About an hour before a game in late March, Paul Mainieri found another reminder of his father, Demie. They had shown up often the previous two weeks.
This time, Mainieri stood outside the dugout at Dudy Noble Field in Starkville, Mississippi. He was telling the history of LSU’s rivalry with Mississippi State when he stopped and pointed into the stands.
Mainieri stared at an older man seated in the crowd. The man wore sunglasses and a maroon hat, but he looked like Mainieri’s father. Same bulbous nose. Same round belly.
Mainieri pulled a credential out of his back pocket. The purple and gold paper had Demie’s name across the front.
Two weeks earlier, after Demie had died, Mainieri’s brother Jimmy gave him their father’s credential. Mainieri had ordered all-access passes for his family every season, even when Demie’s health declined because of dementia. Mainieri had kept it in his pocket the nine games since Demie’s death. He laminated it so the paper didn’t fray.
Mainieri managed a slight smile as he looked at the man in the stands. Demie taught him everything he knew. Demie was the most influential person in his son’s life, his best friend and the reason he became a coach. They talked every day before Demie’s memory faded.
“I’m seeing his face everywhere,” Mainieri said, and he put the credential back in his pocket.
He resumed his story about the rivalry, his focus returning to LSU’s opponent. The metallic sounds of batting practice continued behind him.
• • •
For three decades beginning in 1960, Demie coached the baseball team and served as the athletic director at Dade County Junior College. (The school's name was later changed to Miami Dade Community College.) Once a year, Demie took his family on the team bus. The boys, Paul and Jimmy, sat in the luggage compartment.
Throughout Mainieri’s childhood, his parents emphasized the importance of helping others. They did not accept racism or prejudice. During one of those team trips, Mainieri and his brother watched as their father argued for an African-American player to use a segregated bathroom.
Raised in an Italian neighborhood in New Jersey, Demie was the youngest of 11 children. He married a farmer’s daughter from West Virginia named Rosetta, and they raised five kids.
Mainieri never heard his father curse. “Treat others like you want to be treated,” Demie would say in a thick New Jersey accent. Demie thought his mother made up the phrase.
“If he had told me the world was flat, I would have believed him,” Mainieri said. “Anything he said was gold.”
As a coach, Demie won more than 1,000 games and the 1964 junior college national championship. He always made it home for dinner.
The family didn’t have a lot of money, but the children never knew that. They ate spaghetti about four times a week. Corn was dessert. And Demie ate bare-chested because he didn’t want to spill sauce on his shirt.
Paul Mainieri loved baseball just like his father. Rosetta sewed him a Miami Dade uniform, and he spent games as the bat boy. One day when Mainieri was 4 years old, his mother couldn’t take him to the field. Mainieri cried. He begged to go. Demie agreed to let him sit in the dugout.
“Don't you leave Daddy's side,” Rosetta told her son as he walked out the door. “Go everywhere Daddy goes.”
When Demie walked onto the mound to talk to the pitcher, Mainieri followed him. Demie felt somebody tug on his leg. He turned around.
“What are you doing here?” Demie asked.
“Mom told me to stay with you,” Mainieri replied.
They grew older, and Mainieri became an athlete, the quarterback of his high school football team. Once, his head coach chewed him out the day after a game the team should have won. Mainieri came home and slunk to his room.
When Demie arrived, Rosetta told him to check on their son. Demie walked into the room. He asked what happened. Mainieri explained.
“What are you going to do about it?” Demie said. “Are you going to let him be right about you, or are you going to prove to him you're more than what he told you you were today?”
One game later that season, Mainieri played well but the team lost in the final seconds. As Mainieri walked off the field, he lowered his head. Tears rolled down his checks. But the coach put his arm around Mainieri and complimented his play. They walked toward the locker room, and while the coach spoke, Mainieri thought about his father.
Mainieri played college baseball, one year at LSU, one year for his father at Miami Dade and two years at the University of New Orleans. He met a woman named Karen, an LSU cheerleader. They married after his senior year. Mainieri asked his dad to serve as his best man.
“Your best man is supposed to be your best friend, I guess,” Mainieri said. “My best friend was my dad.”
• • •
As Mainieri began his coaching career, following his father into the profession, he and Karen lived in a one-bedroom apartment attached to Demie and Rosetta’s house. They stayed there for parts of six years. Their oldest of Mainieri’s four children, Nicholas, sometimes played in the backyard with a plastic baseball bat.
When Mainieri became head coach at the Air Force Academy and then Notre Dame, Demie and Rosetta followed.
“At one time," Rosetta said, laughing, "we had three houses."
On a sunny day this April, one month after Demie died, Karen and Rosetta sat in the living room of a Baton Rouge home. Karen opened the doors to the backyard, and wind chimes rustled on the patio. They moved here after Mainieri became LSU's coach in 2007. A brown and yellow canary chirped inside a cage. They named it Dean Martin.
