Ron Higgins: The last ride of Paul Mainieri

Photo by Wade Payne/AP

The end came later rather than sooner.

It could have come after LSU was eliminated with a first-day loss in the SEC tournament on May 25, but the Tigers were invited to the NCAA tourney.

It could have happened four times in three days last weekend in the Eugene (Oregon) Regional, but LSU won four elimination games to advance to the Knoxville Super Regional this weekend.

But finally on a sunny June Sunday afternoon in a packed, loud baseball stadium – something LSU head coach Paul Mainieri often loved more than life itself – Tennessee was an out away from advancing to the College World Series.

And the 63-year old Mainieri, who announced his retirement almost four weeks ago, was an out away from leaving something that he has lived and breathed for almost 60 years.

The scoreboard read Tennessee 15, LSU 6. The end was finally here.

Behind his dark sunglasses, tears leaked as his mind raced thinking about the people who have been in his heart for his incredible 39-year, 2,290-game head coaching career that started at a tiny Florida college and took him to the pinnacle of college baseball.

He thought of his late father Demie, a legendary Florida junior college baseball coach who taught his son almost everything he knew about the game. Demie Mainieri, who talked to his son every day of his life, died at age 90 in March 2019. Since then, Demie’s son continues to talk to him, often in crucial or emotional moments, believing Demie still hears him.

Just like on Sunday, just moments before LSU pinch-hitter Jake Wyeth lined the final out of the game and Mainieri’s career into the glove of Tennessee third baseman Jake Rucker.

“I was thinking about my Dad, talking to him,” Mainieri said in his tearful postgame presser. “I was thinking about my son (Thomas) in South Bend, my wife (Karen) and my (other) children (Nicholas, Alexandra and Samantha) who were here with me through all of this.

“I love my family and I’m glad they’ve shared it with me. I also think they are looking forward to our next phase of our life. I’m excited about what the future holds for us.”  

Mainieri is also enthusiastic about the future of LSU baseball, especially the freshman and sophomore-dominated team he’s leaving behind that won 38 games after a 1-8 start in the SEC and came within two wins of a sixth College World Series appearance in his 15 seasons of guiding the Tigers.

“I feel very proud of what we’re leaving to the next coach,” Mainieri said. “We’ve got some really good young players, some good young talent. There’s also some areas that need to be improved.

“That’s why I wanted to announce my retirement when I did, so that (athletic director) Scott (Woodward) and (chief operating officer) Stephanie (Rempe) and (senior associate athletic director) Dan (Gaston) could start their search quickly enough that they could get somebody on board and get to fill in some holes that maybe we didn’t with our incoming recruiting class – going to the transfer portal if necessary – and just making the team as strong as they possibly can for next year.

“But I think there’s a really strong foundation, and I think we’re leaving the program in very good shape.”

Now, it’s time for a new rider to hop on the brahma bull known as LSU baseball. It’s a beast for any coach to not get thrown off and trampled. And it’s something you don’t know how to handle until you experience it.

“There’s a lot of people that care about LSU baseball,” Mainieri said. “People are passionate about LSU baseball. Don’t confuse their passion with. . .I don’t know what the word is. . .the criticism sometimes can hurt, but it’s just because people are passionate about the program, and you can’t take it personal.

“You have to be confident in yourself, and you can’t listen to the criticism too much, and let it change you. You have to be confident in yourself and stick by what you believe.

“You’ve got to do it your way, and I’ve tried to do that without being arrogant with people. I care about people, and I’ve tried to, you know, show people how important they are to me and to our team and to our program.”

Speaking of his way, Mainieri committed to a Super Regional rotation of starting senior Ma’Khail Hilliard in Saturday’s game one and starting usual game one starter junior Landon Marceaux in Sunday’s game two.

Because Marceaux threw 147 pitches in two games in the Eugene Regional – 101 as a starter nine days ago and 46 pitches six days ago as a closer in last Monday’s regional clinching win over Oregon – Mainieri wanted to give him an extra day rest.

Hilliard was tremendous in LSU’s 4-2 loss to the Vols on Saturday. He had six strikeouts and no walks and allowed one run and three hits in five innings.

But Marceaux wasn’t himself Sunday. He threw 55 pitches in three innings and allowed three hits and two runs including the first two of Tennessee’s six home runs in its crackerbox ballpark that gave up more home runs this season (51) than any other SEC stadium.

Mainieri had to pull Marceaux. Tennessee’s batters, which didn’t have a home run on Saturday, devoured LSU’s next three relievers. Not even four Tigers’ home runs could even make the Vols sweat.

“That kid’s got so much courage and so much guts but I could tell pretty quickly that he just didn’t have his normal stuff,” Mainieri said of Marceaux. “He looked like he was out of gas right from the very beginning.

“His velocity was really down. It just shows you what kind of competitor he is. He just gritted his teeth and battled his way through three innings. But I just could not in good conscience let him continue, because he was really laboring out there to just get through the first three innings.

“And with everything that that kid has meant to our program and all the things he’s given — and I know he’s got a future ahead of him – I just couldn’t keep running him out there.”

Tennessee hit homers in the first, third, four, fifth and eighth innings. It had two in its six-run fifth inning when the Vols took an 11-2 lead and added two runs in the eighth and ninth innings after LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan and designated hitter Brody Drost hit two-run homers in the sixth and seventh inning respectively.

It wasn’t nearly enough but Mainieri appreciated the last gasp of the final Tigers’ team of his career.

“Our kids battled like crazy,” Mainieri said. “We got counted out a lot of times during the course of this year, and our guys never gave up. They’re a resilient bunch, and I love them to death. I’ll always remember them as my last team.”

When Mainieri’s postgame Zoom press conference tears stopped flowing, he wanted to make one thing clear before he rode off in the sunset.

“Hey listen, I don’t want people to be sad for me,” he said. “I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world. Thirty-nine years, I’ve got to live out a childhood dream and do what I’ve wanted to do with my life. Who could ask for more?

“These are not tears of being upset. These are tears of happiness and gratefulness. I got to do what I wanted to do.”

1 Comment

  1. Great Coach!! I know he’ll do go in whatever else he does in life. I wish him the best. Thanks to Coach Mainieri!!

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