"Did you move our fences back?" he asks assistant coach Jody Autery, who is busy pitching batting practice to a group of Tigers. The answer is a sly "yeah, but you weren't looking," or something of the sort.
"Thought so," mumbles Laval, chin resting on the backs of his hands as he leans on the cage looming over home plate. It seems not enough balls are leaving the yard in this particular session of BP.
He calls for the players to switch up, and some of the ones in the field shagging the flies and grounders trot in, switching caps for batting helmets. This particular group of seven — a mixture of new faces and veterans — each take a few hacks before Laval calls a halt to the pitching and comes around the front of the cage. He holds in his hand an interesting teaching device: a baseball mounted on the end of a two-and-a-half foot wooden dowel — a horsehide scepter in the hands of the resident king — and calls the seven players to gather around him. He then tells them to illustrate for him where they think the best point of contact is in their swing.
The players — freshmen Will Harris and Bruce Sprowl; sophomores J.C. Holt, Blake Gill and Clay Harris; junior Aaron Hill; and senior Eric Wiethorn — all strike a pose in pantomime of the midpoint of their collective swings, resembling the shots on baseball cards they all hope to one day adorn.
Smoke goes to each of them in turn, adjusting the wrists of Clay Harris, the shoulders of Wiethorn, the waist of Holt. He uses his ball-on-a-stick to simulate the path of an incoming pitch, and how what the batters think their ideal impact point may not be what they originally imagined.
He concentrates the most on Sprowl, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior-college transfer out of Shelton State Community College who was having particular trouble getting around on the pitch even during batting practice.
"Let's try it one more time," Laval says, and the group once again gathers around the back of the cage. Hill, a junior from Visalia, Calif., and a foundation of LSU's team offensively and defensively in 2002, digs into the batter's box and promptly rips the first offering just inside the foul line and into right-field corner.
"See how quick he is?" Smoke asks Sprowl. "His hands are inside the ball. That's gonna fall for a base hit every time. You gotta trust your hands. Just spank it."
A little later, Smoke has the position players clear the field of the batting cage and protective screens that shield position players during BP. The pitchers police trashcans and any other loose items that might blow away when the forecasted Hurricane Isidore comes to town later in the week.
Meanwhile, a team manager is busy fiddling with a microphone that every so often sends a wail of feedback throughout the Alex Box Stadium public address system. Once he gets things in order, the reason of his work becomes clear.
With his team scattered around the park in their respective positions, Laval paces the infield grass with the microphone and begins to address the fundamental aspects of situational fielding that many of these players have had bored into them since playing tee-ball in second grade.
"Runner on first, base hit to left field," he calls through the PA system so that everyone on the field can hear him. A couple of pitchers act as runners, one streaking off to second base and another darting toward first. The fielders are to go through the motions of how they would act should this particular play arise in a game. "Annndddd, freeze!" Smoke calls, and the players stop in mid-motion.
"Why are you here?" he quizzes the second baseman, who is standing fifteen feet behind the bag. "Shouldn't you be covering this area over here?"
Smoke moves the kids like chess pieces, setting up instance after instance of game situations in an effort to make their actions an instinct — rote behavior that come naturally in the heat of real-game situations.
Not only does Laval point out when players are in error, he gets them to explain to him why a certain action was wrong. And he doesn't hesitate to call them put by name, putting them on the spot in front of the entire squad.
"Where do you go now, Weet?" Smoke asks Wiethorn, playing first base in yet another drill. Wiethorn wordlessly points toward second base with his glove. When this fails to get a response, Wiethorn then points toward the pitcher's mound, his eyebrows raised in a questioning arch.
"And why is that?" Laval inquires.
"To back up second base for the incoming throw."
Apparently this is the right answer, for Smoke calls for a new round of situational drills to begin. These are very similar to the previous drills, with the exception that live batter hits a ball that must be actually fielded and thrown. Again, Smoke calls out a situation and the BP coach tosses to the plate. The pitch is looped into left field, and now the players have to react in real-time to establish whether or not they have absorbed the freeze-frame, more cerebral version of coaching they had earlier received.
Apparently some have. Clay Harris, playing third base, kneels and backhands a hard chopper from Jon Zeringue, fires it to Hill covering second, who in turn rifles it to Wiethorn to complete the double play.
"Now that's how it looks," Laval shouts into the mike from the third base dugout.
"You're a little farther away this year, Holt," jokes Smoke a bit later. The speedy Holt, who platooned in the infield for LSU last season, now practices in center field. "Now you have to catch 'em all in the air."
The levity is short-lived, however. As the rain begins to fall more steadily, Smoke's mood turns a bit dour.
"It's so quiet I could fall asleep over here," he says in reference to the lack of chatter amongst the fielders. They aren't helping each other by calling out to which base a fielder should throw.
Holt chases down a deep fly that has dropped over his head and, fielding it, hurls the ball to third base to the shouts of "Three! Three!" coming in from the infield.
Unfortunately, the runner has passed third and is already crossing the plate.
"Four! Four!" shouts assistant coach Turtle Thomas, meaning that the call should have been for the throw to come home. "That's your call, Harris!"
Clay Harris, who at third base muffed the call, is also getting a tongue-lashing from Smoke.
Laval, in his best Skip Bertman imitation (which unfortunately isn't very good, but passable), calls out, "You'll be R-S for sure. That's red shirt. The only way to make this club is to run it out."
Harris looks duly rebuked, but all is for the better. All of the criticism is abjectly constructive, meted out with Laval's dry, Yankee wit. And the players take to it. For even on this damp, rainy fall afternoon there is still the sense that the Program of the 90s could well evolve into the Program of the New Millennium under the tutelage of Smoke Laval and his assistants.
Even if they keep moving those darn fences back.