MACALUSO: Laval's fate was inevitable

EDITOR'S NOTE: Contributing writer Chris Macaluso takes a look at the demise of LSU Baseball coach Smoek Laval. --- Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of subtle distances. Sure, there are standard measurements like 60 feet, six inches from mound to plate or the 90 feet from bag to bag.

But, it's the subtleties and nuances like the eight inches that separate the game winning, RBI double from another foul ball or the fraction of an inch on the bat barrel that means the difference between a 400-foot homerun and a warning track fly ball that often spell the fate of a win or a loss.

 

For ousted LSU Baseball Coach Smoke Laval, the distances this past season that ultimately led to his dismissal June 4 became a lot less subtle. The distance between the pitching talent LSU brought to the field in 2006 and the talent of its opponents widened as the season progressed until it reached the point where one Tiger pitcher could be counted on to maybe give his team a chance to win. Just one.

 

The distance between LSU's offensive prowess and that of its opponent was apparent as well as SEC team after SEC team pounded out double-digit hit totals while LSU lagged behind, lacking the ability to drive in runs and gather timely hits. Outfielder Quinn Stewart led the team with 56 RBI's, which is pretty good for a guy who struggled to find a role at LSU for three previous seasons. But not quite that good when one considers he accounted for nearly half that total after hitting a league-high 23 homers, often with nobody on base.

 

The walk, bloop and blast days of LSU baseball were after thoughts with this year's squad. And, if not for a batting surge by senior catcher Matt Liuzza in early April that raised his batting average 25 points in two weeks, LSU was in danger of exiting its series against Tennessee with just one regular player batting better than .300. Just one. And, he was a first-year freshman playing out of position.

 

The 2006 LSU Baseball team was not very good. The sentiment early in the year floating around the Alex Box Stadium Press Box was that this team may bare the brunt of 20 years of pent up frustration by other conference teams against the Tiger behemoth. That sentiment proved itself in all but four of the 10 conference series.

 

Still, it wasn't the lack of talent that spelled the end of Laval's days at LSU. Talent, in college baseball, is often a mere signing class filled with the right mix of six or eight junior college and freshmen players away, and there was reason to believe that mix would be added to the team during this off season. It was the widening distance between expectations and results that expedited the change. And, the widening gap between the number of tickets sold and the number of seats filled. And, the widening disparity between the number of hot dogs eaten in 2000 and the number eaten in 2006. And, the ever growing distance between the "dynasty" Skip Bertman established by winning five championships in 10 seasons and anchoring LSU as a fixture at the College World Series and the unthinkable fact that LSU hadn't been to Omaha in three years.

 

Sadly, Laval's fate was predicted the day he stepped away from a head coaching position at UL-Monroe and stepped into the role of cross bearer for LSU baseball in Bertman's wake. Laval never had a chance because Bertman established a legacy even Bertman couldn't live up to. Is it really so forgettable that the last pitch Bertman called as Tiger coach was in a losing effort to Tulane with a trip to Omaha at stake? Was that really the way Skip Bertman coached teams were supposed to behave?

 

Had Laval been calling the shots at Georgia, Vanderbilt , Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss or almost every other school in the country aside from LSU, Texas, Miami or Cal State-Fullerton, the fact that he had lost the four College World Series games he coached during his five year stint would have been lost on the idea that his team had been there in the first place.

 

Now, Bertman the athletic director has pledged to rebuild the fortress built by Bertman the baseball coach by hiring the right man to lead what is supposed to be the best college baseball program in the country. The short list of names of those worthy of the task includes two former Bertman pupils, Alabama's Jim Wells and Ole Miss' Mike Bianco, both of whom managed to take their teams deep into this year's NCAA Tournament, neither of whom had a winning record against Laval-coached teams until Ole Miss swept a three-game set against LSU in late April of this season.

 

Other possible candidates have been bantered about as well, the most intriguing and, perhaps unusual, being Bertman himself, who seems a bit perturbed about populating the SEC with coaching talent only to have it belittle his former team.

 

Truth is, Bertman may be the only choice that can satisfy a community that will settle for nothing but Bertman. How does one really find a contemporary to further the legacy of a man who has no contemporaries? And, if Bertman chooses himself, one hopes he's done so after carefully contemplating the status of Mississippi State's Ron Polk, who decided the only way to preserve his winning heritage in Starkville was to return to coaching the Bulldogs in 2002 after retiring from that same university in 1997 and serving a brief, yet successful two-year term at Georgia. His fate, legacy and potential replacements are being debated with nearly the same fervor as the conversations concerning LSU baseball's next move.

 

LSU Basketball Coach John Brady was asked by a small group of reporters a few days after Laval's dismissal to comment on the often fickle fate of coaches and the weight of expectations. Brady responded by saying he felt fortunate that the precedent set by his predecessor was not nearly that of the one Laval faced. Brady added that he felt his team playing in the Final Four this past season was an incredible accomplishment for him, the players and the fans of LSU, but he hoped that his success and failures as a coach in the next few years are not determined based upon whether his team returned to that precipice.

The fact that Brady landed a job in which he wears a sports coat and loafers to work at LSU instead of a pinstriped jersey and spikes might be his greatest accomplishment to date.

 

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Chris Macaluso is the public relations director for BREC Sports in Baton Rouge and a contributing writer to Tiger Rag magazine. He is the son of longtime Baton Rouge sports writer Joe Macaluso. Reach him at cmacal1@hotmail.com.


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