Lesar: Former Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri looks at home

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Turn off the cameras and recorders and Paul Mainieri comes to life.

Other than looking out of place in purple and gold, the face of the Notre Dame baseball program from 1995-2006 seemed right at home in the Irish dugout Monday.

The 58-year-old Mainieri has brought his 10th-ranked LSU team on a cultural expedition to see what baseball in the north (and the dining experience at Parisi’s Italian Ristorante, Mainieri’s favorite hangout) is all about. The 31-16 Tigers will face Notre Dame, 26-20, in single games Tuesday and Wednesday (6:05 p.m. first pitch both days).

Once the formal media session was done, as he glanced around the dugout, it was easy to see the memories wash over his face.

“Those are new,” he said, pointing to the electric heaters on the dugout roof.

Then, he went on to entertain his mesmerized audience with the story of a player whose pants caught fire on the old butane heaters.

He talked about his 2002 Irish team that made an unlikely trip to the College World Series after beating top-ranked Florida State in a best-of-three series in Tallahassee.

He recounted his post-game press conference after the opening win. Florida reporters were stunned at the upset.

“Someone asked if I was surprised we won. I slammed my hand down on the table and said, ‘We didn’t come here just to show up,’” he said. “Then, I walked out. That was it.”

Notre Dame lost the second game, then won the third and a trip to Omaha.

“I was asked (again) if I was surprised at what happened,” Mainieri said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I thought we’d win in two.’ I was pretty cocky back then.”

He’s still a baseball guy, been that way his entire life. That naturally means he’s a great storyteller. It’s a prerequisite.

“Baseball is a pastoral game,” said current Notre Dame coach Mik Aoki. “It’s not bound by time. (Baseball guys) have way too much time on our hands. My wife says that baseball players (and coaches) have the strangest sense of humor; a warped sense of humor.

“We travel a lot and we see so many things.”

So ... The stories just kinda flow.

Mainieri was able to recall chapter and verse of so many key games that were played at Notre Dame under his watch. He said artificial turf, which was installed a couple years ago, would have been a reality much sooner had he stayed. He had the Notre Dame brass convinced of its necessity.

He talked about what LSU’s 2009 shocking national championship run – when the Tigers had finished eighth in the Southeastern Conference – meant to him and his career.

Remember when preseason events with speakers like Tommy Lasorda and Jim Hendry would draw 1,000 or so fans? Along with admission for the event was a season ticket package, giving the Irish a solid base of fans.

Today, LSU has a season-ticket base of more than 10,000. Before the Tigers hit the road, Mainieri’s greeted by a throng of about 16 media members eager for an update, an entourage reserved for football at Notre Dame.

In some respects, South Bend and Baton Rouge are worlds apart. But, the reason for coaching is a common denominator.

“My father (Demie Mainieri, like Paul, a member of the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame) told me there’s only one person you have to answer to – that’s the person you look at in the mirror every morning when you brush your teeth,” Paul said. “As long as you know you did your best, that’s all you can do.

“I went into coaching for the right reasons. I’m very proud of that. I went into it to help young people, to impact their lives, to help teach them how to be successful, first on a baseball field, but those qualities translate into any walk of life.”

“Probably the best way to understand how Paul’s been able to excel and thrive (for 34 years), and me for 20 years, is that in some shape or form you’re not in it for yourself, you’re in it for the kids,” said Aoki. “Your mission is to help them along in their journey.”

Mainieri’s journey has led him back to some familiar territory.

He’s finding that he can go home again. At least for a couple days.

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, who coached at Notre Dame from 1995-2006 poses for a photo during practice, Monday, May 9, 2016 in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)