LAFAYETTE — Time travel is possible.
It’s June 2, 2015, and UL-Lafayette assistant coach Anthony Babineaux is reclining in his office chair, but he isn’t really there. His eyes are focused on something far away, on June 4, 2000, in Columbia, South Carolina, to be precise. His body is on autopilot, mimicking the movements from that time and place 15 years ago.
Time is relative, too. He is reliving the euphoric moment when the Cajuns clinched a trip to Omaha, the grounder to first base that took maybe 3 seconds in real time.
What is real time when the moment is unreal? That 3-second moment is a lifetime; Babineaux hangs somewhere on the dividing line between bliss and heartbreak.
Backup first baseman Scott Atwood moves to his right to field a ball with his backhand. Pitcher Gordon O’Brien and the South Carolina batter race each other toward first base.
Babineaux’s hands suddenly drop down at his sides, holding the phantom arms of a much younger Tony Robichaux next to him. In those three seconds, the play is unfolding so slowly that Babineaux has time to form complete thoughts.
“Make the exchange, make the exchange,” Babineaux says.
Doubt creeps into his mind. What if Atwood botches the flip to first base? What if O’Brien misses the bag? His heartbeat races.
Atwood holds up his glove, signaling to O’Brien he’s got it, that no throw would be necessary. He steps on the bag, sealing a Cajuns win. Babineaux comes back to present day, smiling like a much younger version of himself.
No, Babineaux says, he can’t possibly believe 15 years have gone by since the Cajuns became the darlings of the college baseball world by knocking off the titanic Gamecocks on their home field, not when he can so vividly picture every minute detail.
“I’m here to tell you, you have events in your life that you can replay as if they’re happening right now,” Babineaux says.
Maybe it’s that intimate and immediate recall that has some associated with that team, Babineaux included, who feel as if it’s happening all over again.
SOMETHING SPECIAL HERE
They were losers first.
History is written by winners, the text reserved for the moments that captured the imagination like the super regional win against the top-ranked Gamecocks. What sometimes slips through the cracks are the moments that truly define why they were winners.
The Cajuns were spinning their wheels in a nine-game losing streak. With each new day, they figured they were ready to bust out of the slump, only to see it extended again. Something needed to happen.
“We told them, ‘We’ll see you tomorrow morning at 5:30. Don’t bring your bats and your gloves,’ ” Robichaux said. “They knew what that meant.”
The staff told the players to meet not at the baseball field, but at the track adjacent to it. They were going to run the losing streak off. The coaches arrived at the track at 5:30 and didn’t see a single car in the parking lot.
Babineaux and Robichaux both arrived at the same word: Revolt.
The coaches stood in the empty parking lot, maybe their palms were starting to sweat from the mutiny on their hands. Then they heard the pitter-patter of feet slapping pavement in the distance.
The team had gathered at pitcher Scott Dohmann’s apartment in the Bayou Shadows complex, roughly a mile away from the track. They knew what was coming to them, alright.
“It was a way of us as a team coming together and saying, ‘We’re going to one up it. We’re going to up the ante on this early workout. We’re going to run there, and we’ll be warmed up when we get there,’ ” Dohmann said.
The team didn’t play a game that day. They were still stuck in a nine-game losing streak when they finished the workout. But the tide had turned. Despite their losing streak, they knew Omaha wasn’t a pipe dream. They knew it was attainable because almost the exact same team fell one win shy of the College World Series in 1999.
As they turned the corner of Congress Street and Bertrand Drive in the predawn darkness, they proved they weren’t going to cede that goal to adversity.
“As coaches, we all looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got something special here,’ ” Robichaux said. “Little did I know what that really meant.”
ANDY’S GOING TO GET ’EM
Adversity found the Cajuns again in Columbia. They were on the brink of elimination after losing the first game of the super regional despite a valiant effort from ace pitcher Justin Gabriel. Obviously, with their season on the line, Robichaux would turn to Dohmann — an All-American right-hander — for the second game of the series.
Robichaux needed to make a tough decision, one he knew he’d be crushed for if it went wrong, but his baseball gut told him he had to make it. He called Dohmann into his hotel room the morning of the second game. He told soft-throwing, left-hander Andy Gros to come with him.
