LSU junior shortstop Kramer Robertson spotted the miniature basketball hoop in the Tiger locker room hours before a midweek game against Southeastern Louisiana on April 20. The goal had been left behind from Robertson’s freshman season in 2014, when the “dunk cam” became a viral sensation on Vine.
Robertson isn’t sure why, but he thought he needed to bring the LSU baseball version of the prank back. He enlisted junior second baseman Cole Freeman to be his partner in crime for the amusement of his teammates and the Twitterverse.
The unsuspecting target Robertson and Freeman landed on was student manager Joe McCarthy, who also happens to be one of the Tigers’ left-handed batting practice pitchers. Players have nicknamed McCarthy, a senior at LSU, after a hard-throwing southpaw in the professional baseball Hall of Fame.
“Joe always comes in after [batting practice] a little mad because if you don’t swing at one pitch for Joe – that’s why we call him Randy Johnson – he gets a little upset,” Freeman said smirking. “After B.P., we’ll come in, so, obviously, all the guys were in on it. It was pretty exciting waiting for him.”
Robertson claims McCarthy just happened to be “standing at the wrong place at the wrong time,” but the execution was certainly premeditated: McCarthy walked in; sophomore pitcher Austin Bain distracted him; Freeman walked up by with the goal raised above McCarthy’s head and Robertson charged toward him with a round object in his hand.
By the end of it, Robertson was flexing his muscles, Freeman was dumping a plate of lettuce on his head and the cameraman had closed in on McCarthy’s sheepish face.
“Nobody is safe,” Robertson deadpanned, “even the coaches.”
McCarthy might have been the butt of that joke, but his role, along with the role of nine other student managers, isn’t a laughing matter around the baseball program. In college baseball, where not every program has the luxury of even one student manager, the resounding sentiment among the LSU players and coaches is simple – the student managers are the “unsung heroes.”
For a high-profile program like LSU, whose annual operating budget exceeds $2 million, that isn’t just lip service. From the very first team meeting of the year, coach Paul Mainieri reiterates to his players and the managers themselves how important they are to keeping the baseball program a well-oiled machine.
“They don’t get any publicity or any notoriety,” Mainieri said. “Yet, I don’t know how we could operate the baseball program without their help.”
A borrowed system
Overseen by director of baseball operations Micah Gibbs, the LSU student managers are divided into two groups, and there are currently five of each – on-field managers and analytical managers.
The on-field managers, like McCarthy and Marcello, haul out screens and machines for batting practice, drag the infield dirt, make sure players have appropriate equipment, do laundry, pick up a shipments and everything in between.
While Marcello serves as the lead on-field manager, McCarthy, Ian Thomas and Brian Khoury all throw batting practice or hit fungoes to players for fielding practice. Then, there’s Jimmy Jordan, who is essentially a full-time bullpen catcher.
On the flip side, the analytical managers run LSU’s TrackMan and Sydex BATS programs. TrackMan is a software that tracks the results of every pitch during a game to give detailed evaluations or scouting reports. Sydex BATS is a video software that allows the Tigers to have visual evidence of an at-bat during a game for analysis of a hitter.
All of the manager’s duties are clearly defined and the system is organized, but that definition and organization didn’t always exist, Mainieri said.
“When I got the job at LSU and I got here, we had some really good kids that were in the manager’s program,” he said. “I just didn’t feel like they had any organization and any direction.”
For a hands-on coach like Mainieri, the system he knew he needed to put in place was something he learned from his time at Notre Dame, where there was a hierarchy of managers among the athletic department.
His Fighting Irish team would have two managers, a senior and a junior, the latter of which would join the baseball team in January. When the senior graduated, the junior would assume the senior’s responsibilities, which including scheduling travel arrangements, and earn a scholarship.
Mainieri acknowledges LSU’s managerial program is “more intensive,” especially with the addition of more managers to run TrackMan and Sydex BATS, but the core concept is the same.
“They kind of earn their stripes,” said assistant coach Nolan Cain, who was the director of baseball operations from 2013-2015. “Get on, do a year pretty much for free and then the next year – if they want to stick around – then they get put on scholarship. Then, you get to be an older kid, like Paul Marcello, who has been here four or five years and a guy that’s got that much experience, everything just seems to roll when you have those veteran managers.”
The convenient aspect about LSU’s managerial program, unlike other programs around the nation or even in the Southeastern Conference, young men actively seek out to become Tiger student managers.
