The Marks Post: 31 at third
We as a society throw the word “hero” around loosely when it comes to sports. However, one athlete who epitomized what it means to be a hero left this earth too soon 17-years-ago this past Wednesday.
Wallace Victor Sebastian Pontiff Jr. (better known as Wally) began his college baseball career at LSU in 2000. He played in 61 games that year and had 51 starts at the left field position. He batted .347 on the year with 20 doubles, two triples, seven homers, 45 RBI and 41 runs. He also helped the Tigers to win the College World Series over Stanford.
The following year, in 2001, he moved over to third base replacing Blair Barbier. Pontiff started all 61 games that season at the hot corner and posted similar numbers from his freshman campaign.
His sophomore season was also my first at LSU. Baseball tickets were free for students, so I would go often with Ryan Menard and others to watch games at old Alex Box Stadium. It did not take long for me to become a fan of Pontiff.
That 2001 season was Skip Bertman’s last season coaching LSU and ended with a loss to Tulane in the Super Regionals. Smoke Laval was then hired to coach the Tigers before Pontiff’s junior season in 2002.
Pontiff started all but one game of his junior season and went .339 at the plate including 20 doubles, six home runs and 46 RBI. After LSU lost to UL-L in the Regionals, Pontiff batted 3-for-5 in the deciding game.
I was at that deciding game of the Regionals, and tempers were still flared in the stands because a fight broke out between Tiger and Cajun fans during the first game of the double-header.
After that season, he was drafted by the Oakland Athletics and went play in the Cape Cop League for the summer. One day, during that same summer, I was at the store Here Today, Gone Tomorrow with my college roommate when I got either a phone call or a text message letting me know that Pontiff had died. I was floored and upset, to say the least.
He died in his parents’ home in Metairie due to the same heart abnormalities which claimed the life of former Houston Astro pitcher Darryl Kile later that same summer.
After he died, I had a few classes with his sister, Haley. I kept thinking about talking to her, but I didn’t want to gush over how great her brother was.
Baseball at the Box was not the same without him in 2003, but he did make his presence known when the Tigers needed him most. LSU was playing Baylor that year in the Super Regionals with a chance for the College World Series on the line, and I was in the stands for all three games of the series. Towards the latter part of one of the games, a Baylor batter crushed a ball to straight away centerfield. Everybody in the stands knew it was gone, but the ball somehow stayed in play for Tiger centerfielder J.C. Holt to make the grab. As soon as he made the catch, we all knew it was the ghost of Pontiff who blew the ball back in play. LSU went on to win the series and went back to Omaha.
Earlier that season, LSU retired Pontiff’s number 31 which was displayed on the outfield wall along with Ben McDonald’s number 19 and another number 19 worn by Robbie Smith, who was killed in a car crash while working for the Florida Highway Patrol. Bertman’s number 15 was also retired, but I’m not sure if that was done before or after Pontiff’s.
When the new Alex Box Stadium opened in 2009, there were only two retired numbers on display. They were Bertman’s 15 and McDonald’s 19. Where were Smith’s 19 and Pontiff’s 31? The new Hall of Fame was named after Pontiff, but his number was not re-retired.
Since then, other Tiger legends have had their numbers retired at The Box. Every time that happens, I go on Twitter and ask LSU Baseball when they will re-retire Pontiff’s number. I always get the same lame response that it was never officially retired. I will not stop pestering the organization on social media until Pontiff’s number is again properly displayed in Alex Box.
Going back to my point about athletes being considered heroes, Pontiff definitely was one not just because of his on-field numbers. From the way he batted in the box to the way he played in the field, everything about his game said he was a natural. He also played the game the right way and the way it was meant to be played. He will always be at third and in our hearts.