Cover Story

Hard Ball

by Nathan Stubbs

Mikie Mahtook’s long road to the College World Series It was early in the week, just a few days after Friday’s game, and St. Thomas More offensive coordinator Shane Savoie was going to visit his star quarterback in the last place any coach wants to see him, the hospital. The play kept replaying inside his mind.

It was just the fourth game of the season, late in the second quarter, when Mikie Mahtook made a signature move, rolling out of the pocket, checking off his receivers, then tucking the ball and taking off down the sideline. It’s a first down for STM, but it comes with a hefty price. As Mahtook gets tackled on the sideline, his legs are swept up from under him. Like he’s done a hundred times before, he instinctively extends his arm to break his fall. But the timing is off and his arm turns and buckles under his weight as he continues falling forward. Both bones, the radius and ulna, in his forearm are shattered. Surgery requires two metal plates and 14 screws inserted in his arm.

As Savoie walked up to Mahtook’s hospital room, he thought about what to say to the young high school junior, who at the start of the season was being touted by scouts and sports writers as a blue chip recruit. Mahtook was a rare talent, a 6-foot-1 dual threat quarterback with a cannon arm and 4.4 speed. He was also a kid who’s life revolved around athletics. Growing up, he was always a three-sport athlete, excelling at football, basketball and baseball. When STM needed an extra man for a parish track meet, Mahtook filled in, and ended up placing third in the long jump his first time out. He earned the job of starting quarterback for STM as a sophomore (the only other recent STM player to achieve that distinction, Jamie Howard, went on to start under center for LSU).

Savoie expected Mahtook to be devastated, angry at the world. But as he went in to tell him how sorry he was, Mahtook stopped him. “Coach, I’m sorry,” Mahtook said. “I’m sorry for getting hurt.” The young player was beside himself that he wasn’t going to be there for practice that week. He was already anxious to get started on rehab.

“It was one of the oddest things,” Savoie recalls. “I went in there to console him and he’s trying to console me that he’s injured. For a kid in that situation, he’s thinking about his coaches and his teammates first. There’s many of those moments with Mikie where you got to see his character, and that’s just one example. He’s a very humble kid, and I think that’s a tribute to his family and his upbringing.”

Mikie Mahtook

Photo by Robin May

LSU fans now know Mahtook as starting center fielder for the Omaha-bound Tiger baseball team. Mahtook is one of the sensational freshmen (along with shortstop Austin Nola and closing pitcher Matty Ott) making an early impact at LSU. Surrounded by veterans like senior SEC Pitcher of the Year Louis Coleman and right fielder Jared Mitchell of New Iberia — a projected first rounder in the upcoming Major League draft — the Tigers are one of the favorites going into the eight-team College World Series, which starts this weekend.

Midway through the season, Mahtook found himself in the starting lineup in a game against Harvard and made the most of the opportunity. He hit a pair of two-run homers that day, including one that is still recognized as the longest yet in the new Alex Box Stadium.

Mahtook cemented his role on the team through the latter part of conference play. In the SEC Tournament, he topped all Tiger batters with a .455 average and 3 RBIs, earning the true freshman tournament MVP honors. “Mikie has been really a great find for us,” says LSU head coach Paul Mainieri. “We knew when he came here he was a great athlete and he was going to be a great ballplayer, we just didn’t know how quickly he was going to get used to the speed of the game in college and how soon he would be able to adapt to some of the things you need to adapt to. But about midway through the year, I could see that his confidence was growing and we gave him an opportunity to play, and now you can’t get him out of there.”

Known for his aggressive style, whether it be pushing for extra bases or going for the diving circus catch in center field, Mahtook’s drive reflects the years he spent dreaming of being where he is today.

“Since I’ve been 8 years old, I’ve come watch baseball games over here [at LSU],” Mahtook says. “Been to regionals, been to super regionals. In 1998 I went to the College World Series to watch them play. It’s always been one of my dreams to come play here, and when I got the opportunity, I just had to run with it.”

Photo by Robin May

It was hardly a foregone conclusion that Mahtook would be playing for LSU this year. At the November 2007 baseball signing day — when many top recruits make their announcement as to which college they’ll play for the following year — Mahtook found himself on the sidelines watching as several ballpark friends signed scholarship deals. “Mikie always thought that he would sign on signing day, and he didn’t,” says his mom, Mary Ann. “He had to swallow a lot of pride and ego, but he did it.”

Mahtook held out as LSU, and other schools at the top of his list, had yet to extend a scholarship offer. Going into his junior year, the critical under-the-microscope season prior to signing day, expectations had been high for Mahtook. But the junior slugger struggled coming back from his injury. That year, STM also saw abrupt coaching changes just prior to the season and made its debut in Class 5A, raising the level of competition. The storybook season everyone had envisioned didn’t come, for the first time raising some doubts about Mahtook’s future in athletics. People told him he should sign with a smaller school, that he should play football, that he wouldn’t make it at LSU.

“There was pressure,” Mary Ann recalls. “A lot of people were thinking, ‘Are you crazy?’ You’re not ever going to crack that lineup [at LSU].’” But Mahtook stayed true to his goals. Coach Manieri had told him that he could come on the team as a reserve and that there was the possibility that a scholarship may open up.

Brooks Badeaux, a Lafayette native who just recently wrapped up 10 years in the minor leagues, was back in town and had begun to work with Mahtook on his hitting. Badeaux was one of the voices encouraging Mahtook.

