By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Not a day goes by Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman don’t think about the moment their junior seasons ended. It’s at the forefront of their collective conscience on this unseasonably warm January afternoon. They sit in the home dugout watching groundkeepers mow the grass and drag the infield at Alex Box Stadium in preparation for the start of preseason practice.
An unbelievable hot streak had brought them to the precipice of an unlikely College World Series berth. The nation’s hottest club needed just two more home victories to advance. All that stood between one of college baseball’s most storied powers and Omaha was a small program nobody had ever heard of.
It was so close they could taste it, making the sensation all the more bitter in hindsight. The crushing disappointment comes rushing back any time either one checks their phones.
Robertson’s screensaver is an image of Coastal Carolina dogpiling on his position at shortstop after walking off in the decisive second game. Freeman’s is something similar. It’s been there since the day after the game.
“Just to remind me every day that I don’t want that feeling again,” Robertson says, his voice quiet but stern. He gazes out toward his position as he continues. “And there hasn’t been a day that goes by that I don’t think about how close we were and how bad I want it.
“It’s absolutely an obsession. It’s like a drug that I can’t get away from. I don’t like to think about it, but I do because it makes me want to go out there and be better.”
Freeman and Robertson turned down lucrative professional signing bonuses to return for their senior seasons at LSU. The Los Angeles Dodgers offered Freeman $300,000 after drafting him in the 18th round. Multiple clubs assured Robertson they’d select him if he’d agree to sign for $250,000. He wouldn’t and fell to the 32nd round.
The draft will always be there, but the way it works in baseball, the pair won’t make anything close to $550,000 in signing bonuses. Even if they follow up their breakout seasons with two more All-SEC campaigns, that money is almost certainly gone.
When seniors are drafted in the MLB Draft, they don’t have any leverage in negotiations with the club because they can’t threaten to go back to school.
Two years ago Jared Foster, a senior, was drafted in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Angels. He signed for $100,000, less than one third of the pick’s slot value ($304,700). Catcher Kade Scivicque, another senior, was picked one round earlier by the Detroit Tigers with an assigned slot value of $426,800. He signed for $200,000.
“And even knowing that fact, neither of them had any hesitation in coming back to school,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri says. “They’re the leaders of our team, unequivocally. You can see it. And both of them have evolved into outstanding baseball players. Better than they’ve ever been in their life. And I think they’re excited to see what that could lead to.”
The return of his middle infield make up half of a somewhat unexpected windfall that Mainieri has taken to calling his ‘Fab Four.’ They form the backbone of a veteran-laden LSU club picked in the top five of every major preseason poll.
Slugger Greg Deichmann came back knowing his stock could soar in his junior year. Left-hander Jared Poche’ coming back was the biggest surprise of the bunch. Negotiations stalled when the San Diego Padres refused to meet his asking price.
The players spoke and texted constantly about their respective decisions even before the draft in June. As each announced he’d be coming back, the internal push to return intensified for the others. Mainieri says he doesn’t re-recruit players against signing, believing it to be a personal decision.
It began organically.
“It definitely made the decision easier as each one made the decision to come back,” Freeman says. “We knew what we had coming back and the opportunities we have in front of us. This year is going to be something special.”
LSU’s double-play tandem turned down half a million dollars between them for all the same reasons. They share a goal, a mutual obsession. And a year ago, nobody — besides the two of them, perhaps — could have foreseen such offers were on the horizon.
The paths each walked to reach that point couldn’t have been more different.
ROBERTSON ADMITS HIS obsession often seeps into his dreams. He describes one from earlier that week. In it LSU wins a Super Regional at Alex Box Stadium, but Robertson can only watch. He’s sitting in the stands as his teammates dog pile. Isolated. Alone. Left out.
That nightmare essentially came true in 2015. Robertson had begun the season as LSU’s starting second baseman, but lost the job when Foster moved in from the outfield. He hurt his arm not long after and wasn’t healthy again until the NCAA Tournament had begun.
By then Grayson Byrd, a freshman who transferred after the season ended, had taken over as LSU’s utility infielder. There was no place for Robertson on the postseason roster, and Mainieri had no choice but to leave him behind as LSU advanced to Omaha.
“I know it’s a terribly disappointing thing that he went through in his life, and I think that’s part of the obsession,” Mainieri says. “Kramer wants to go to Omaha almost more than he wants to breathe.”
Both coach and shortstop point to that moment as a pivotal moment in his career. The player who shined in the Purple and Gold World Series that next fall wasn’t the same one who’d spent most of his first two seasons at LSU on the bench. He’d morphed into a confident, talkative leader of the infield.
