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Play ball, college style

Sorry, Peggy. I hope I don’t bore you with this post.

The 2018 NCAA Division I baseball season begins today. Nearly 300 teams open today with dreams of being one of the eight fortunate squads to make it to Omaha and the College World Series.

The reality is, only 20 to 30 teams can realistically expect to have a chance to be one of those eight, even though 64 teams make the tournament. Sure, anything can happen in baseball, and everything has happened, but more often than not, the elite will rise to the top and emerge champions.

There have been exceptions, most notably Fresno State, which won the CWS as a #4 (last) seed in a regional in 2008, and Coastal Carolina, which became the second school from South Carolina to win a national championship in 2016. That has to be a sore spot for Clemson, but I’m sure the national championship Dabo Swinney’s football team won six months later far overshadows any lack of success in Omaha.

Of course, my alma mater is one of the teams which ALWAYS believes it will be forming a dogpile on the mound in Omaha in late June. LSU came close to winning its seventh national championship in 2017, but it was swept in two games by SEC rival Florida in the championship series. Not only was it the first time LSU lost when making it to the final round, but it was Florida’s first championship in baseball. The Gators are one of the few schools with a “trifecta”, national championships in the three major men’s team sports of football, basketball and baseball. Michigan, Ohio State and UCLA are also members of this exclusive fraternity.

LSU, Arizona, Arkansas, Miami, Minnesota, Southern California, Stanford and Texas each have a hole in their championship resumes. For most, it is basketball, but for the Razorbacks, it’s baseball. The Wildcats have never come close in football, and the Cardinal (formerly Indians) have never won a recognized football championship, although the school claims two retroactive, minor mathematical formulas from years before World War II.

The Bayou Bengals open their 12th season under Paul Maineri in Baton Rouge against Maineri’s former employer, Notre Dame. LSU played in South Bend three years ago, but it was two midweek games in May, not a weekend series. Of course, playing in South Bend right now is next to impossible due to the harsh climate of the Rust Belt. Maineri enjoyed tremendous success with the Fighting Irish, taking them to the CWS in 2002 against incredible odds, since Notre Dame won a super regional at #1 Florida State. Notre Dame even won a game in Omaha that year, eliminating Rice, the team which shut out Smoke Laval’s Bayou Bengals in two super regional games at Houston. Laval was fired after a 2006 season which saw LSU go 35-24 and miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988.

Maineri led LSU to the 2009 national championship, as the Bayou Bengals defeated Texas in the three-game championship series. LSU won its other five national championships (1991, ’93, ’96, ’97 and 2000) under a one-game championship format, one which was grossly unfair, especially if one team went through its bracket undefeated and lost the title game to a team which lost once in its bracket. LSU was a beneficiary of this in ’93, when the Tigers lost to Long Beach State in bracket play, beat the 49ers in a winner-take-all bracket final, then bested previously undefeated Wichita State for the title. In ’97, undefeated LSU beat once-beaten Alabama in the final, so it worked out. The other three times, LSU beat a fellow unbeaten in the final (Wichita State in ’91, Miami in ’96 and Stanford in 2000).

LSU is a mystery in 2018. The Bayou Bengals were hit hard by graduation and the Major League Baseball draft, and Maineri must find replacements at nearly every position. SEC coaches picked LSU fourth in the West division for the upcoming season, behind Arkansas, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Florida is the favorite in the East and to win the overall title. LSU got a big break in the schedule, since it does not have to play the Gators nor Kentucky, which was picked second in the East. LSU also gets Arkansas and Mississippi State at home.

One month from today, I’m planning on being in Baton Rouge for LSU’s SEC opener vs. Missouri. I usually try to make one series a season. The easy choices are Missouri and Arkansas, since they are closest to Russell. Last year, I chose Kentucky because (a) I had never been to Lexington during my years at LSU; (b) I knew LSU would be going to Fayetteville in 2019, and I had been there three times before; and (c) Kentucky’s current baseball stadium would be replaced in 2019 by a fabulous new park, so I wanted to see the old place. I have NOT seen the current Alex Box Stadium, since I left Louisiana in 2005 and have been back to the Bayou State only once, and that was after baseball season ended in 2010.

My mentor and friend, Bill Franques (Fran-kez) begins his 30th season as public relations director (technically, communications director or sports information director) for the LSU baseball program. Since Bill turns 55 in July, it means he has spent more than half his life in one place, which is remarkable. For three years (July 1997-June 2000), he technically was a member of the baseball staff as administrative assistant, and then-coach Skip Bertman had him doing other things, like team travel and budgeting. Bill also handles the public address for home games and radio color commentary for road games, so the guy wears many hats around campus. Not only that, but he’s a devoted husband to Yvette Lemoine and doting father to boys William and Benjamin, and daughter Madeline.

Here is a very good article from The Advocate (Baton Rouge) about Bill:

Bill Franques doesn’t like to hear it, but three decades at LSU make him an institution

I have many, many stories about how I have angered Bill through the years, and I might share them in the time leading up to the trip to Louisiana. I’m convinced the man deserves sainthood for putting up with me the way he did. So do a lot of other people. At least two of them have the last name Cox. Two used to work at a particular Buffalo Wild Wings. And three ladies from Hays who have tried to keep me healthy, both physically and mentally, as well as making sure my vision doesn’t get any worse.

College baseball season barely registers in these parts. Wichita State is nowhere near as good as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, and Kansas and Kansas State have almost always occupied the cellar of the Big Eight/Big 12. Missouri had its moments in the 1950s, but it is overmatched in the SEC. The only baseball that matters in this part of the world is happening in Surprise, Arizona, where the Royals are holding spring training.

Florida attorney general Pam Bondi said the state will seek the death penalty against Wednesday’s school shooter. Hopefully it doesn’t take 10 years to execute him if he pleads guilty or is convicted by a jury. I say 10 years because that’s how long it took for Ted Bundy to be put to death after his first conviction for the murders of two Florida State sorority sisters.

Speaking of Florida, tonight may be the last time I see Dawn. She’s moving to Florida next week. I’m afraid she’ll go the way of Brenda LeBlanc and many others I knew in Louisiana. Also, the Daytona 500 is Sunday. Not that I’ll watch much, if any, of the so-called Great American Race.