Rabalais: Nobody did it better than Skip Bertman

Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Skip Bertman speaks to the crowd after LSU beat Mississippi State 9-6 on May 11, 2008, in the last regular-season game played in the old Alex Box Stadium. Show caption
Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Skip Bertman speaks to the crowd after LSU beat Mississippi State 9-6 on May 11, 2008, in the last regular-season game played in the old Alex Box Stadium.

The next time Skip Bertman’s grandson Ezra comes down from Baltimore for a visit, he wants to go to Poppy’s field.

Well, Ezra, it’s about to officially become Poppy’s field. In a very real sense, it has been for a long time since before you were born.

Sometimes it takes a crusade to create a great change. Often times, though, it takes the will of just one man.

For LSU athletics and college baseball, Bertman is that man.

There’s a plaque in the LSU clubhouse beneath Alex Box Stadium — the new Alex Box Stadium that Bertman willed into existence when the old one was no longer able to hold all of his dreams. It’s attributed to longtime Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, but it suits Bertman as well:

“The difference between possible and the impossible lies in a man’s determination.”

It is Bertman’s determination and dedication that put his name above the scoreboard in Alex Box Stadium, an honorific that will become official before Friday night’s game against Ole Miss. It is his vision and passion that made him perhaps the most influential person in the history of college baseball, and certainly the most influential person in the history of LSU athletics.

It’s not really possible to tell Bertman’s story without including a chapter about a man named Bob Brodhead, LSU’s athletic director and a central cast member in the “Crazy Days at LSU” years of the mid-1980s.

Brodhead wasn’t good at avoiding controversy, but he was exceptional at hiring coaches. He hired Bill Arnsparger, Sue Gunter, Buddy Alexander, Scott Luster and Jerry Simmons among others, Southeastern Conference championship-winning coaches all.

Bertman turned out to be the multi-faceted jewel, a man with the ability to coach and promote at similar genius levels. Bertman was bringing in the San Diego Chicken to entertain fans at the same time he was scheming to beat you, predicting to his players and coaches how a game would unfold before it happened.

“When dad got to LSU, he saw the vast untapped potential of the baseball program,” Mindy Brodhead Averitt said. “He thought baseball should and would win. The way to make that happen is you get the best guy for the job.

“When dad was with the (Miami) Dolphins and Skip was at the University of Miami, he had clearly heard a lot about Skip — not just because he was a scholar of the game but in the marketing and promotions end of it. That spoke to my dad.”

Bertman knew that making sure the coffee was hot was almost as important as the balls and strikes. As LSU baseball’s success and attendance grew — along with its profitability — Bertman started getting calls from other SEC athletic directors.

“I got calls from David Housel at Auburn and Frank Broyles at Arkansas,” he said. “They wanted to know, ‘How do you do that?’ I told them to get a coach and build a ballpark. Then others followed.”

Bertman didn’t reinvent the pastoral glory of baseball, but he did distill it and expand it to the masses at the college level. Today, every successful college program owes a bit of its special appeal, and a sliver of its profits, to Bertman.

He knew those angles, too. He was going to retire in 2001 and ply the speaking and fundraising circuit when former LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert tabbed him as an unbeatable compromise pick to replace Joe Dean as athletic director.

Like “Mr. String Music” before him, Bertman was clearly putting his enormous popularity on the line. But as athletic director he did what he thought was right and not what was popular, like instituting the Tradition Fund for LSU season tickets going into the 2004 football season.

Of course, it didn’t hurt ticket sales that LSU won the 2003 BCS title. As Bertman would be the first to admit, you have to be both good and lucky, and he’s often been both.

After all the wins and the glory, the thing Bertman is proudest of may be surprising.

“The fact that the fans clap for the other team is what I enjoy most,” said Bertman, who recalls having to tell fans in his early days they were umpires, not referees, calling the balls and strikes. “I love that. They give a standing ovation for a great pitching performance by the other team.”

There’s a standing ovation coming Skip Bertman’s way Friday night when the field at Alex Box officially becomes Poppy’s field.

It’s impossible that anyone could be more deserving.