Baseball: Tony Robichaux's lessons more important than ever a year after his death
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, June 26, 2020
If there is any question about the impact Tony Robichaux had on former University of Louisiana at Lafayette pitcher Brandon Young, one need only look at the righty’s right arm.
Right around the biceps muscle.
It is a tattoo of Robichaux’s longtime uniform number, 36. And Young isn’t the only one who has one.
A cap honoring former coach Tony Robichaux, who wore the number 36, is shown before the Cajuns' 2020 season opener. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)
“I know some other players do too,” he said.
Young, who in mid-June agreed to terms on an undrafted free agent contract with the Baltimore Orioles, got his stamp last August, in the month after Robichaux passed away.
Matt Deggs, UL baseball coach
Throughout the one year since Robichaux — UL’s head coach for 25 seasons through 2019, and its pitching coach as well — died last July 3, 10 days after suffering a heart attack, countless Cajun players and assistant coaches like Young, shortstop Hayden Cantrelle and new Cajuns head coach Matt Deggs have been consumed by memories of their mentor.
“I think about him a lot, honestly,” shortstop Hayden Cantrelle said the day after the Milwaukee Brewers selected him in the fifth round of last year’s Major League Baseball Draft.
This year, Cantrelle became the 66th of Robichaux’s Cajuns to be drafted — a list that includes All-Stars B.J. Ryan, who succeeded Robichaux as UL’s pitching coach, and Jonathan Lucroy, along with Robichaux’s own son, Austin, who made it to as high as the Triple-A level.
“There are a lot of moments in my life where, in the process of doing something, whether that’s you’re driving a car or that’s if I go eat a restaurant, or whatever (I think of him),” Cantrelle said.
“Sometimes,” Cantrelle added, “it’s the little things that he would say, the little jokes that you wish you could have heard on draft day, and stuff like that.”
Other times, it’s the wisdom Robichaux shared with his flock.
“What a year to not have him, you know I’m saying?” Deggs said.
'We needed him now more than ever'
In the days since a statue of Robichaux was unveiled outside of M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field at Russo Park prior to UL’s Feb. 15 game against Louisiana Tech, uncertainty has besieged a team still in mourning and a country in turmoil.
Deggs called the season, and the past year, one that’s “been chock full of a lot of downs and a few ups.”
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has killed more than 115,000 people and infected more than 2 million in the United States alone.
The virus is responsible for cutting 8-9 UL’s 2020 season short after just 17 games, shutting down sports throughout most of America for more than three months since mid-March and trimming the MLB Draft from its usual 40 rounds to just five.
“I felt awful,” Young said of his senior season ended like it did. “We all did.
“But, honestly, I was thinking about Coach Robe and some of the stuff he’s taught me over the years — it really helped me deal with it, deal with life in general. So I appreciate that part of it.”
Robichaux's guidance on overcoming adversity and being a good man would be welcome in current times, when along with pandemic, Americans are reeling from racial tensions and political divide.
Near Brunswick, Georgia, three citizens were indicted in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man — and a cousin of former Cajuns safety Tracy Walker, now with the NFL’s Draft Lions — who was out for a jog, as captured on video.
On May 25 in Minnesota, a now-fired Minneapolis police officer was caught on video kneeling for more than eight minutes on the neck and throat of another Black man, George Floyd, killing him and setting off weeks of massive peaceful protests, in some cases riots and looting, and demands for social justice in cities large and small, including Lafayette, from coast to coast and throughout the world.
“It’s tough, because I think about him every day,” Young said of Robichaux, who was known for his famed Robe-isms. “Some of the stuff he said, you don’t really think about until now, once you’re in the situation.
Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux walks to first base to talk to his player during a game against Appalachian State on March 22, 2019. (Photo: James Mays/Special to the Advertiser)
“You know, stuff about life — ‘I’m a baseball player, but that’s not who I am; it’s just what I do sometimes. … Living under Jesus and God. Family first. Taking care of what I need to be taking care of, and controlling what I can control and not the uncontrollables.’
“Man, this is a perfect time for Robe. … You know, he’s been speaking about this forever,” Young added as the pandemic spread like wildfire and before Floyd’s death had cars and buildings in Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York, Washington and elsewhere burning as well. “Not just (to) me, but for all his years. I think we needed him now more than ever, and I think we need to live by him and what he taught us.”
