A new beginning

On Feb. 20, the first pitch will be thrown out at the New Alex Box stadium, opening a new era in one of the most storied baseball programs in NCAA history.

The story began long ago for "The Box," opening in 1938 as the LSU Diamond. The first game would be a loss for the Tigers, dropping a March 24 decision to Minnesota. Of course, the correlation between losing baseball games and The Box would eventually become lost.


When Tiger outfielder and letterman Simeon Alex Box was killed in North Africa during combat in World War II, LSU Diamond took on a new name. Honoring the fallen soldier, who went on to receive a Purple Heart for his service, the park changed its name to Alex Box.


Over the next 70 years, the park would give the Tiger faithful memories that they could carry on forever, providing a script behind the stories of the "good ole days", passed down through each generation in hopes of keeping LSU baseball at the forefront of the bayou culture.


There was May 5, 1967, when right hander Bruce Baudier tossed seven innings of perfect baseball. The capacity crowd of 2,500 that packed into the Box that day remain the only fans to witness a perfect game in the park's history.


In 1984, the Tigers hired Stanley "Skip" Bertman as head coach, snatching him out of South Beach, where he had helped to right the ship for the Miami Hurricanes. Though empty seats were all you could see when Skip arrived, the ghost town feeling would not last long.


After renovations to The Box throughout the late 80s, Bertman began to see fans line up to get into the park. When they arrived, they got their first glimpse of what LSU baseball would soon become.


In 1991, the Tigers hosted just their second NCAA Regional in the park's history. Fans saw the Bayou Bengals take not just the Regional, but also their first National Championship.


After the Tigers tasted Omaha there was no turning back, winning four more National Championships over the next nine seasons. The Box, of course, always had a hand in the success, running a string of hosting a Regional 16 years in a row. The Box became the hippest place in the country to catch a ball game, securing the nation's top attendance record during 12 straight seasons in the process.


When the news came that LSU would be building a new park, rightfully tabbed the New Alex Box, a sense of wanting came across the Tigers. With a history immersed in such rich tradition, closing out The Box was not possible without first reaching baseball's ultimate heights: the College World Series.


Of course, none have forgotten what the Tiger team meant by "closing things out in style." It was a script that could have only been written by Hollywood's finest.


By midseason, the Tigers were at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference barrel and scraping to stay alive. Looking forward, the series against Mississippi State looked by most to be the last series that the park would see. Yet, one 23-game win streak and thousands upon thousands of screaming fans later, The Box would taste the postseason once more.


The park's final days were spent in style, painting a picture that will remain engrained in the minds of the Tiger faithful for years to come. For some, the thought of those final days may never leave them.


Taking a No. 7 national seed into the Super Regional, the Tigers dropped their opening game to UC-Irvine 11-5.


In game two, the Anteaters came out strong once more, taking a 7-4 lead into the ninth inning and putting The Box three outs away from breathing its final breath. Five runs later, the Tigers had topped UC-Irvine 9-5, forcing a decisive third game.


Of course, there would no denying the Tigers from seizing the opportunity to put a final exclamation point on over 70 years of baseball history, seeing LSU defeat the Anteaters in blowout fashion, 21-7. As the home runs fell like rain on Tiger fans, the group of players in purple and gold realized that they had closed out the Box in the most fitting of fashions, sending LSU back to Omaha once more.


Head coach Paul Mainieri, who started his collegiate baseball career with the Tigers as a player in 1976, said that, even in his wildest dreams, the story could not have been more fitting.


"If I could have written a script for my first three years at LSU, I couldn't have written a better story," he said. "Even the first year, a 29-26 record is not anything that anyone is ever going to be proud of around here. But we were pretty thin, and we still won 12 games against top 25 teams. We also won four SEC series against teams ranked in the top 25. That was significant overachieving in my book.


"The second year, we were a much better ball club," added Mainieri. "We had the No. 1 ranked recruiting class and we just knew we would be a better team. For us to finish the season with a 23-game win streak, and then be able to host postseason play in The Box during the last year of its existence was just too special."