Mainieri says it was like a light switch had flicked on.
“For the first time, I saw Kramer as a guy who just really got it,” Mainieri begins. “When he first got here, as a freshman, he was extremely confident — and you could probably say a bit arrogant and cocky — and he wasn’t all that well liked among his teammates. And then I think he tried so hard to be accepted by his teammates that he went the other way, and it caused him to lose his self-confidence to some degree.”
Up to that point, Mainieri and Robertson had butted heads often over the course of two seasons. Mainieri has a reputation for being tough on freshmen, and he acknowledges he was harder on Robertson than most because of his pedigree.
At Midway High School, Robertson was the quarterback on his football team, the point guard on his basketball team and the shortstop on his baseball team. And as you certainly know if you’ve ever watched LSU play on TV, Robertson’s mother is Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey.
She’s a prolific winner and the most recognizable face in the sport this side of Connecticut. By the way, both mother and son have gotten sick of the camera perpetually panning to Mulkey every time Robertson makes a play or comes up to bat.
Mainieri also grew up the son of a legendary coach. Demie Mainieri was a 30-year institution at Miami Dade Community College, and Paul grew up in baseball circles known as ‘Coach Mainieri’s son.’
Paul remembers always being held to a different standard, and he in turn held Robertson to one.
“I had this vision that he’d come in and be this extension of me out on the field. But he didn’t see the game the way I saw it, and that’s what I tried to teach him,” Paul says. “For whatever reason, he was reluctant to take that full plunge until the fall of his junior year when I saw him carry himself differently. I could see the maturity was taking hold and he had a phenomenal spring for us.”
Being left home from Omaha served as an obvious kick in the rear. Robertson says he came back that fall feeling rejuvenated by the fact that LSU needed him for the first time.
It was easy to get lost in the shuffle on that star-studded 2015 club with the Alex Bregmans of the world. With eight everyday starters gone, Mainieri had no choice but to rely on Robertson to provide a veteran presence for an inexperienced team.
Mainieri says he was “captivated” by the way Robertson played second base to begin the season. So when he made his second infield shuffle in seven games, moving Robertson to shortstop and Freeman to second base, it was for good.
The rest, as they say, was history.
“It made our season,” Mainieri says. “There’s no way we would’ve had the season we had if he hadn’t been moved to shortstop. People may say that’s a long journey to get to that point, and I’m sure it took longer than he would’ve liked, but at least we got there.”
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“They’re the leaders of our team, unequivocally. You can see it. And both of them have evolved into outstanding baseball players. Better than they’ve ever been in their life. And I think they’re excited to see what that could lead to.” – LSU coach Paul Mainieri [/perfectpullquote]
GREG DEICHMANN REMEMBERS the first time he saw Cole Freeman play. They were in a showcase together called Battle of the Border, and to put it bluntly, the big slugger wasn’t particularly impressed.
“The first time I saw him, to be honest, he wasn’t anything close to what he is right now,” Deichmann says. “He really made a 180 and transformed himself into what you see today, an All-American caliber player. In high school, he was just a slap hitter.”
Mainieri wasn’t initially sure if Freeman would ever become more than that at LSU offensively. He could run and defend well enough to hold down a starting job, but Freeman hit just .200 during his first fall ball as a Tiger.
Freeman led the Tigers in hitting last season at .329 and sparked countless rallies as the ‘second leadoff hitter’ batting ninth.
“Cole is so much better today than he was when he arrived here a year and a half ago,” Mainieri says. “You could just see the improvement he was making with the bat. Then he went to Cape Cod and he led the league in hitting. He looks like an All-American caliber player to me right now. He carries himself like an All-American.”
Freeman has made a habit of proving people wrong. Coming out of Lakeshore High School, nobody gave him a chance of even playing at LSU, much less developing into a star in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference.
LSU’s official roster lists the second baseman at 5-foo7-9 and 174 pounds. The former may be a tad generous. Freeman grew up dreaming of being a Tiger, but he was told he was “too small” to play Division I baseball.
Cole’s father, Sean, raised his son to be just as big of an LSU fan as he was. He remembers his son falling in love with the purple and gold staring up at a signed Wally Pontiff poster that hung in Sean’s office. Still, not even Sean thought that it was much of a realistic possibility.
“I’m sure it’s the dream of many kids growing up in this state,” Sean says. “It’s fun to talk about, but you don’t really think it’ll ever happen. We were fortunate.”