Karen and Rosetta spoke, remembering that Demie ate shirtless the first time he met Karen and that he never missed Catholic Mass. Demie loved chocolate ice cream. He fished with Jimmy, who didn’t play baseball.
Mainieri tried to raise his children the way his father raised him, with unconditional love and support of their passions. Mainieri took them on road trips and brought them to baseball games. He became a father, but he never stopped being a son. The only game Mainieri has missed during his coaching career was for Demie’s retirement party at Miami Dade. He gave the final toast.
“Now all the nice things we've said doesn't mean they’re saints,” Rosetta said.
The dementia started about five years ago, ripping Demie’s memories from him. The family watched as he distanced himself, receding into his mind. He had his moments. One day he lectured nurses on the NCAA. Mainieri hung photos around Demie’s room, trying to spark his brain. The disease did not relent.
“As hard as it was, those years of his decline,” Karen said, “it's still such a shock when they leave you, even when you know it's coming.”
“And yet they told me that in the dementia unit he was in,” Rosetta said, “he spent an hour one day teaching people how to throw a baseball.”
• • •
The morning of Wednesday, March 13, Mainieri drove toward Alex Box Stadium. LSU had lost to Northwestern State the night before. The team returned to Baton Rouge at midnight. The coaching staff talked into the morning, discussing how to right the season. LSU had another game that night.
A few hours later, Mainieri was driving to a doctor’s appointment in his gold Escalade. Jimmy called him.
When Demie’s dementia began, Jimmy retired to take care of his father. A couple years ago, Demie and Rosetta moved to Baton Rouge. They lived in a retirement community. About a week before Demie died, Jimmy convinced the nurses to let Demie sleep more. He stayed by his father’s side from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for five straight days.
“Thank you for everything you've done,” Demie said on the fifth day.
Two days later, as Jimmy brought coffee to Rosetta’s room, they got a call from the staff that Demie had fallen. They needed to get to Demie’s room as soon as possible. Demie died five minutes before they arrived. He was 90 years old.
Jimmy called his brother, and Mainieri turned around the car. Driving down Perkins Road, he pulled into a parking lot. He called Karen. On the other end of the line, she heard heavy breathing. Mainieri wasn’t speaking.
“Are you OK?” Karen said. “Are you in an accident? What's wrong?”
Mainieri spit out the words. They met at the retirement home. For the next three hours, the family stayed in Demie’s room. Mainieri sat at the foot of Demie’s bed, staring at his father and the pictures he had hung on the walls. It looked like Demie was sleeping.
A few hours later, Mainieri decided to coach LSU’s game that night. Karen begged him not to go.
“I had to,” Mainieri said. “My dad would've been mad at me. I can hear him now saying, ‘Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get back to work. Let's go. It's all about the kids. They're counting on you. You need to be there for them.’ That's what he would have said, so I really didn't have a choice.”
With Demie’s credential in his back pocket, Mainieri walked onto the field while LSU took batting practice. He watched, black sunglasses shading his eyes, his hands placed on his hips.
LSU held a moment of silence in Demie’s honor before the national anthem. Public address announcer and sports information director Bill Franques read a list of Demie’s accomplishments. And during one break between innings, “My Way” by Frank Sinatra played over the loudspeakers. Demie’s favorite song.
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way
Mainieri stayed in the dugout throughout the game. He consulted coaches and encouraged players, but his assistants handled the lineup exchange and pitching changes.
After the game, Mainieri asked Franques about the song. Country and pop music always filled the playlist at Alex Box — never something from Sinatra. Franques said he didn’t know how it happened. They picked a playlist, and somehow, the song played. Demie's song.
“This was Frank,” Karen said, “So we knew he was there.”
• • •
The family planned the visitation and the funeral at the end of the weekend. First, LSU opened its Southeastern Conference schedule against Kentucky. Before Saturday’s doubleheader, Mainieri wrangled his grandchildren into a photo outside the dugout.
“This is the first game my dad's been able to watch in a couple years,” Mainieri told Nicholas.
The Tigers won both games, the second in extra innings. Mainieri called a hit-and-run, setting up LSU with loaded bases. Giovanni DiGiacomo walked for the winning run to score.
“My dad didn’t teach me to be afraid,” Mainieri said. “That’s for sure.”
After LSU swept the series Sunday, Mainieri changed into a suit. He rushed to the first of two visitations. Hundreds of people came over the next two days. Former players. Friends. Family. People filled St. Aloysius Church, and Mainieri realized the influence Demie had on so many other people.
