The salute to veterans has become a staple of sporting events: an announcement, applause and a wave from the honored retiree or first responder. The ritual has become almost routine. LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, though, routinely takes it to the next level. Each of his reserves shakes the hand of the honoree. The crowd of almost 11,000, largest in college baseball, rises to its feet.
Mainieri has good reason. His father served in the Army in the Korean War. His uncle was a bombardier in World War II. And he was the first civilian baseball coach at the Air Force Academy. So when he managed to schedule both Air Force and the U.S. Military Academy teams on the same weekend, he kicked it up a couple notches more with an Air Force flyover, parachutists and Major General Pete Gersten, a catcher for Mainieri at Air Force, catching the first pitch. But the signature moments occurred in the middle of each game, when Mainieri sent his entire team across the field to shake the hands of each of the cadets.
“It wasn’t like at the end of a game, where you slap hands and say ‘good game,’” Mainieri says. “I told them to look them in the eye and shake their hand in the hope that it might inspire them to continue through the tough times at the academy and beyond.” Mission accomplished. Army coach Jim Foster got chills. Air Force coach Mike “Kaz” Kazlausky says, “Our chests were out a little more. We won in that moment.”
Because showing respect to the military is in his DNA, Mainieri never expected national attention. In hindsight, though, he isn’t surprised. “Too many headlines are about conflict and controversy. I don’t think it’s representative of our world. I think by and large, people have respect for each other.” Kaz wasn’t surprised “one little bit” by the moment or the attention it garnered nationally. He played for Mainieri at Air Force and credits him as “my guiding light; the rock, the foundation for many of us of how to do things right.” The weekend proved so uplifting that the three teams plan to meet again in 2019.
“In a few years, these young men won’t be playing anymore. They will be protecting our country, with their lives on the line,” Kaz said. “For me and for our players, it’s not about winning games and going to Omaha. Paul, his team and fans understand that.” As the season progressed, the Tigers gained even more national attention by “winning games and going to Omaha,” where they lost to Florida in the College World Series final. The season added to Mainieri’s resume, which includes:
All of which reinforces his most recent title: Musial Honoree. “Stan Musial represented what it means to be a great American, not just a great baseball player,” Kaz says. “Paul Mainieri represents what it means to be a great American, not just a great baseball coach.”