Sean says Cole has carried that as a chip on his shoulder for as long as he can remember. Cole was the same height as everyone else in middle school, he says, but that next growth spurt never came.
Cole wound up at Delgado Community College in New Orleans playing for Joe Scheuermann. He developed into a NJCAA All-American, raising his batting average 130 points from his freshman to sophomore seasons and taking home the NJCAA Gold Glove at second base.
Even then the Freemans weren’t totally sure what the future held. The family was at a Delgado fundraiser when another parent approached Sean and asked how excited he was about LSU. Sean had no idea what he was talking about.
The man, a high school coach, was a mutual friend of Andy Cannizaro, LSU’s recruiting coordinator at the time, and told Sean that Cannizaro had begun taking a look at Cole. Sean remembers his hands jittering, and though sworn to silence, he couldn’t get out the door fast enough to call Cole and tell him.
Sometime later, that same friend called to tell Sean that LSU was going to offer Cole. “It was a dream come true,” Sean says, his voice wavering a little. “I shake my head every day and ask, ‘Is this real?’ Just unbelievable.”
Cole rewarded himself with a tattoo. It’s just four words scrolled down the left side of his slender frame: Heart Has No Limit.
“Mine was a different route, but I never expected to be anywhere else,” he says.
Twice last season — once in practice before Opening Night, then again during the famed ‘Rally Possum’ game — Robertson took baseballs off of his face. To this day he still wears a mouth guard when he plays and can feel his top row of teeth wiggle a bit if he applies pressure.
The first was the result of a wicked hop that nearly knocked an entire row of teeth out. Mainieri remembers calling a dentist to come wire Robertson’s mouth, but he had trouble convincing Robertson to leave the field.
The second happened when Robertson lost a relay throw from Jake Fraley in the lights. His already swollen lip burst open in shallow right field as the patrons of Alex Box Stadium stood aghast. Blood sprayed everywhere. Still, he fought to stay in the game, and after a dramatic comeback, Robertson’s 10th inning single brought home the winning run.
There was also a time Robertson dislocated a finger in three places sliding into second base during a game at Texas A&M. It looked mangled and grotesque, but again, he stayed in the game.
“You can be a loud-mouth leader or you can be a leader by example,” Mainieri says. “I don’t think anybody has displayed more leadership by example than Kramer with his toughness and coming through in the clutch.”
Anyone who’s been benched before understands the internal dread of becoming the next Wally Pipp. To vacate one’s position is to risk losing it, and it was going to take more than a fat lip or busted digit for Robertson to run that risk.
Robertson provided the toughness and a knack for getting big hits. Meanwhile Freeman, his counterpart up the middle, provided the spark. He’s like a water bug, Mainieri says, always moving and talking. Always having fun.
It took time for so many new pieces to mesh together as a club. As the season went on, the Tigers began to take on the personality of their middle infield. LSU made a habit of scratching and clawing its way to dramatic comebacks during the winning streak that turned its season around.
“I think it’s good to have two big personalities at the positions that we play,” Robertson says. “A lot of confidence, because there’s a lot of pressure playing those positions, and people are going to have to rely on you heavily. It was a natural fit.”
Freeman interrupts him. “I think having a chip on our shoulder helps too,” he chimes in.
The 2016 Tigers were as much of an underdog as any LSU team in recent memory. Given the massive roster turnover, some were even calling it a rebuilding year. But Mainieri never did, and it became a rallying cry of sorts for a team led by two undersized infielders and self-described “dirt bags.”
LSU won’t have the luxury of taking anyone by surprise in 2017. The expectation isn’t just to make it to Omaha, but to last longer than its 2013 and 2015 counterparts once it arrives. Not making the College World Series with such a veteran roster would be an unconscionable disappointment.
The team is now led by an All-SEC double-play combination up the middle. Mainieri makes an impassioned argument that both Robertson and Freeman could even raise their game to All-America levels.
Together they’d proven enough at the college level to command more than half a million dollars in professional signing bonuses should they have chosen to take their games to the next level. Instead they came back feeling as strongly as ever that there was still plenty left to prove.
That collective chip on their shoulders isn’t going anywhere.
“Every single day that we go out and practice or play, we’re not the biggest guys on the field,” Robertson says. “So we have to prove every day being the smaller guys that we can play, while someone who is 6-foot-3 has to prove that he can’t play.
“Everyone will assume that he’s a superstar and everyone will assume that we’re dirt bags or scrappers — and those are good things, but we have to go out there and prove that we’re legit players in the SEC. I think that’s contagious.”