It’s a bit difficult for Nolan Cain to wrap his head around the fact that 2009 LSU national championship baseball team he played for has reached its 10th anniversary, a number he and the rest of the Tigers probably thought was reserved for their parents’ wedding dates and great historical military moments.
But The Intimdator, the giant billboard behind right field at Alex Box Stadium, doesn’t lie. It solemnly marks that championship season and the five that came before it. A quick spurt of arithmetic confirms the double-digitness of the achievement.
“It feels like a big number,” said Cain, a pitcher on that LSU team and now the program’s recruiting coordinator.
Indeed it does, one worthy of a celebration. The Tigers, as many of them who can make it here, are gathering this weekend for a variety of reunion-related events, capped by their introduction before first pitch of Saturday’s LSU-Ole Miss game at Alex Box Stadium.
Weather permitting, of course. But surely the sun will shine on the return of the Tigers’ conquering heroes, won’t it?
The sun never really sets on those LSU teams enshrined on The Intimidator. Their deeds have become as woven into the fabric of LSU’s athletic history as Billy Cannon’s Halloween night run and Pete Maravich’s floppy socks.
What singular LSU athletic moment can even come close to rivaling Cannon’s legendary punt return? The equally legendary home run Warren Morris hit to win the 1996 College World Series against Miami. You get the idea.
The anniversary of the 2009 team’s title run is made even more poignant by the fact it marks the last time LSU won the CWS. Since the Tigers won their first baseball national title in 1991, this is the longest the program has gone without winning another. It’s starting to be a little like the Triple Crown drought in horse racing between Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015. You felt sure another Triple Crown thoroughbred was thundering down the stretch at some point, but you never really know.
The ties between this LSU team and that one are still strong. Cain is one of three 2009 players on the LSU coaching staff, along with hitting coach Sean Ochinko (first baseman/catcher) and director of player development Micah Gibbs (catcher).
And of course there is Paul Mainieri, the coach who in just his third season restored LSU’s then stumbling baseball fortunes to the heights but is still seeking that elusive win in the final game of the season.
“Obviously, the 2009 team will be very special to me because it’s the only national championship team I’ve ever coached,” Mainieri said. “I thought our ’13 team was good enough. I thought our ’14 and ’15 teams were good enough to win it all. I thought our ’17 team was good enough. It just didn’t work out for us.”
Even if it never comes again for Mainieri, he and his Tigers and their legions have that night. The one at long-demolished old Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium when they dog-piled after beating Texas in Game 3 of the championship series. It’s that moment where you’re left wondering whether outfielder Leon Landry is still suspended in midair, about to become the cherry on top of that happy pile of humanity.
“That moment freezes in your mind for the rest of your life,” Mainieri said.
Those Tigers have played on lots of teams at lots of levels, from Little League to high school to (some of them) the pros. Most all teams have camaraderie, but to a man Cain and Ochinko and Gibbs said winning that title has left the 2009 Tigers with a special bond for the rest of their lives. And a common word to describe it.
“A lot of those guys still live here in Louisiana,” Cain said. “Some of them are my best friends, guys who have stood in my wedding and me in theirs. It was a brotherhood.”
Ochinko said every championship team he played on had that extra level of camaraderie that remains vivid in the mind and in the present.
“Whether we were having a barbecue at someone’s house or tailgating for a football game, it was never two or three guys but 17, 18, 20 dudes,” he said. “It’s a brotherhood.”
Before each season begins, the brotherhood of 2009 gathers at Ruffino’s for a reunion dinner.
“It’s a very tight-knit group,” Gibbs said. “We get together and have a good time.”
They’ll have another Saturday night, come rain or come shine, wondering how it is that 10 years have passed since their championship was won, and how long it will be before LSU wins another.
Advocate sportswriter Wilson Alexander contributed to this report.