The Baseball Factory Churning Out the Next MLB Stars

The Baseball Factory Churning Out the Next MLB Stars

The LSU Tigers celebrate a win over Texas during Game 3 of the 2009 NCAA College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium on June 24, 2009 in Omaha, Nebraska. LSU defeated the Longhorns 11-4 to win the national title.

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Why you should care

Because time is a flat circle in Baton Rouge. 

College baseball fans swear there’s magic in Baton Rouge. The thousands of gold shirts, they say, form one deafening, howling organism in Alex Box Stadium, rowdily rooting for the Louisiana State University Fighting Tigers. The school’s baseball greatness began in 1991, the first of six dates listed beneath the image of a snarling Bengal and the words “national champions” on a massive billboard in right field.

But collegiate glory isn’t all that’s born at LSU. The national titles also have served as the impetus for many storied careers. In fact, it’s the Tigers’ prowess at producing pros that enables the never-ending cycle to continue.

At least one former LSU player has made a Major League Baseball debut in 24 of the past 26 seasons.

In total, 72 former Tigers have made the major leagues, and the program currently ranks third, with nine active players on MLB opening-day rosters. The two schools ahead — Arizona State and Long Beach State — each have 10, while Arkansas is fourth, with eight major leaguers. Alabama, Cal State Fullerton, Mississippi State and Virginia round out the top five with seven current pros.

Given the university’s location in baseball-obsessed Louisiana — and its membership in one of the NCAA’s “power conferences,” the Southeastern Conference (SEC) — it should come as no surprise that LSU is a factory for pro ballplayers. And no other institution can match LSU’s combination of success on the field and fanatical community engagement. Since 1996 — the year of LSU’s third national title — Alex Box Stadium has led the country in attendance for 21 straight seasons, and it’s the only U.S. college baseball program to draw more than 400,000 spectators in a single season. “The fans in that place are incredible,” says former Tiger and current Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola. “It’s a pro atmosphere.”

Me, Mikie Mahtook, D.J. LeMahieu — we all go train with the [LSU] team. They’re building a clubhouse just for the pro guys.

JaCoby Jones, outfielder, Detroit Tigers

Another SEC advantage: the conference’s location, where the sport is played year-round. Last season, 81 players from the SEC — an average of 5.79 per team — were drafted by MLB clubs. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the West Coast’s Pac-12 produced 58 and 57 draft picks, respectively. And while those conferences are certainly baseball powers, unique hurdles have left each one eating southeastern dust. For instance, the ACC’s cold-weather schools find it tough to battle SEC members when it comes to recruiting prospects on shared fertile grounds down South. Likewise, Pac-12 schools must compete with Long Beach State, Fullerton and the countless other superb programs dotting the California coast.

Now, it appears that the rich may get richer. Detroit Tigers outfielder JaCoby Jones tells OZY that plans have begun to help LSU further strengthen its connection with alums who are now in the pro ranks. Jones, like Nola and other ex-LSU Tigers, spends his offseasons training in Baton Rouge. “Me, [Detroit outfielder] Mikie Mahtook, [Rockies second baseman] D.J. LeMahieu — we all go train with the team,” Jones says. “This offseason, they’re building a clubhouse just for the pro guys. That’ll be a lot of fun and keep everybody coming back.”

Iron sharpens iron. Or, in the words of Rust Cohle, everyone’s favorite fictional Louisiana true detective: “Time is a flat circle.”

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