Raph Rhymes fulfills his Omaha promise

Photo provided by Kathy Biedenharn -- In a photo taken at the 2003 College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Raph Rhymes, left, stands with friend Hudson Biedenharn.
Photo provided by Kathy Biedenharn -- In a photo taken at the 2003 College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Raph Rhymes, left, stands with friend Hudson Biedenharn.

Taken alone, the 10-year-old photo offers only a one-dimensional look at childhood friends frozen in time: two sports-loving boys from Monroe posing for a mom who had taken her son and his buddy on the trip of their young lives.

But one of the 13-year-old boys — a kid named Raph Rhymes — has played a whole lot of baseball since that photo was taken at the 2003 College World Series. And something he said that warm June day in Omaha, Neb., now fills the photo with prophetic meaning.

“I’ll never forget what Raph told us,” said Kathy Biedenharn, mother of Hudson, then one of Rhymes’ best friends.

As the youngsters positioned themselves for photos in the box seats behind home plate at old Rosenblatt Stadium, Rhymes blurted out an unusually bold statement for a boy who was generally quite reserved: “I’m going to come back here. Y’all are going to see me play here one day for the LSU Tigers.”

For Biedenharn and her husband, Murray, who also made that trip with the boys, the echo of those words was especially poignant Saturday night as they sat in Alex Box Stadium and cheered for Rhymes and his LSU teammates.

Rhymes by then was the much-celebrated owner of an improbable narrative, having gone from being a freshman walk-on who failed to make the 2009 LSU team to becoming an All-America outfielder who led the nation in batting average (.431) a year ago. But the senior had yet to make good on his decade-old declaration about returning to Omaha as a Tiger.

With that in mind, the Biedenharns watched with joy as LSU defeated Oklahoma 11-1 to win the Baton Rouge Super Regional and clinch a spot in the CWS.

They saw Rhymes, in the final home appearance of his college career, get two hits and make the defensive play of the game in left field: a leaping, seventh-inning catch at the wall.

They numbered only two in a raucous, record-setting crowd of 11,401, but the Biedenharns had a unique perspective. What they once heard from a 13-year-old boy they finally got to see happen for a 23-year-old man who that very afternoon had been drafted by the Detroit Tigers.

“It’s awesome,” Kathy said. “And what’s so impressive about Raph — he always had a goal in mind, and nothing got in his way. He just kept working at it, and then he finally did it. I guess it’s one example where the good guy wins.”

Kathy said this at 11:50 p.m. Saturday while she and Murray waited to visit with Rhymes outside the stadium. With more than 100 fans crowding Rhymes for autographs, photos and congratulatory hugs, the Biedenharns did not mind the wait. After all, they had been waiting 10 years for this moment.

Kathy did not have her old Omaha photo with her, but she could still see it in her mind. One of the first things that sticks out is that young Raph is not sporting the purple and gold of LSU. He is wearing a blue Rice Owls T-shirt, but there is a good explanation.

The whole idea of the trip had been to see LSU play in the World Series, but by losing their first two games, the Tigers were eliminated before the Biedenharns and Rhymes even arrived. They adopted Rice as their stand-in team and started learning the players’ names.

Just watching the games was great. But the boys also enjoyed the ballpark food, the souvenir stands and the whole scene at the historic ballpark. They collected autographs from players and staked out the press box entrance so they could get ESPN analyst Harold Reynolds to sign baseballs.

Rhymes’ dream already had been to play baseball for LSU. Now the dream had a final destination attached to it.

At 12:05 a.m. Sunday, Rhymes was still signing autographs when his father, Bubba, briefly interrupted to hand him a gift: a 2013 College World Series T-shirt he had purchased a while earlier in the stadium.

Rhymes initially draped the shirt over his shoulder, but Bubba encouraged him to put it on — and he did. Kathy approached to ask Rhymes to pose in his new shirt. Ten years later, she wanted another photo to document that things had come full circle.

Rhymes used both hands to tug at the shirt and ensure the lettering showed clearly. And this time he actually smiled — which he had not bothered to do back in 2003.

“Got it?” he asked.

“Got it,” Biedenharn said.

And with that, Raph Rhymes returned to his autograph-seeking fans, 10 years removed from his childhood promise and a moment closer to the final destination of his dream.