“I knew from experience that he had the potential to go in and play right away [in the SEC],” Badeaux says. “But as a player, we’re always our own worst critics, so it’s hard to trust in your abilities when you’re going against the likes of a Jared Mitchell. It’s just that those guys have proven themselves and you wonder, ‘Can I do it?’”

Mahtook dispelled any doubts about his abilities during his senior year. In football, he made All-State quarterback and led STM to an upset win over defending state champion Acadiana High. He also had an all-star year in baseball, finishing the season with a .450 batting average, 12 homers and 36 RBIs.

Major league scouts took notice, and Mahtook went to a combine camp in San Antonio. He ended up getting selected in the 39th round of the Major League draft, but opted not to sign. LSU had come through with a scholarship and Mahtook decided that the pros could wait.

Photo by Robin May

Breaking his arm is hardly the biggest tragedy Mikie Mahtook has endured. That came early in life, at age 4.

Mikie’s uncle, Ronnie Mahtook, remembers it like it was yesterday. He was in New Orleans when his brother called. ‘Come back to Lafayette. Let’s go to men’s night at Oakborne and play tennis.’ Ronnie was reluctant, but relented after his brother Mikie insisted.

“I think he was in his third set,” Ronnie recalls. “He went up to the net, he hit the ball and he just passed out. We kinda thought he was joking. He was playing with two doctors. I mean, he had the best care that could have been there if he could have been saved, but he died on impact, when he fell.”

The official diagnosis was cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that can cause sudden cardiac arrest. It was completely unforeseen. Mikie Senior had not displayed any symptoms of heart failure, was in good health, didn’t smoke, and rarely drank. The 32-year-old left behind a wife, Mary Ann, and three kids, 4-year-old son Mikie Junior and two 2-year-old twin girls, Catherine and Christina.

“It was tragic for everyone,” says Ronnie. “Mary Ann was devastated.” She and her three kids moved in with Ronnie’s family for a few months before going back home.

“We kept [the kids] busy,” Ronnie says. “We kept them upbeat. I think the closeness kept us all going because, I tell you, there’s still not a day that goes by that I don’t think about [Mikie Senior]. I have a picture of him on my desk. I mean, I don’t even have a picture of my wife on my desk.”

From that point on, Ronnie says that young Mikie and his two sisters “had four dads,” referring to himself and his three other brothers, Robbie, Greg and Marc. The uncles were all sports freaks, football in particular. Ronnie had played for USL, and Robbie had played linebacker at LSU alongside Mikie Senior. Greg Mahtook coaches the STM freshman team.

The uncles were always Mikie’s biggest football fans, and Ronnie remembers questioning Mikie when he heard from STM coaches that his nephew had decided to just focus on baseball. “We’d question him and he’d kind of dance around it and not tell us too much,” Ronnie recalls. “Then he says, ‘OK, OK I did tell them, I want to just play baseball. I didn’t want y’all to be disappointed.’ But how could we be disappointed in him?”

Ronnie admits he has a tendency to be almost too boastful of his nephew, always quick to pull out Mikie’s high school highlight reel. “In fact, his mother doesn’t like too many people asking me about him because I’m so prejudiced,” Ronnie says. “It’s almost like I feel he can walk on water when it comes to athletics.”

“I hate to compare him to [former NFL QB] Michael Vick,” he adds, “but he was like a Michael Vick. He could throw it but you better not let him run.”

Mary Ann Mahtook is the perfect foil to uncle Ronnie. Having become all too familiar with the ups and downs of a sport like baseball, she constantly challenges Mikie to keep his perspective straight. “I keep telling him, ‘Mikie, what are you going to do when you slump? Because you’re going to slump. It’s baseball. What are you going to do? Are you prepared?’”

It’s a hard-nosed coach’s perspective that Mary Ann has learned from being around some of Mikie’s baseball mentors. At age 9, Mikie joined the Cajun Sluggers, a select travel team put together by head coach Mike Saab, a former LSU ball player, and assistants Ken Stelly (a former minor leaguer) and David Dugas. The Cajun Sluggers had a core group of young prodigies and were a winning team on the tournament circuit, making it all the way to the world series finals one year. Saab and his assistants were often hard on the players, pushing them to be better and instilling in them a diligent work ethic and discipline. Among Mikie’s teammates was Tyler Frederick, now a redshirt freshman for UL; Grant Dozar, a freshman for LSU; Jacques Fruge, who plays for LSU-E; and Taylor Dugas, a standout rookie for the University of Alabama who joined Mahtook on the All-SEC freshman team this year. The group became like a second family to the Mahtooks.

“It was a big part of our life,” says Mary Ann. “It kind of kept us glued together because it was activity for us to do as a family unit every weekend. Literally every weekend, we were in a hotel together and with other families, eating out, barbecuing by the pool, we loved it.

“It seems like maybe it would be difficult,” she continues, “but we have some of our fondest memories and some really neat friendships that we made over the years because of it.”

In the process, Mary Ann learned baseball, a sport she says teaches patience and how to cope with disappointment. In baseball, a .300 batting average is considered excellent; that’s only a 30 percent success rate. “You fail more than in any other sport,” she says. “It’s a game of failure. You can [bat] 4-for-4 one game and then the next game go 0-for-4. It’s the most humbling sport. Baseball is built around how you handle failure and adversity, how you fall flat on your face and pick yourself up. You have players that start one year and don’t play the next. You really have to be mentally tough to endure that and to keep yourself mentally focused.”

“And that’s what I tell Mikie,” she adds. “And I think everything we’ve been through, and the expectations that weren’t met, he’s fallen and the way he’s picked himself up and handled adversity has served him well.”