“I told them that we were going to coach to try to win, not coach like we were glad that we were here,” Robichaux said. “But to do it, it’s going to take an out-of-the-box decision, going with a true freshman.
“I didn’t know how Scotty was going to take it, but he stood up, patted Andy on the back and said, ‘Coach, Andy’s going to get ’em.’ ”
The reasoning was as simple as it was unexpected. South Carolina had spent the entire season crushing the power arms of the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks had success against players like Dohmann because it was what they were used to seeing, so Robichaux threw a wrench into their routine.
“I kind of looked to my right and I see Scott, a guy I’ve always looked up to,” Gros said. “In front of me, I had coach Robe, another guy I’ve always looked up to. He’s relying on me to get the ball to Scott the next day.
“To be 19 years old and trusted with that from guys with that standard, it really meant the world to me. It felt awesome to be trusted like that.”
Gros got off to a rocky start. The Gamecocks connected for three hits in the first inning and threatened to hang a crooked number on the scoreboard. At one point, Dohmann laced up his cleats and got ready to start warming up.
“I had my spikes very nearby,” Dohmann said. “At one point in the first inning, I went and put them on. I wasn’t going to sit by and watch if things got hairy. At one point, I did lace them up because it was getting a little dicey.”
He never came in, neither did any of his teammates. After limiting the damage to one run in the first, Gros held the Gamecocks scoreless over the final eight innings to tie the series at one game apiece. He repaid the Cajuns’ trust in him and got it to Dohmann for a decisive Game 3.
Dohmann had his own demons to get over.
The Cajuns were one win away from Omaha in the 1999 season after winning the first game of the Rice super regional. Dohmann took the mound for the second game aiming to punch the Cajuns’ ticket.
They lost 10-1, eventually going on to lose the super regional.
“I was handed a golden baseball to get us to Omaha, and I couldn’t get it done,” Dohmann said. “I felt like that was all on my shoulders.”
The game literally stayed with Dohmann for the next year.
“When we got back, Dohmann had put the box score in his locker of the game he didn’t win, and he made a vow: If I ever have an opportunity again to pitch us to Omaha, I’m going to get it done,” Robichaux said. “… Lo and behold, a year later, he has a chance to pitch us to Omaha, and he does it.”
Both Dohmann and his counterpart, South Carolina’s Scott Barber, allowed only one hit in the first five innings. But Dohmann left the game with a 3-2 lead in the seventh. With one out in the eighth, O’Brien came in.
Five outs later, exactly 15 years ago today, the Cajuns clinched a spot in Omaha as Babineaux and Robichaux watched their euphoria unfold in slow motion.
HERE WE GO AGAIN
On the 15th anniversary of the day they shocked the college baseball world, the Cajuns will get on a bus and travel east again to face another seemingly unbeatable Southeastern Conference team, this time in the form of 51-10 LSU.
There are several circumstantial similarities between this year’s team and the 2015 team. Some, maybe most, should be dismissed as pure coincidence. But in some cases, they’re kind of frightening.
In 2000, Cajuns third baseman Nathan Nelson broke his hamate bone in his wrist and was forced to miss about month while he recovered.
“I remember his very first at bat back, the first pitch he saw, he hit it off the old scoreboard out in left field,” Babineaux said.
Fifteen years later, another Cajuns third baseman, Evan Powell, broke his hamate bone. After about a month on the shelf, he returned to the lineup and hit the first pitch he saw over the wall in left field for a home run.
In the grand scheme of things, they were two completely unrelated plays that had no bearing on the outcome of either season. Some players on the 2015 squad weren’t able to recite their ABCs when the Cajuns punched their ticket to Omaha in 2000.
But in the cosmic sense that appeals to baseball players and fans alike, there seems to be a feeling the two teams are connected some way.
Babineaux is in two places at once. He’s in South Carolina reliving the joy of reaching his sport’s highest stage. And he’s in Louisiana, prepping for the next great test.
He can’t believe 15 years have gone by partly because he can still see everything clearly, partly because he feels its still happening.