Rabalais: Sooners hope to turn tragedy to triumph

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Oklahoma baseball coach Sunny Golloway watches his team take batting practice Thursday, June 6, 2013 at Alex Box Stadium. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Oklahoma baseball coach Sunny Golloway watches his team take batting practice Thursday, June 6, 2013 at Alex Box Stadium.

The first thing you notice are the powder blue T-shirts. A closer look reveals the powder blue shoelaces.

A bit more delving reveals what they represent.

The blue is from the background color of the Oklahoma state flag. On the front of the T-shirts, the Oklahoma baseball team is wearing an outline of the state with the word “Home” inside it.

Home is, as the saying goes, where the heart is. If you call Oklahoma home, it’s taken an awful beating lately.

Louisiana is a state that takes a back seat to none in having dealt with storm-related tragedy. Still, the scope of the tornadoes that raked across central Oklahoma last month have the ability to stun and amaze.

The EF5 tornado May 20 that carved through Moore, Okla., between Oklahoma City and the University of Oklahoma’s campus in Norman, was on the ground for 17 miles. That’s roughly the distance between the I-10 Mississippi River bridge and the Juban Road exit on I-12 near Walker.

The EF5 tornado that devoured much of El Reno, a town west of Oklahoma City, on May 31 was 2.6 miles wide at the height of its destructive power. Imagine a storm spinning from Tiger Stadium all the way to the River Center, and you have an idea of the size of that killer.

Against the backdrop of those twin tragedies, Oklahoma athletic teams have played on. And prospered.

The Oklahoma softball team, bolstered by the mantra “We’re playing for Moore than ourselves,” won the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, wrapping up the title Tuesday night against Tennessee.

The Oklahoma baseball team won the Big 12 tournament, again in Oklahoma City, then went on the road and won a regional at Virginia Tech to earn the right to play LSU on Friday in the Baton Rouge Super Regional. The Sooners haven’t lost a game since so many lost their lives, their businesses, their homes.

“The state,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said, “inspired us.”

The Sooners have tried to repay that inspiration in several ways.

Instead of having a normal practice day in advance of the Big 12 tournament, Golloway’s team spent the time delivering supplies in Moore and to families and relief workers staying on the OU campus.

“There were more important things to do than go worry about hitting a baseball,” Golloway said. “I thought it was good for our guys to get away from baseball and focus on other things for a while.”

Under their road jerseys, the Sooners will wear those blue T-shirts above their blue shoelaces against LSU.

And it will remind them that they are playing for Moore. And El Reno. And all the lives silenced or ripped apart by two unspeakable monsters.

“That’s a lesson they got that can’t be repeated,” Golloway said of his players. “They wanted to play well for all the people there rooting for us.”

Oklahoma’s back story puts LSU, and its baseball team, in an unenviable position, much like the Tennessee softball team was in the WCWS final.

If you don’t love the Tigers or love to hate the Sooners, you probably will be rooting for Oklahoma to take its T-shirts and shoelaces on the road one more time to Omaha.

It’s not to say the Tigers will be the villain of the piece, but the world loves to rally behind an underdog or the downtrodden. It’s a natural reaction in the “there but for the grace of God go I” vein.

It’s uncomfortable for LSU but not completely unlike the role the Tigers found themselves in during last year’s super regional, which they lost to Stony Brook. Or the time LSU was the first baseball team to play at Alabama two years ago in the wake of the tornado that devastated a swath of Tuscaloosa just south of campus.

“In Louisiana we kind of know that feeling, dealing with hurricanes and other tragedies,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It so happens we’re playing a team that represents a state that’s going through some tough times now. I’ve tried to address that with our players.

“There’s nothing we can do on the baseball field that’s going to affect the lives of those people in Oklahoma. We have a job to do, and that job is to go out there and play the very best baseball we can and compartmentalize the different things in our lives.

“We can feel compassion and sympathy for those people and go out and try to beat their baseball team. I don’t think that’s being cruel. That’s what we’re supposed to try to do.”

There is, of course, a difference between going out and trying to do a job and trying to complete a crusade, and on that the LSU and Oklahoma teams will find no common ground this weekend.

A patch of blue will be a constant reminder of that.