The "ROBE" Golf Tournament held at Les Vieux Chenes Golf Course benefiting the Robichaux Family. Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/THE ADVERTISER)
Cantrelle, whose father Kevin also played for Robichaux, knows the feeling.
“He says that there’s always a way to better yourself,” the shortstop said before the UL’s first season without Robichaux since 1994 got under way.
“You always have a chance to respond about the negative things that happen in your life,” added Cantrelle, who still was talking about Robichaux in the present seven months after he passed. “He compares it a lot to baseball. But … baseball is just a game we play. He teaches us a lot about life lessons.”
'The little things'
It’s not the serious side, though, that Robichaux’s disciples have thought about over the past year.
“It’s the little things,” Deggs said. “It’s the cutting up. It’s the stories. It’s the advice.
“You feel like your big brother is gone. And it’s a lonely feeling at times. And you miss him. You miss seeing him, and you miss looking forward to seeing him.”
Cajuns baseball coach Matt Deggs, wearing a "36" cap in honor of his predecessor Tony Robichaux, is shown in the dugout for the Cajuns' 2020 season opener against Southeastern Louisiana. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)
Deggs’ was one of Robichaux’s assistants from 2012 through 2014, when a 58-10 Cajuns teams made it to an NCAA Super Regional.
He left for his first NCAA head coaching job, at Sam Houston State in Texas, for the 2015 season, and stayed there until returning to Lafayette to succeed the man thought would have coached the Cajuns forever.
“Some days you think he’s there, and then you realize — it’s a little surreal — he’s not,” said Deggs, returned to The Tigue with Sam Houston State team to play the Cajuns. “So, yeah, you miss him.”
Deggs recalls his days as a UL assistant to Robichaux, who took his team to 12 NCAA Regionals, four Super Regionals and the 2000 College World Series.
“You miss … the talks about the lineup, to how you want to handle the roster, to ‘Who do we want to pitch tonight?’” he said. “Just little things. (He’s) not there, and you realize you’re on your own. And, you know, sometimes it’s tough.”
'We live the way he wanted us to live'
For Cantrelle, the hard part often comes when he pops into Deggs’ office — the one, tucked underneath UL’s stadium, that Robichaux occupied before moving to an adjacent building during a massive renovation project at The Tigue that the only coach the Cajuns knew for two-and-a-half decades inspired and oversaw.
“I’d like to go in Coach Robe’s office, when he was still here, prior to practice, to get things sort of organized,” Cantrelle said back in February.
Coach Tony Robichaux hits balls to his pitchers as they practice in 2006. (Photo: Advertiser file photo)
“So I stick my head in (to Deggs’ office) now and then, and it’s kind of like, ‘Wow.’ … It’s a weird feeling. It’s hard to explain.”
Weird for Young is how he feels looking back now and remembering what he sensed, though no one knew what was going to happen, the last time he saw Robichaux alive.
Hayden Cantrelle, former Cajuns shortstop
It was a week or two before the heart attack.
Young, a Texan, had been working some offseason camps in Lafayette.
“Something just wasn’t right,” Yung said. “It was a hot day. He just wasn’t the same.”
Weeks later, hundreds of friends, family members, fans, university personnel, coaches, current Cajuns and past ones too gathered in a Lafayette church to say goodbye.
“It’s a sad thing that he’s not here,” Cantrelle said, “but I think the best way we can honor that is by celebrating the life he did live.
The Cajuns baseball team wears "36" caps in honor of former coach Tony Robichaux, who died July 3, 2019. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)
“So I just think of gratitude when I think of Coach. I don’t think of sadness. I just think about being grateful for the time I did have with him.”
Young thinks about the tattoo on his throwing arm.
“I never had to deal with losing a coach like that — especially one that’s pioneered himself as one of the greatest, not just as a coach but as a special person,” he said. “That’s what he wanted him to be remembered by. So that’s what we did.
“We played the way he wanted us to play, and we live the way he wanted us to live — as just a good human. That’s how we can remember him — live by him.”
Athletic Network Footnote by Dr. Ed Dugas.