Mainieri points to the Box's final days as memories that he will carry with him forever.


"Just to actually finish the last two games in Alex Box meant everything," he said. "Then with one last great come from behind victory, and then a tremendous blowout victory where we hit all the home runs and let the people enjoy the moment so much, you couldn't ask for anything better.


"And look at us now, embarking on a new era in a new stadium as the No. 1 team," added Mainieri. "How do you dream things like that? It's just an awesome experience for everyone involved."


This Friday, the transition will be complete as the Tigers look to open the 2009 season in front of a sold out crowd in the New Alex Box Stadium.


While the park moved just 200 yards south and the dimensions remain the same – 330 feet down the lines, 365 feet in the power alleys and 405 feet in center field – the Tigers' skipper said that adjustments will need to be made.


"It's just a whole different atmosphere, and I think that is the biggest thing," Mainieri said. "At the old Box, we were so used to the atmosphere. We got used to playing with that grandstand, while the new one is much larger. It also has a much bigger canopy, which makes the shadows a lot different.


"Another thing we will be dealing with at the new park is that with the grass being so low, we don't want to cut it down too much," continued Mainieri. "That leaves us dealing with some thicker grass, and that can cause trouble. And then there is no Intimidator in right field. It is just a whole different atmosphere, but we'll get used to it and just adapt."


With arguably the nicest stadium in NCAA baseball, with a capacity of 9,200, Mainieri is quick to point to both the fans and the staff's ability to recruit as the chief beneficiaries of the new park.


"First, it is going to help us recruit better players, or at least maintain the level of talent we are bringing in now," he said. "The fans will also be more comfortable, which is what getting out to the park is all about. I think the scoreboard will be really great for their enjoyment as well as the improvements to the sound system."


Admitting that he lies awake at night thinking of getting his team into the new park, the understanding that LSU baseball will be made over in just three days has not sunk in with Mainieri.


"It is pretty crazy, but we just have to realize that this is our history," he said. "We are going to be able to invent our own history. This is the only time ever that there will be a first game or first season at the new Alex Box.


"50 years from now these kids can say they were involved in the first games of the new stadium, and that is just cool to think about," added Mainieri. "It's a wonderful facility, and anyone who loves LSU baseball will take pride in it."


For players like Leon Landry and Jared Mitchell, who were born and raised on the bayou, growing up a baseball player in Louisiana meant summer camps with the LSU staff in the old Alex Box. That said, the opportunity to not just be a Tiger, but also close out the stadium last season, was one that they will never forget.


"It was one of the best feelings ever," Mitchell said. "Being from around here and knowing what LSU baseball means to everyone, it was really special to do what we did. It made baseball fun again, and that was the best part."


Landry, a Baton Rouge-native, was at a loss for words as he tried to capture the feeling that has overtaken him over the past year.


"I don't know how to explain it, but I do know that nobody can ever take last year away from me," he said. "We owed it to everyone. This is a program of excellence, and we had to let everyone know we still got it.


"Coming into my freshman year the new stadium was supposed to be built," Landry continued. "I'm glad it wasn't though, because I got to experience a piece of LSU history that I needed to know. I'm just fortunate that I get to be a part of both stadiums, so it was great timing. I am blessed and really appreciative for everything that LSU has brought me."


That feeling of appreciation is one that all of the Tiger family holds, not just for the success that LSU baseball has brought, but the lasting memories that the old Alex Box left behind.


There was the 2003 Super Regional win over UNC-Wilmington, where purple and gold clad fans cheered on both the Tigers and Seahawks as they made a victory lap, together, around the Box. The UNC-Wilmington players would return home to shower LSU's mailbox with letters expressing their gratitude for picking them up while they were down.


Then there was Wally Pontiff's "31" that kept a watchful eye over the Tigers from centerfield, with the Intimidator doing the same in right.


Though the stadium will soon be no more, the memories will always remain.

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