty Myrick said. “They take him out in public. It’s not just one-sided. It’s not just, ‘Let’s keep it at the school.’ They took him out in public and considered him one of the guys, you know? Dylan has set the precedent for kids to accept him. Once you get one kid to accept him, they all kind of fall in, too.”
With Moore clearing the way for his acceptance, Double J started to flower socially.
He started finding roles with the Hughes Springs sports teams. He sits near the baseball team bench and chases foul balls. During football season, he runs up and down the sideline waving a flag after big plays and was invited to be the team’s equipment manager. He went to prom with a senior softball player.
Moore had left for college by the time Double J reached high school, but he’s stayed in touch, and his younger brother Jake remained to carry the torch after he left. Jake gave Double J a watch for Christmas this year, and Double J refuses to go to school unless he’s wearing it.
But it’s the older Moore brother who was there from the beginning. Double J’s passcode on his phone is a combination of Moore’s uniform numbers, which he punches in every morning when he wakes up at 5:45 to text Moore — usually “Good morning” followed by a string of emojis.
It’s this enduring friendship that made Moore think to ask Robichaux if he could bring Double J to throw out a first pitch May 7.
“Once he explained everything to me, it was a real easy thing for us to allow,” Robichaux said. “Sometimes in your life, you need to understand how big of an impact they have on people with what they do.”
The Moore family didn’t simply leave it at the ceremonial first pitch. Double J and his family got the full VIP experience courtesy of the Cajuns family, getting a tour of the athletic facilities when they arrived about three hours before the first pitch. Robichaux gave him a Cajuns hat and one of Moore’s old jerseys, which the entire team signed. Wyatt Marks, the starting pitcher that day, gave him a game ball.
Clint Moore approached the fans in Section A, widely regarded as the rowdiest group in the stadium, and filled them in before Double J took the mound.
“I rounded them all up and said, ‘Some things are more important. There’s going to be a pitch made tonight that’s pretty darn important. We all need to cheer for the kid,’ ” Clint Moore said. “Boy, they did.”
The fans rose and cheered on the big kid in the No. 40 uniform. It was of little consequence that his pitch didn’t find the strike zone. What was important that day was that Double J was there with his best friend, who once again was there help him feel like a part of the group.
“These kids have made him shine,” Betty Myrick said. “It’s like the sunshine has come out.”