Scott Woodward walked through a hallway underneath the stands at Alex Box Stadium. He turned into a tunnel near the locker room and passed a cubby filled with cleats. Woodward kept walking until he arrived at the entrance to LSU’s dugout.
Between innings as LSU played South Alabama on Wednesday, March 11, Woodward grabbed coach Paul Mainieri. The two men moved to the back of the tunnel. Woodward, LSU’s athletic director, told Mainieri the Southeastern Conference had restricted fans from games until March 30.
Coronavirus had spread into the United States, infecting hundreds of people and threatening every aspect of life. Mainieri returned to the dugout. He focused on the game as the world changed around him.
Until that day, LSU hadn’t thought much about the disease, also called COVID-19. Around the time LSU ate its pregame meal, the Ivy League canceled spring sports in response to the virus.
The Tigers believed their season would continue, but as they played South Alabama, leagues throughout the country restricted access to fans. Woodward came to the dugout around the fifth inning. Later on, some players found out the NBA had suspended its season.
After recording the final out, LSU hustled into its locker room. Mainieri and senior associate athletic director Dan Gaston, who oversees the baseball program, informed the team of the SEC’s decision.
Players didn’t mind, as long as games continued. They rationalized the change by comparing it to backyard baseball and summer leagues. They asked about tickets for their girlfriends and wondered if Ole Miss, their next opponent, would lose home-field advantage. No one expected the season to end two days later.
Hitting coach Eddie Smith had a friend in town that night. They went to Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux across from the stadium. Sitting at a table near the bar, they faced televisions plastered with fallout from the NBA suspension. Smith realized if a billion-dollar industry had paused its season, college baseball wouldn’t last.
“We're not even going to go to Ole Miss,” Smith said.
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Mainieri woke up Thursday morning after a restless night. He ate breakfast with his oldest son, who had flown in from South Bend, Indiana. His son planned to visit Mainieri’s mother at her retirement community. While they ate, Mainieri called the front desk. It was on lockdown.
One by one, coaches returned to the stadium. Scheduled to leave at noon for Ole Miss, they finished preparing for the series, printing scouting reports and spray charts. They packed their bags, and some of them exercised. Mainieri called Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco. They talked about the weather.
Around 10 a.m., director of video and scouting Jamie Tutko realized he had forgotten his phone charger. Tutko drove home. When he returned half an hour later, Mainieri walked into one of the coaches’ offices.
“Hold on,” Mainieri said. “We’re not leaving at noon.”
Over the next 45 minutes, Mainieri joined a conference call with members of the LSU administration and told players to remove their belongings from the team bus. Assistant coaches tried locating players who had not arrived at the stadium.
The team gathered inside the locker room for another meeting. At 11:30 a.m., the SEC suspended regular-season competition until March 30. The players felt dejected, but they figured their season would continue in April.
Mainieri dismissed the team, sending the players home while he met with assistant coaches. They returned to Mainieri’s office, where they decided to give players the weekend off before resuming practice Monday. Mainieri texted the schedule.
“There was still hope,” fourth-year junior pitcher Eric Walker said.
Soon, recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain received a phone call from Mainieri. Cain had left Thursday morning to scout a junior college game in Pensacola, Florida. About half an hour before he reached the city, Mainieri told him to turn around. The SEC had pulled everyone off the road. Cain answered calls and refreshed Twitter as he drove back to Baton Rouge. He spent seven hours in the car. He never saw a game.
An NCAA council will discuss and vote March 30 for eligibility relief for collegiate athletes who had their seasons cut short because of the c…
After Mainieri left the stadium Thursday afternoon, he joined The Paul Finebaum Show. As Mainieri answered questions, the NCAA announced it had canceled all remaining winter and spring championships, including the College World Series in June.
Finebaum told Mainieri live on air. Mainieri felt numb. He had focused his entire 38-year career on playing for the national championship each summer.
"If the College World Series is canceled," Mainieri said later, "what are you playing for?"
The rest of the team found out through social media. Players and coaches had dispersed after they left the stadium. They contacted one another, looking for answers. No one had any. Circumstances had changed throughout the nation in a matter of hours, and the team didn’t know what to expect next.
“We may still play for an SEC championship,” Mainieri texted the team. “That might be the ultimate goal this year. I'll let you know as soon as I know something.”
On the eighth hole at Santa Maria Golf Course, Walker, sophomore pitcher Cole Henry and senior pitcher Matthew Beck looked at their phones. Avid golfers in the offseason, they had escaped to the course after they left the stadium.
For Beck, the announcement meant his career might have ended without warning.
“Man, I think I'm done,” Beck said. “I'm just going to go home. I don't feel like playing right now.”
“I don't feel like playing either,” Henry said, and they left the course without hitting another ball.
The LSU athletic training facility is quiet, real quiet.
