For a moment earlier this week, Paul Mainieri let himself think about the end.

He stood on the top step of the dugout inside Alex Box Stadium, the perch he held hundreds of times over the past 15 years, and gazed at his surroundings.

Ever since LSU learned it would play in the NCAA tournament, Mainieri had tried not to think about his impending retirement. But practice Tuesday had ended, the players had walked inside, most of the staff had left the field and the brief silence before a storm gave Mainieri time to reflect. His eyes darted from the dugout to the mound to the scoreboard filled with a graphic thanking him. He stood alone.

“It overwhelmed me a little bit,” Mainieri said. “I was wondering if that would be the last day I walked off Alex Box Stadium's field in an official capacity.”

It might have been. Mainieri, 63, announced last week he will retire at the conclusion of the season, ending a 39-year career in the only profession he has ever known because of constant pain in his neck. With LSU in the Eugene regional, which begins Friday, the end could arrive as soon as this weekend.

Whenever Mainieri coaches his final game, his family will transition as they detach themselves from a life determined by baseball. He grew up in his father’s dugout, and his children grew up in his dugout. The schedule for a team coached by either Demie or Paul Mainieri set the family’s plans for the last 61 years.

“I feel like it's almost as though we've lost a family member,” said Mainieri’s wife, Karen. “There's a process I think of grief that you have to go through. This is the only thing we've ever known in our marriage. It's going to be different, that's for sure. We've never lived without this game of baseball."

Mainieri knows this, but nothing good would have come from dwelling on the end. Not long after the thought popped into his mind, he pushed it away, choosing instead to believe his career — and LSU’s season — will finish much later this month. In a career with 1,501 wins, he hopes he has at least five more left.

“I didn't want to think about it too much, because that was thinking negatively,” Mainieri said. “I didn't want to think negatively going into the weekend. I feel like we'll be back on the field again next week practicing and getting ready for a super regional. That's the attitude I want to have.”

• • •

Few families can be linked to one profession as close as the Mainieris are to college baseball. Demie became the head coach at Miami Dade Community College in 1960, three years after Mainieri’s birth, and ever since then, at least one member of the family has coached college baseball.

The profession passed from Demie to his oldest son, not because Demie wanted him to, but because Mainieri latched onto the sport as he idolized his dad. Mainieri’s earliest memories are in the dugout. He first articulated he wanted to follow his father into the profession when he was 14 years old. His desire never wavered.

During Mainieri’s senior year at UNO in 1979, he lived with Randy Bush. The school didn’t have a designated weight room for baseball players, so they joined a fitness center. As they worked out three or four times a week, Bush and Mainieri visualized their futures.

“I would talk about getting a chance for pro ball,” Bush said. “He'd be talking about how he was going to handle players when he was a coach. It was quite the contrast.”

Mainieri tried to coach like his dad, and similar to his dad, Mainieri raised four children around the dugout. Some of their earliest memories involved backyard baseball games at their grandparents’ house and trips to the field. Mainieri’s oldest son, Nick, played for him at Notre Dame. One of his daughters married a former college baseball player. His youngest son played through high school.

“Baseball is probably the thing I know better than anything else in my life,” Nick Mainieri said. “I say that as somebody who does other things. I've been a professor. I'm a writer. Baseball is still probably the thing I know the best because that's what my life and education has been as much as anything else.”

This season, Mainieri’s family followed LSU as closely as ever, knowing they may not have another chance. At least one member of his family living in Louisiana came to almost every game, even the midweek contests. His four siblings and his mother watched all of them together over Zoom.

After LSU beat Alabama in its final weekend home game, Mainieri's younger brother, John, took a screenshot of all their siblings watching Mainieri walk off the field with the score behind him. The whole family felt the weight of the end.

“I vicariously live the memories of my father by watching my brother's teams,” Mainieri’s younger brother said. “I'll miss that. But I'm glad he's going to pass the baton to somebody else.”

• • •

The beginning of the end came late in the summer of 2018. Mainieri fell asleep on a plane, and when he woke up, his neck felt stiff. He suspected the sensation would go away. It worsened.

Mainieri tried steroid treatment shots. He received injections into his spine. He underwent radiofrequency ablation, which burned nerve endings. He saw a chiropractor and a physical therapist. Throughout the next season, he placed his hands on either side of his neck to support it during games. He felt miserable at times.

Tests eventually showed the disc between Mainieri’s C5 and C6 vertebrae had disappeared. He consulted a former player, Dr. Gregory Lopez, and underwent surgery to insert a prosthetic disc.

Initially, Mainieri felt better than he had in over a year. But the pain persisted, forcing him to undergo a spinal fusion last November.

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Even with the surgery, Mainieri experienced chronic headaches. He struggled to find comfort during games, and recovery from the surgeries prevented him from engaging with the players by throwing batting practice or hitting ground balls — all the active things he considered some of his best qualities as a coach.

