Like so many of coach Tony Robichaux’s former UL Ragin’ Cajuns, B.J. Ryan heard the call.
New head coach Matt Deggs made it clear in his introductory press conference two weeks after Robichaux’s death and 25 years of running UL’s baseball program.
It was time to stand up.
That will obviously take place in a lot of different ways for those who were burdened by those words.
For former UL outfielder and pitcher and two-time Major League Baseball All-Star closer Ryan, that meant letting Deggs know he was interested in being the program’s new volunteer pitching coach.
“I’m sure I’m not the only person that felt that,” said Ryan, who was officially announced Friday. “I’m sure a lot of guys felt that urge to want to stand up and want to help. It’s kind of built into you when you’re part of that program. Guys are intertwined. From the guys who played back then to the guys who play now, we all kind of share the same emotions and the same thoughts.”
Like so many of Robichaux’s former players, the coach directed so many of his steps once he left the program.
“It meant a lot,” Ryan said. “It’s hard to put into words when you start talking about Robe. The impact that he made on me and my time when I was down there, I can’t say enough about it. It’s a special place that’s near and dear to my heart and my family.
“He was just so wise and he was such a role model for everybody around. Everybody has a story of how Robe has impacted their lives. He just gave so much.”
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Ryan’s story is certainly a unique one. He transferred to UL from Centenary College with two years of eligibility left — for Robichaux’s third and fourth seasons at UL. They would be his first two winning seasons in 1997-98.
Ryan was an outfielder and starting pitcher his junior season in Lafayette with modest success. At the plate, he hit .306 with nine doubles, four homers and 26 RBIs. On the mound, he struggled, going 1-1 with a 5.67 ERA in 10 games with six starts.
“Forever in my life, I thought I was a hitter until I realized I was a pitcher,” Ryan said.
More specifically Robichaux showed Ryan he was a reliever.
“That was a complete change for me,” Ryan explained. “I wasn’t a very good starter. I just wasn’t. Robe kind of pulled me out of that coming into my senior year and put me in a role that was important to the team and that I didn’t even know that I’d like. Once he got me in that spot, it was just something that felt so right. I loved it for the rest of my career.”
As a senior, Ryan flourished, hitting .356 with 12 homers and 39 RBIs, but more importantly, went 6-1 with a 3.16 ERA and six saves in 24 appearances (22 in relief.)
He was drafted in the 17th round by Cincinnati and went on to pitch 11 years in the majors with the Reds, Orioles and Blue Jays. Primarily a closer, he had 117 career saves with 625 strikeouts in 536.2 innings, highlighted by All-Star appearances in 2005 and '06.
“Honestly, with my pitching, Robe built a foundation for everything that I stood on when I went out on the mound,” Ryan said. “A bunch of the things I took with me into pro ball were things I learned from Robe. He’s the best baseball man that I’ve ever been around.”
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Like so many former Cajuns, Ryan is still struggling with Robichaux’s death.
“I was young when I left and as you go through your career, you sit back and finally listen to all of the words that Robe said, it was almost like he knew and he was preparing you for what was coming,” Ryan said. “It’s tough to talk about and it’s hard to put into words.”
Despite not having any college coaching experience, Ryan is convinced his ready. He coached at Benton the last two years, but he feels like all the lessons he’s learned from Robichaux and his big league coaches over the years will work even better at the college level.
“College guys are further along,” Ryan said. “The biggest change for me is that Robe never really messed with my mechanics. It was more about my mind than my mechanics. The more and more guys get older, they can better wrap their heads around that.
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“Sure you have to worry about the mechanics side and staying healthy and all of that, but having a firm foundation with the way that you think is just so important. Once you learn that and really believe it, it’ll go with you wherever you go.”
Ryan said he didn’t know Deggs personally prior to this experience, but can’t wait to work with him.
“Deggs is awesome from the time I’ve gotten to spend with him so far,” Ryan said. “He’s a guy’s guy. We have very similar mentalities in the way that we look at the game. Both of our lives were touched by Robe. That right there is a very powerful connection. In this day and age, you need that. Once you get guys who have walked down that path, it creates a special bond.”