NORMAN – Word is out, has long been out, on the college baseball mecca that is Alex Box Stadium-Skip Bertman Field, home of the LSU Tigers.
The Oklahoma Sooners are en route, not on any sightseeing journey to some holy city of hardball, but to do serious baseball business with the Tigers – for a berth in the College World Series. Those are the stakes this weekend, when OU and LSU meet in the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It's going to be awesome,” said OU senior outfielder Max White. “It's a great place to play. I haven't played there, but I've heard a lot about it.”
And the Sooners expect to hear it.
“I know their fans aren't going to like us very much,” said OU coach Sunny Golloway. “They might even say a few mean things here and there. I know they're going to be strong in numbers.
“But I really like it.”
So, what are the Sooners up against, playing ball on the bayou?
Perhaps as rough a road as there is on the way to Omaha.
The 10,150-seat stadium will be overflowing.
LSU has led the nation in attendance for 18 straight seasons. And Tigers fans show up strong to see teams that generally rule. The program's NCAA Tournament winning percentage of .726 (130-49) ranks No. 1 all-time. And LSU's six College World Series titles (all since 1991) are tied with Texas for second-most, trailing only Southern Cal.
This Tigers team has so far continued the tradition. Ranked No. 1 and seeded No. 4 in the tournament, LSU stands 55-9 and is coming off a sweep through the Baton Rouge Regional. The Tigers, who won the SEC Tournament, are 37-4 at home this season and placed a school-record five players on the All-SEC First Team, including Pitcher of the Year Aaron Nola.
So teams that wish to succeed at “The Box” must conquer a talented team. And a turbulent crowd.
“It's definitely a place that when you walk in there and play, it can take a little getting used to,” said Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday, who made trips into Baton Rouge as an assistant at Vanderbilt.
OU fans still complain about their run-in with LSU fans during the days surrounding the BCS championship game back in January of 2003. The chants of “Tiger Bait” and an in-your-face faction left a mark, well before LSU ended their national title dreams.
The Baton Rouge baseball crowd, however, carries a classier reputation.
“This is a much different fan base, much more of a baseball-type fan base where they're knowledgeable about the game,” said Randy Rosetta, the veteran LSU beat writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “They'll applaud great plays and the opposing pitcher when they've done well.
“Now, they will get on the opposing team. They'll unearth whatever information they can to get under their skin, but for the most part it's generally good natured, as long as it's not Mississippi State.”
That's the way Holliday sees it, too.
“Great atmosphere,” he said. “It's passionate, but it's not hateful. It's supportive. It's loud. It's strong, but in my two times there it has never been against the spirit of competition.
“It's a healthy fan base. They're involved. And you definitely know you're there.”
The passion started with legendary coach Skip Bertman 30 years ago, when he took over before the 1984 season. Bertman quickly turned around a scuffling program, in his second year leading to the Tigers into the postseason, where they've seemingly lived ever since.
Current coach Paul Mainieri has mostly kept it rolling, with a national championship run in 2009.
So there's plenty of good ball behind the buzz, which extends inside and outside of The Box.
LSU baseball fans do maintain one SEC football tradition: tailgating.
“There will be RVs and tailgating and little tent cities set up,” Rosetta said. “It's much more of an event, to go along with being a college baseball game.
“So there will be 11,000, 12,000 inside and maybe 4,000 or 5,000 more outside who couldn't get tickets, but want to be near everything.”
It's those 11,000 or so inside who can make the most impact.
“The crowd knows when to get noisy,” said Rosetta, who has spent nine years on the LSU beat. “They stay consistently noisy. And they do affect the game. They can rattle a pitcher. Honestly, they can rattle an umpire, make him think about a call.”
That's what the Sooners are up against.
“We're ready for it,” said OU catcher Anthony Hermelyn. “What kind of player doesn't want to play in front of that? It's extra motivation for sure. It's you against the world out there. We like it that way as baseball players.”