On Friday morning, after meeting with Woodward and LSU’s other head coaches, Mainieri returned to Alex Box Stadium. The staff looked at potential depth charts for the 2021 season. It evaluated different scenarios, wondering how the NCAA would manage eligibility for spring-sport athletes.
Early that afternoon, Mainieri found out the SEC had suspended all regular-season games, team activities, practices and meetings until April 15. To LSU, the decision meant its season had ended. Teams could not realistically play another game without risking injuries.
“The reality is if you don't make it to the major leagues, this is the pinnacle,” Smith said. “For so many of them, a big chunk of that time here at LSU just got taken from them.”
Mainieri planned to lead a team meeting Monday, but LSU set a moratorium on gatherings of more than 30 people and canceled team activities after 5 p.m. Friday. With a roster of 35 players, some of whom had driven home for the weekend, Mainieri couldn’t gather the entire team one last time.
The SEC didn’t cancel the season for another four days, but LSU began operating under the assumption it had played its final game. Mainieri told the players to clean out their lockers by 3:30 p.m., and he held about 10 exit interviews, cramming his end-of-season routine into one afternoon.
The players said goodbye to one another as they packed their belongings. The worst day of the season had come three months early and without any time to prepare. LSU had played 17 games, the fewest in a season since 1951.
“There was no closure,” Tutko said. “No closure at all.”
Before Daniel Cabrera left the stadium, he walked into Mainieri’s office. Cabrera had received No. 8 last summer, identifying him as the leader of the team. A junior projected to go early in the major league draft, he might have played his last collegiate game.
Mainieri and Cabrera sat down. They talked for about half an hour, lamenting the end of the season. They thought LSU, which had won nine of its past 11 games, had found an offensive rhythm after struggling for a couple weeks. They liked their chances to compete for a championship.
“I felt in typical LSU baseball fashion, we were going to make our run,” Mainieri said. “And then all of a sudden, the season is over.”
At 4 p.m., Mainieri, Gaston and the coaching staff walked into a room on the sixth floor of the athletic administration building. Players joined through their phones. Forty-eight hours earlier, LSU had taken batting practice before it played South Alabama.
Mainieri called roll. He wanted to talk to players in person, but the virus forced him to speak into a black box sitting in front of him. Players responded, “Here.”
“It was tough for coach,” Tutko said. “You could tell he — coach Mainieri is an extremely composed guy. He was struggling to do this one because of the magnitude of having to tell his kids who have worked so hard that it's done.”
The coaches, exhausted after two days of uncertainty and upheaval, began leaving the office. Mainieri drove home around 7 p.m., steering his car out of the stadium parking lot for the last time this season.
Earlier in the day, Mainieri reminded his assistant coaches March 13 marked the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. Mainieri wanted to visit his father’s grave with his mother and his wife, but the sudden ending to the season kept him around the stadium.
Mainieri thought about his father as he drove home, and he rehashed the previous two days, calling them the “most unorthodox, unique and sad time of my coaching career.” He had tried to lead LSU through the most surreal ending to a season in school history. Mainieri pulled into his driveway around dusk.
“I'm sitting in front of my house,” Mainieri said, “and I don't know what to do with myself for the next month except talk on the phone to recruits and former players.”
This was the season Russell Brock always pointed to for LSU beach volleyball.
The next day, Mainieri leaned on his family. His daughter had given birth in New Orleans earlier that week, so after Mainieri visited his father's grave Saturday morning, he returned to New Orleans. He held his newborn grandson for the first time.
LSU understood why its season ended in mid-March. A pandemic had struck the world. Mainieri stressed the importance of perspective as the season came to a sudden halt. LSU had lost its baseball season, but he said humanity faced a crisis that overshadowed the temporary absence of sports.
“This affects so much more than baseball,” Walker said. “This is the whole world. It's not something to mess around with.”
The coaching staff has worked remotely since the season ended, finishing individual projects and preparing for next year, but “you can only look at a spreadsheet for so long before you go insane,” Smith said. He bought new fishing lures.
Cain went to the stadium a couple times earlier this week. He stared at the whiteboard in his office, examining current and future recruiting classes as he waited for direction from the NCAA. Cain has more time with his wife and children than ever before, but he also misses the players.
“As a coach, that's why you get into it,” Cain said. “You want to be around the players. And there's nobody to be around.”
On Wednesday, one week after LSU played its final game, Cabrera slipped into a private batting cage at Traction Sports Performance. His teammates have scattered across the country, heading home after LSU moved classes online and closed most of its facilities. Some will come back this fall. Others have played their last game.
Searching for normalcy, Cabrera returned to a comfortable place. He exercised for the first time since the season ended. He threw. He ran. And four days after he cleaned out his locker, Cabrera picked up his bat again. He stepped into the batter’s box, lifted the bat above his shoulder and swung. Baseball provided relief.
As Cabrera said, “You’ve got to keep living.”