By Luke Johnson | LSU Student
Familiar sounds echoed in an empty Alex Box Stadium as the LSU baseball team prepared for its 2013 season with fall practice, but for more than half the team the autumn tune-up is a continuation of a year-long routine.
Though the Tigers' regular season runs only from late February through early June — depending on how far they advance in the postseason — the close is just the beginning. There is a summer campaign used to hone abilities.
Players turn to leagues like Massachusetts' Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL), considered the summer home for the nation's premier collegiate talent.
"Baseball is just the kind of sport where you have to play a whole lot of it to develop your skills, timing and instincts," said LSU Coach Paul Mainieri. "You can't improve if you don't play it frequently."
LSU sent nine players to the CCBL this past summer, including senior sluggers Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz, and an additional 11 players to other summer leagues around the country.
The CCBL nine were given contracts by assistant coaches Javi Sanchez and Will Davis, and Mainieri picked which of the 10 CCBL teams they would spend the summer.
"We don't have to look for teams to go play for, they do it for us which is kind of nice," Katz said.
When they arrived in the Cape Cod area, they observed a higher level of talent than they had grown accustomed to seeing. The league is famous for hosting college baseball's best and brightest during the offseason. According to the league's website, 254 CCBL alumni appeared on Major League rosters this season, including Ryan Braun, Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum.
The adjustment to facing top-notch competition every day was tough on hitters. Rhymes hit .234 in 12 CCBL games after setting an LSU record with a .431 batting average in his junior season
"Every player you went up against was like facing a Friday night, [Southeastern Conference] type of guy," said Rhymes.
But LSU's representatives weren't facing an entirely new pitcher or batter every time. Sometimes they squared off against familiar Southeastern Conference foes. And other times, a regular season teammate would be on the other side.
"I hate facing my own pitchers," Katz said. "It's a lose-lose situation. If I get a hit I feel bad because I want them to do well … [but] I hate [not getting on base]."
Occasionally, it works out for both.
With a runner in scoring position, Katz stepped into the batter's box for his Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox against LSU senior Joe Bourgeios, pitching for the Harwich Mariners.
"He broke my bat and felt good," Katz said with a grin. "I got the RBI single, so it was nice."
While he had an eye on all of his players' progress this summer, Mainieri said the summer leagues are more important for the position players than the pitchers.
Position players, like Katz and Rhymes, get the opportunity to play every day against the premier pitching offered in the leagues. Depending on their workloads during the regular season, pitchers may be used sparingly.
"It's something you have to manage very gingerly to make sure you don't overwork your pitchers, but yet they get enough work so they can also develop their talents," Mainieri said.
While focused mainly on baseball, players took advantage of the time to make new friends or get closer to the ones they already had.
"A few of my good buddies play for Stanford," said junior second baseman JaCoby Jones before ticking off a number of different schools from around the country where he met other players. "It's neat to see what type of game they play and to see how their tools differ from ours."
A league family coordinator in the area finds willing families to house the players during the summer.
"They're like a second family," Katz said. "I talk to my host mom a couple times a week. I talk to the kids (aged nine and 10). They play baseball so I got to go watch them a couple times."
There was also the matter of getting to Cape Cod with enough belongings to last the summer — but the players found a way to take advantage of that, too.
"Twenty-six hours," Rhymes said about the road trip North. "We caravanned; we didn't stop. Took some turns driving and sleeping. It definitely brought us closer."