When the LSU baseball team takes on UL-Lafayette tonight, the game will be more about the off-field atmosphere than on-field play.
Tiger fans care about the result, especially because the Ragin’ Cajuns won the last matchup between the two schools in a rain-shortened affair last season at Alex Box Stadium. For the ULL faithful, this is as close to a football game against LSU as possible, so it carries the same weight.
But this season, the Tigers and Rajin’ Cajuns will meet in Metairie for the Wally Pontiff, Jr. Classic.
LSU hosts the game each season in Pontiff’s hometown. The former LSU team captain died at 21 from a heart abnormality in 2002. All proceeds from the game goes to the Wally Pontiff, Jr. Foundation, which benefits various charities and scholarships across south Louisiana.
Pontiff was First Team AllSoutheastern Conference in 2001 and Second Team All-SEC in 2002. He helped the Tigers win the conference tournament championship and the national title in 2000 and ranked top-ten in program history in hits, doubles and batting average by the end of his career.
The on-field accolades were enough to make Pontiff a remembered name in purple and gold, but his off-field success is what has the biggest impression on the current Tiger team.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said he talks to his Tigers often about the former LSU great.
“He’s really the epitome of a student-athlete,” Mainieri said. “Everybody that’s ever known him has shared with me what a tremendous person that he was — just a fun guy, a happy guy that carried himself with such class all the time. He was an excellent student and an excellent baseball player. It’s what you aspire your LSU baseball players to be.”
The Tigers seem to play their best in the Classic, holding a 9-2 record in the game. The first installment of the series occurred in 2004 when LSU defeated Southeastern Louisiana, 9-3.
The game is different than most games as well.
The atmosphere in the ballpark isn’t the same nervous feeling Alex Box maintains nowadays. The stands at Zephyr Field will be packed with Tiger fans from New Orleans who don’t make the trip to Baton Rouge. It’s a family reunion type feeling, as fans see people they haven’t seen in a while, reminisce and enjoy baseball. Growing up with the game did the same for me, giving me a chance to watch LSU play with my dad.
I’ve complained about midweek games before, but the Wally Pontiff, Jr. Classic is so different from a standard game.
When the Tigers remember Pontiff, the fans stop what they’re doing and remember the players are more than just athletes for a minute. The mood of the game is better than any game I’ve ever attended.
Pontiff’s legacy lives on throughout the LSU program beyond this one game in the form of pictures and awards given to the players. Every once in awhile someone will draw his number, 31, in the dirt next to third base, his old position.
Mainieri met Pontiff when he coached at Notre Dame. He said the former Tiger left a lasting impression with him that day and with the LSU program forever.
“I remember meeting him,” Mainieri said. “Isn’t that strange that I’d remember meeting that one individual player? His memory lives and will live forever around LSU baseball.”
Brian Pellerin is a 21-year-old mass communication junior from Kenner, Louisiana. You can reach him on Twitter @Pellerin_TDR.