Over the Hump
A trip to Lee-Himes field for Southern-Grambling baseball puts the financial crisis facing SU in perspective
By Cody WorshamPosted Mar 14, 2012
Fifteen miles northwest of the tallest capitol building in the United States, the mighty Mississippi makes a dramatic turn toward the rising sun. The waters change their southward course nearly 90 degrees and travel another five miles before arriving shaded behind Scott’s Bluff, where the sun tries to shine upon Southern University.
It is 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. The scant few rays that have found their ways through the cracks in the overcast sky are outnumbered by the large, heavy rain drops particular to a March day in Louisiana. It is this combination of little sun and ample shower that greet Southern’s baseball team, which has turned out to Lee-Hines Field three full hours ahead of the season’s biggest game thus far, the SWAC opener against the Jaguars’ archrival, Grambling State University.
The players aren’t here to field extra pre-game grounders or take batting practice to assuage the nerves of the day’s doubleheader. No, instead of arriving with bats and gloves, they’ve risen on a day so gloomy that the sun itself couldn’t be bothered to make an appearance, equipped with rakes and drag mats, to ensure their field will be playable come noon’s first pitch.
In the shadow of The Hump – the large Harding Blvd. overpass that separates Highway 61 from the Southern Campus – Lee-Himes Field (so obscure and literally off-the-radar that it cannot be found by Google Maps) has no hired grounds crews. What many college baseball programs consider a necessity – including the one just 10 miles further south down the Muddy – Southern considers an unaffordable luxury. For budgetary reasons that are threatening the entire existence of the 131-year-old university (set to turn 132 on April 1), the players are the grounds crew, and they take pride in caring for the field they will soon take.
And with good reason: Himes has fielded many local legends of the game, from Hall-of-Famer Lou Brock and Danny Goodwin to Fred Lewis and Rickie Weeks. That pride is even more evident this morning, as each player is dressed in the uniform of an old Negro League team for Southern’s annual Throwback Game, in homage to a past which extends through and beyond even those Jaguar legends.
The clouds, on the other hand, are coming in quickly; the rain holds steady and seems to build, and there may be no baseball today. Grambling State, strong as their team is, cannot be the focus of the raking players. There are larger, far more frightening foes on the horizon.
Times are hard at Southern University. The economic down turn that has plagued the education system has hit Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) especially hard. Across the nation, HBCUs have battled decreasing enrollments and increasing costs, but unlike other universities, most do not have the large endowments or steady alumni donations to weather the storm.
Such is the case at Southern. While LSU has trimmed its budget with some visible effect, the tightening of the wallets on Scott’s Bluff is much more apparent. The SU Board of Supervisors declared a state of financial exigency before the start of the semester, which essentially gives the any and all leeway to cut programs and eliminate staff. None are safe.
This came on the heels of faculty furloughs and major cuts across all academic departments. If education, as William Butler Yeats once said, is the lighting of a fire, then exigency is SU’s smoke signal, smothering more and more by the day.
Of course, these times are reflected in the athletics teams at the university. Head baseball coach Roger Cador, for instance, has battled players missing practice all season because students have moved to a four-day school week to save on utility costs. He assures it’s no problem, but his face indicates he’s being a team player more than anything else.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, unfortunately. Southern’s sports fans are none too happy, and understandably so. Listen to 104.5 ESPN’s Jaguar Journal, if that can be any fair gauge of the tone of the school’s supporters, and you’re sure to hear the word “budget” mentioned more than “Jaguar.”
“Things must be changed,” one caller bemoans. “Sometimes leadership cannot be reformed; it must be destroyed and rebuilt all over again.”
“Jaguar Nation is in danger of becoming Jaguar village,” another adds.
Root, root, root for the home team
It is this strange amalgamation of proud past, cloudy present, and cloudier future that Southern Baseball must take on in a battle sure to last longer than nine innings.
Appropriately enough, today’s clash will go at least 18, as the Jaguars and Tigers are set for a double header. The weather has held off, and Southern’s stirrup-socked rakers have dragged the field within some semblance of playability.
If the mood around SU is as somber as the local papers and radio shows make it seem, there’s no indicator of that today at Lee-Himes. The clouds begin clearing as the fans arrive, chipper and ready for a full day of baseball.
And none is more raring and ready to go than Po’ Ben, an elderly Jag fan whose full, white beard and dark, aged skin contrast beautifully against each other. One of the SU’s most venerable fans, Po’ Ben’s love for his team – he’s decked head to toe in Southern gear – is almost nearly matched by his disdain for Grambling.
“These boys ain’t ready,” he hollers, pacing along the base of the quickly filling stands. “They ain’t ready for our boys. This is our house.”
Po’ Ben dances to the piped-in tunes, The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child,” and the crowd of Jags and Tigers alike laugh and enjoy. They soon divert their eyes from Po Ben’s jigging and sit back to take in the sights and sounds of another day at the ballpark, just like the thousands before.
“We’ll be back”
The good mood in the stands is short-lived, at least for the Jaguars. Despite Po’ Ben’s best rootin’ and tootin’, Southern simply can’t handle Grambling’s big bats. Lefty ace Jesse Holiday gives five strong innings, but the Tigers erupt for five in the sixth and another five in the ninth, thanks to 15 hits and four Southern errors, for a 13-5 win.
The second game is closer, but produces greater heartbreak. Grambling senior Brian Knuckles, hitless in his first five at bats of the game, drives home the game-winning run with a 13th-inning double for a 4-3 victory.
The next day will be no better for Southern, as Grambling will pick up six runs in the final three innings of Sunday’s series finale to win 7-1 and earn its first sweep of the Jags in Baton Rouge that Cador can recall from his 28 years and 800+ career wins at Southern.
“They’re not in a good state of mind right now, because they can’t believe they’ve been swept at home,” he says, nodding toward his distressed players. “I can, because it happened. I’m a realist, and Grambling was a better team than us in this series.”
“There are some issues we have to address,” he adds.
The team mulls around the dugout after the loss, hanging their heads and stripping from their throwback uniforms, a defeated bunch. Yet, as the stands slowly empty, Po’ Ben still stomps around, prouder than a peacock.
“That’s alright,” he bellows, a few players glancing his way. “We’ll be back.”
Po’ Ben makes his way out of the stadium, walking toward and The Hump, his white beard and dark face fading against the gray sky and the muddy river turning behind him.
Before he leaves, however, he passes a father and his son decked in Jaguar gear, the latter wielding a bat comically longer than his body. Dad tosses soft pitches to son, who swings and swings and misses and misses, but Dad never stops tossing, and son never stops swinging.
The weekend’s games have been lost, but for those who have turned out for the weekend, Southern’s financial and political problems have faded, if only for nine innings at a time. The games, the uniforms, the pop of leather ball against leather mitt, the father tossing and the son swinging: all make it easier to remember the glories of yesterday, forget the troubles of today, and consider the hope of tomorrow.
“That’s baseball,” Cador says, putting on his sunglasses as the sun peaks its head after a long, gray weekend. “You can have a day where somebody dominates you. You always look forward to tomorrow.”
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
– Field of Dreams