Over the years, LSU has gained managers, which must be full-time students enrolled at the university, from students who tried out for the team at walk-on tryouts. Others had a connection to the managerial program, either via a friend or a family member. Marcello, for example, is the fourth person in his family to serve as an LSU baseball manager.
Because the NCAA allowed for managers to contribute to practice drills a few years ago, Cain and Gibbs will also vet interested students for any baseball skills. But some don’t have that and are interested in the analytical side. One prospective manager who is starting at LSU next fall interned at the scouting service, Perfect Game, for two years and has already learned to operate TrackMan, which Cain said gives him a leg up on other potential analytical managers.
Some of the analytical managers who have come through LSU are starting to get jobs with professional organizations, too.
“You don’t really miss a beat because the TrackMan and the Sydex BATS program that we have, it takes a long time to learn that,” Cain said. “So, anytime you can recruit a kid that knows how to do it, you can kind of bypass that cutting your teeth part and now all he has to learn is the other half.”
While not always the case, Mainieri said about “half to two-thirds” of the managers had some experience playing high school or junior college baseball. All, though, must have a passion to stay around baseball or be a part of the team due to the weekly hours required, especially the on-field managers.
Most of those managers are the first ones to arrive at the facility and the last ones to leave.
“When I first started…I never had time to hang out with anybody,” Marcello said. “I was always here. They always kept asking me, ‘Is it worth it? It just seems like a ton of work.’ It’s been the greatest four years I ever could have asked for in college.”
It’s also physically taxing on managers like McCarthy and Jordan, who both played baseball in high school and are throwing and catching almost every day during LSU’s practice. Jordan, for example, catches countless bullpens each week while also frequently long tossing with pitchers.
Jordan’s duties put less physical stress on the catchers on the team, but Marcello was blown away by what kind of physical stress it puts on Jordan.
“I do not know how he does that,” Marcello said. “We always joke with him. He’ll long toss with a couple of guys and then catch another couple of bullpens. We always say, ‘You’re missing an arm today?’ Or, he’ll just kind of start limping everywhere. It’s takes such toll on him. The fact that he still has full control of all of his limbs by now is absolute amazing.”
Not only is Jordan critical for relieving the catchers on the team, he’s also raved about by the pitchers. Sophomore ace pitcher Alex Lange refers to him as “my guy,” lauding Jordan’s ability to receive the ball.
“I tell him that all the time, how good he is,” Lange said. “It’s pretty impressive. A guy that’s just a student manager to be able to receive the way he does because it’s like throwing to an actual catcher. So, you’re not worried about him dropping balls. He’s going to get on himself if he drops a baseball. It’s very, very uncommon that he does that.”
It took some time for Jordan to adjust Lange’s curveball, though.
“Lange is kind of challenge,” Jordan said. “That breaker is pretty nasty. His flat-grounds, he doesn’t really let up anything. He’ll still chunk it.
Meanwhile, McCarthy received some attention after sophomore left fielder Beau Jordan told the media McCarthy was helpful during preparation for Louisiana Tech senior left-hander Tyler Clancy on March 8. The Tigers won that game 6-3, recording five runs off Clancy’s only three innings.
McCarthy, who aspires to be a professional baseball umpire, was only made aware of his name appearing in article by family members and friends. But he is bashful about how much he really prepared the team.
“At first, I was humbled but also I was kind of like, ‘I’m just a manager,’ McCarthy said. “The guys that need the recognition are the players themselves. It was amazing, seeing the recognition in the media that I did help get the team ready.”
Marcello’s contributions aren’t seen on the practice field, but Mainieri “wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
“He just has such a great grasp of the program and what our programs needs are that he’s one step ahead of me on the things we need to get done,” Mainieri said.
Marcello said being one step of ahead of Mainieri took time, and it takes some managers as long as a full year to understand Mainieri’s expectations. Mainieri often times likes things done a specific way and wants them done well before he even notices a need. Young managers often don’t realize that or understand their importance in general, which is what makes Marcello special to Mainieri.
Like he’s done with managers in the past, Mainieri plans to write letters of recommendations for Marcello as he attempt to enroll in graduate school at the University of New Orleans. As Marcello explained, Mainieri gives special attention to the managers, who don’t typically attention of people outside the program.
“You’re not the guys who are going to be striking guys out or hitting home runs,” Marcello said. “But he always reminds us and the team, without those guys in the supporting roles behind the scenes, the program would just collapse.”
Photo by Sean Richardson.