BATON ROUGE, La. — Before LSU baseball’s annual celebration in New Orleans first took place, there was tragedy.
“It was the most stunning thing that ever came across my desk,” former LSU head coach and athletic director Skip Bertman said 15 years after an event from which no one involved has truly separated.
It was July 24, 2002. Wally Pontiff, Jr., “everybody’s All-American,” and an LSU fan favorite, was dead.
The night before he was a 21-year-old athlete in his prime, attending a game at Zephyr Field with his dad. But that morning, he didn’t wake up. A genetic heart condition no one knew Pontiff had — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — led to the cardiac arrest that ended his life.
“The conditions which he left us is about the saddest thing I’ve had,” said Bertman, who coached the Tigers to five national championships from 1984-2001. “I’ve had kids get injured. That’s sad. But they go on. Not with this.”
Though Pontiff was gone, those involved with LSU baseball made sure his legacy remained.
Remembering Wally Pontiff, Jr.
Pontiff was an accomplished player, batting .344 in his three years at LSU and helping the Tigers to the 2000 national title as a freshman third baseman. But there was something more than stellar play that made him resonate with the LSU fanbase in a way that’s been hard for anyone to duplicate.
“Mikie Mathook was a great freshman, right? Playing in the big leagues,” Bertman says of another former Tiger whom he holds in the highest regard. “But no one captured the imagination more than Wally.”
Bertman said part of the appeal was that Pontiff was no Adonis.
“Wally wasn’t built like LeBron James,” Bertman said. “He was shorter. He was husky. He still had, as a freshman, some baby fat. His second year, less. His third year, a lot less. But he was never a big guy.”
Of course, a short, husky kid who hits .180 doesn’t earn his way to cult hero status. Pontiff could handle the bat as well as anyone on a squad that featured future big leaguers like Brad Hawpe, Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot. He hit .347 with 7 homers and 45 RBI as a freshman, including a .615 clip with 7 RBI in the SEC Tournament.
If someone was on base, Pontiff tended to bring them home.
“We don’t have those stats, but his clutch hitting was unreal. When a guy was at first and second, his ability to get a base hit was unreal,” Bertman said. “Other than Ed Furniss or Todd Walker, those major leaguers and College Baseball Hall of Famers, Wally was as good at clutch hitting just when you needed it (as I’ve coached). It’s amazing how he was in the middle of all of it.”
To hammer that point home, Bertman threw in a few cross-sport analogies.
“Like a guy who goes up for a foul shot and makes them all when there’s 12 seconds left. Wally was one of those guys,” he said. “Third-and-2 you want to give it to a guy who will always make it. He was. You wanted him up with the bases loaded, two outs, 3-2 count.”
The concept of clutch hitting is one that divides baseball generations. The old school swears by it while the younger, analytical school is more dismissive.
And yet who was it that drafted Pontiff? The Oakland Athletics — the very team leading the new wave of changing the way the MLB Draft was looked at in 2002.
But Pontiff didn’t sign with the A’s after being picked in the 21st round. He had unfinished business at LSU, wanting to help second-year coach Smoke Laval keep the program’s momentum going forward after Bertman became athletic director.
“He was going to come back like Kramer Robertson and the others (did this year), which in those days was very rare,” Bertman said. “He wanted to come back and help coach.”
Unfortunately, Pontiff never got that chance.
An enduring legacy
It would have been easy for Pontiff’s memory to fade away when LSU hired Paul Mainieri from Notre Dame in 2007. On the surface, there was no connection.
But Wally’s younger brother, Nick, was on the team for Mainieri’s first three seasons. His best buddy, Blair Barbier, was one of Mainieri’s assistants. And Mainieri loved hearing about Wally.
“They were very close, so it seems like every day I would ask about Wally and (Blair) would tell me stories,” Mainieri said. “So even though I didn’t know him well, I felt like I did through people. Even to this day I continue to have Wally Jr. in my thoughts almost every day even though I didn’t really know him well.”
The lone meeting came at Notre Dame, when Pontiff’s Jesuit High School team played there in a summer tournament.
“His father went to the University of Miami, so I met his dad and he brought over his son,” said Mainieri, a Miami native. “I remember it very vividly. We never tried to recruit him or anything at Notre Dame. He had LSU in his blood and was coming here.”
Despite only spending a limited time with Pontiff, Mainieri believes it’s important to make sure he’s never forgotten. Thus, each year the Tigers head an hour east to play in the ballpark where Pontiff enjoyed his final night for the Wally Pontiff, Jr. Classic. Proceeds from the game, which typically features in-state opponents, are donated to a variety of Louisiana charities.
“It was a tragic thing when his life ended way too soon,” Mainieri said. “But this is a way for us to remember him, talk about him and let his memory continue to live in everyone’s hearts that love LSU baseball.”
For Bertman and so many others, Wally Pontiff, Jr. will always be unforgettable.
“He was the one you wanted to succeed. Everyone rooted for him,” Bertman said. “I know it’s an old term, but he was everybody’s All-American. Not just in baseball. Whatever field. Teachers loved him. Reporters. He was gifted.”