There will be hits and misses
Ah, spring is in the air.
But baseball was back at LSU on Friday as the Tigers began practicing, with all the old, familiar rituals.
Yes, the crack of the bat and the familiar sound of the COVID-19 test swab gag.
The smell of pine tar and the comforting aroma of Lysol in the dugout.
Almost made you want to hum along:
Take me out to the ball game, take me out of the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and hand sanitizers, I don’t care if I have to wear a mask.
So let us social, social-distance for the home team.
If they don’t win, it’s COVID-related.
For it’s one, two, three negative tests and you’re back at the old ball game.
Ah, so reassuring it was. There was head coach Paul Mainieri, affable and optimistic as ever and getting comfortable easing into his familiar spot behind the laptop for the traditional, season-opening virtual call.
When they were so rudely interrupted last March, the Tigers were boarding a bus for Oxford and the season-opening Southeastern Conference series at Ole Miss.
It never happened.
Neither did the rest of the season.
So when Mainieri was asked Friday if there was a bright spot to the pandemic cancelation of last season, he had to think for a moment.
“No,” he finally said.
But he thought some more.
“My players will never take anything for granted again.”
So Mainieri did it up right for the opening of practice, pulled out all the stops.
The field was lined off just like for a real game. The Tigers wore real uniforms, the dress whites and the Sunday golds, for a scrimmage, which even had umpires and flags flying from the outfield walls.
Everything but real fans, which made it not that much different from what the atmosphere will be for the season opener three weeks hence when a limit of 2,500 real fans and few cardboard-cutout cousins will social distance for the Tigers in quarter-full Alex Box Stadium.
The lovely whiff of gumbo and BBQ spare ribs wafting in from the parking lot was also missing — again, maybe as another nod to realism since, as of today, there will be no tailgating for LSU baseball.
That should make it easier to keep the in-stadium crowds down.
Still, Mainieri tried to look at the bright side.
As of now, if everything goes well, if there are no further complications and the COVID doesn’t spike, college baseball teams kind of think they should be able to play a season, up to and including the College World Series in Omaha.
That’s the plan, anyway, although it varies from region to region, conference to conference.
It wasn’t easy.
“Zoom call every week,” Mainieri said of the SEC planning, which began in early November. “We literally looked at every possibility. It took us a long time to get to this point.”
SEC coaches and administrators toyed with the notion of playing nothing but conference games — 13 four-game weekend series which, by my math, would come to 52 games (56 are allowed).
They’d probably be lucky to get that many in anyway.
A similar plan probably did help SEC football get through its schedule relatively complete — only two games not played.
One problem with that for baseball.
The plan might keep the SEC, which with the pandemic-mandated extra years of eligibility, no doubt will be stronger than it’s ever been, from getting anybody in the NCAA Tournament, let alone its usual nine or 10 teams.
The RPI — the computer-driven ratings percentage index — would make no allowances for the COVID.
The RPI is so important, for bids, for regional hosts, for national seeds,” Mainieri said. “When you don’t play nonconference games, and you’re virtually just playing each other, it affects your RPI in a very negative way. Literally half your teams will be under .500. The (SEC) winning team might win just 67 percent of its games.”
Layman’s terms: Overall records would be down, with no way really for the RPI computers to compare one conference to another.
Maybe the selection committee would take that into account. But SEC coaches weren’t of a mind to find out.
“We said let’s give it a shot and see if we can do it,” Mainieri said — give it a go for a normal schedule in a new-normal season.
So Mainieri put together a schedule. Then made some adjustments. Then changed it again. And again. Oops. Another audible. Got to switch that one.
Army sent regrets for the season opener. Then Illinois called — the Big Ten is going to play a conference-only schedule and take its chances. Cal Riverside found out it couldn’t leave the state. On and on, one thing after another.
So it’s kind of written on a white board right now, but tentatively scheduled to start Feb. 18 with Air Force replacing Army, among other changes, and it does have 56 games.
“Now the challenge is to get through the schedule,” Mainieri said.
He knows that won’t happen, at least not as planned.
So he’s got every coach in Louisiana and neighboring states on speed dial.
“We have other teams we know we can call on the spur of the moment,” he said. “If we wake up on Monday morning and a midweek (opponent) calls me and says they can’t come tomorrow night, I’m going to blast text messages to other teams in the state and see if somebody can jump in and replace them the next day.”
It’s not football. You don’t need 3-4 days to scout a team.
But here’s an idea. If a stand-in team is coming, Mainieri should keep the identities a secret.
Social media complicates that, but it might even be fun for the few fans who get to go — showing up taking pot luck, not knowing who the opponent will be.
It’s the great unknown — just like the season they are about to embark upon.
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU
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