They buried Demie on a Monday afternoon. Mainieri returned to the grave the next morning. He was alone, just him and his father, as the sun rose in the sky and dew topped the grass. Beside them, a large hole had been dug into the ground for the next grave. Mainieri looked inside. It was sealed with cement. The sight comforted him, showing him Demie was protected like that.
Mainieri spoke to his father. He had tried to not feel sorry for himself, knowing other people mourned Demie’s death just as much. He had a team to coach and a family to guide. But he missed his dad. Alone in the graveyard, Mainieri let himself cry. He spent about 45 minutes with his father. Then he drove back to Alex Box Stadium and returned to work.
A few weeks later, Mainieri sat inside his office. Memorabilia covered the walls. He had positioned his father’s name plate from Miami Dade so he could see it better from his desk. One picture showed the field at St. Thomas University, where Paul Mainieri held his first job as a college coach. The school named the field after him. Mainieri asked to include his middle name: Demie.
“People tell me — my sweet secretary, Virginia (Robertson), said to me yesterday, 'You're …”
Mainieri paused. Seven seconds passed.
“Ah, s***,” he said. Tears welled in his eyes. “Sorry.”
Mainieri gathered himself.
“She comes in yesterday and she had laminated the credential for me. I thanked her for it. She said, ‘You're a lot like him.’ For me, there's no greater compliment. But I don't think I'm half the man my dad was. I'm trying, but to me he was in another category.”
• • •
The season continued, one of the most difficult in Mainieri’s 37-year career. He thought about Demie, trying to process the death of his best friend while leading a team that struggled until the end of the regular season. He had called Demie after almost every game during his career. The past few months, he called his sons, Nicholas and Tommy, and his friends.
Nicholas, who played for his dad at Notre Dame, became a writer. Tommy’s in dental school at LSU, and he watched most of the games this year from the dugout. They talked about the season, sounding boards for Mainieri’s thoughts on the team.
“I don't know how much it helps him,” Nicholas said, “but I like being able to listen. He does the same thing for me, too.”
The Tigers hosted postseason games inside Alex Box Stadium, and Mainieri ordered another credential for Demie. After they swept the NCAA regional, advancing to the next round, Mainieri sat on a stage for a news conference. LSU had beaten Southern Miss by two runs, advancing to the super regional.
Mainieri thought LSU might win by a wide margin, but Demie often told him: Just find a way to win the close ones.
“I kept hearing a voice in my ear saying, ‘Find a way to win,’ ” Mainieri said, “and everything will be OK.”
On Saturday morning, the day before Father’s Day, Mainieri drove with his mother to the cemetery. They wanted to spend time with Demie.
Mainieri leaned on his family throughout the season. After a practice earlier this year, he walked across the outfield at Alex Box Stadium with Karen and two of his grandchildren. His grandson threw a baseball toward the infield, and Mainieri raced him to it. They played catch, Mainieri rolling the ball to the boy and running after wild throws, playing a sport that connected four generations.
Demie taught Mainieri this game. Mainieri taught his children. Now his 8-year-old grandson held a baseball in his hands. After awhile, the family turned to leave through the right-field corner. Mainieri opened a door in the gate, and they walked together toward home.
• • •
Early in his career, Mainieri dreamed of getting interviewed on the field. He associated the thought with championships. Before games showed up on television every day, only championship coaches did on-camera interviews.
A decade ago, Mainieri earned that moment. LSU beat Texas for the first national championship of his career, and so far, his only title. The players poured out of the dugout, gloves and caps flying into the air after the final out. A pile of bodies formed on the mound, and Mainieri walked across the field to shake hands with Texas coach Augie Garrido.
ESPN’s Kyle Peterson grabbed Mainieri during the celebration. He asked for an interview on television.
“Oh my gosh,” Mainieri thought. “This is that moment. This is that moment I dreamt about my whole professional life.”
Demie, then 80 years old, his body slowing down, had climbed through the stands and onto the field. He walked toward his son standing near home plate. Peterson said they had about 30 seconds left in commercial break.
Mainieri turned around. He watched his players celebrate, and he noticed Demie walking toward him.
“To hell with this interview,” Mainieri thought. “I’m going to share this time with my dad.”
There, on the field at the College World Series, father and son wrapped each other in a hug. To Mainieri, it felt like it lasted five minutes. They cried together, two championship coaches.
Mainieri still did the interview, but the moment with his dad felt more important. He spent 10 years searching for a picture of their embrace. He saw a video, but he never found a photo.
A couple weeks after Demie died, Mainieri visited his mother. They chatted for a while, and in the middle of their conversation, Rosetta handed him a frame.
“Hey,” she said, “why don’t you keep this?”
Mainieri looked down. Underneath the glass, he saw a picture of him and Demie hugging after the College World Series. Rosetta had framed it. Mainieri placed it on the console of his Escalade, his father in front of him everywhere he goes.