“I know it was bothering him constantly, and what was really bothering him was that he knew it was affecting the way he likes to do his job,” Bush said. “Because of his constant neck pain, he wasn't able to do it the way he believed it should be done.”

The thought of retirement first appeared “several months” ago, Mainieri said. Then last Thursday, he woke up and talked to his wife. He decided to retire, hoping his neck pain will subside without the stress of directing a premier college baseball program.

"I just thought that maybe the program...," Mainieri said, pausing as tears filled his eyes during his retirement press conference, "maybe the program would be better served if somebody else was leading it."

After Mainieri announced his decision, hundreds of text messages, phone calls and emails poured into his phone. They came from people he coached 35 years ago and ones who just left his program. Someone showed him all the posts on social media, too.

Mainieri felt overwhelmed by the support. As much as he wanted to win championships, he had always considered his relationship with players more important than any accomplishment on the field. They often thanked him for challenging them during their careers, but as life churned and games grabbed his attention, it could be easy for Mainieri to wonder if he helped mold them the way he wanted to, the way his dad had done.

Mainieri tried to read all the messages before his press conference Friday evening and stopped. He waited until he got home later that night, and then he let himself cry. He felt validated.

• • •

As LSU approached the end of the season, Nick Mainieri suggested his dad savor what could be the final moments of his career, knowing he may retire. He wanted Mainieri to enjoy the ending, whenever it arrived, but as the words tumbled from his mouth, he knew his dad would be too focused on trying to lead LSU into the postseason.

Mainieri used to joke one day he would donate his organs to the Smithsonian. Near them, a plaque would say, "There lie the internal organs of a college baseball coach. See what it does to him." He cared about the outcome for everyone involved and never enjoyed losing. That wasn't going to change as he considered retirement.

“He's doing everything he can to try to win for the sake of everybody involved in the program,” Nick Mainieri said.

Before LSU found out it made a regional, Mainieri had a few days between his announcement and the selection show. The team practiced one day. The next, Mainieri went to Alex Box Stadium with his wife and his mom. They took a picture of him underneath the scoreboard. Then they visited his dad’s gravesite before watching television to take their minds off the possibility his career might have already ended.

“He asked his mom, 'What would Dad think?'” Mainieri’s wife said. “She said, 'He would agree with you. He would be proud of you. He would understand. It's OK. He would agree.'”

On Monday morning, Mainieri woke up and wondered if he would still be a college baseball coach that afternoon. Then he watched his players leap from their chairs when LSU got selected as the No. 3 seed in its regional, extending his career at least one more week, but more importantly to him, giving his players a chance to experience the NCAA tournament.

Ever since, Mainieri has looked rejuvenated. He threw a round of batting practice this week for the first time since his neck surgery.

“If I can't be enthused and excited now,” Mainieri said, “what am I holding it back for?”

'We're a threat': LSU regional opponent, Gonzaga, determined to 'prove' its worth

Three of Mainieri’s four siblings, plus his wife and youngest son, will come to the regional this weekend, bracing for the possibility his career may end there. Mainieri has acknowledged the possibility, but he also believes LSU has a chance to advance further in the tournament. He has focused this week on how to approach Gonzaga’s starting pitcher, pouring himself into one last run, instead of thinking about what comes next. As long as there are games, he wants to win.

One day this month, Mainieri will inevitably wake up and no longer be a coach. He will continue to live in Baton Rouge, where he and his wife recently built a house near one of their daughters, and hold a role in the athletic department. He hopes to attend all the events baseball’s schedule prevented him from seeing, like The Masters and the Kentucky Derby. He won’t have to worry about roster construction, the transfer portal or the major league draft. Maybe his neck will feel better without the stress.

"I've loved what I've done," Mainieri said. "And there's going to be days where I wish that I hadn't made this decision because I'm going to miss it terribly. But there's going to be times when I'm going to say I know I did the right thing."

Though Mainieri’s family will lose its most tangible connection to baseball when his career ends, the sport has ingrained itself in their lives too much to ever truly leave their minds. To this day, his oldest son thinks in baseball analogies and uses baseball references in his writings. One of his grandchildren started playing little league.

“You have to revel in the memories,” Karen Mainieri said. “The way to get through it is to live in those memories and keep those memories in your heart.

"We'll get through it. He's going to move on. We're going to be OK. It's just a little grieving process. We're going to make it."

Paul's younger brother, John, has an idea to connect the past with the future. He remembered an old board game called All-Time All-Star Baseball, which allowed people to roll dice and complete an imaginary game with some of the greatest players in baseball history. Mainieri’s brother plans to recreate the board game with all the major leaguers who played for Mainieri and his dad.

Then, someday, Mainieri can sit with his grandchildren and tell them about the 2009 national championship as Mickey Rivers faces Aaron Nola, sharing the memories so they never fade. He can take his dad’s team while his grandchildren control the best of his squads, and their careers will live on through their family and the players they coached.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com