Chris Reid, Parker Caracci Never Quit On NCAA Tournament Dream

Image credit: Chris Reid (Photo by Stephen Lew/Getty Images)

When the NCAA tournament starts Friday, both Louisiana State third baseman Chris Reid and Mississippi closer Parker Caracci will feature prominently on teams hosting regionals. At some point in the last few years, both were told they did not make the roster.

There is no roadmap that exists to tell someone how to get from that low point back to the place they thought they should be, or a diagram of all those circumstances that lead one to the low point in the first place. And that is ultimately the point of this: Reid and Caracci took different paths to what they ultimately hope will be the same place.

Here is one thing a player can do when told he is unlucky No. 36 on the NCAA-mandated 35-man roster: Get the hell away.

Reid, a Baton Rouge native, had that conversation with LSU coach Paul Mainieri last August. The whole idea in going to a four-year college in your hometown is to play all four years there, and Reid just found out that final year was no longer an option. He was understandably upset, and so he removed himself from the situation.

Instead, Reid spent last fall doing all the things college baseball players typically do not have time to do. He wore out the local golf courses. He skipped town, hitting up Cocodrie for some fishing on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. He went to Dallas to watch LSU football’s season opener against Miami, and he hit up Destin, Fla.—twice—to relax on the beach.

The point was not to be anywhere near Alex Box Stadium, where his teammates got ready without him for what was supposed to be his last season. Reid actually planned to go the entire 2019 season without stepping foot in the Box.

“I was going to watch the games, I wanted to support my teammates, but I didn’t think I’d feel comfortable going back there because of how everything went down,” Reid said.

Funny how things work out.

Friday, Reid is in line to start his 43rd game of the season in LSU’s regional opener against Stony Brook. That the Tigers are home this week might not have been possible without Reid’s influence.

It is not like Mainieri wanted to cut Reid loose, but the LSU coach had to get to 35 players and was not sure how, after the overwhelming majority of his signing class chose college over pro ball, not to mention Antoine Duplantis, Zack Hess and Zach Watson all choosing to come back after being draft eligible a year ago. Mainieri looked at his roster and saw a surplus of infielders, so he made the tough call to Reid.

Last fall, Reid did not manage to get too far away from the game, giving some lessons at nearby Traction Sports Performance and coaching some kids’ teams. But he’d moved on from his career, or so he thought.

The infielder surplus Mainieri thought he had did not actually exist. The coach called Reid to smooth out the spots in their relationship that had grown rough from the terms of their conversation in August. Mainieri offered him a spot back on the team, and Reid accepted.

Mainieri said Reid has never enjoyed the grind of the summer and fall circuits. It’s one of those things that, as a coach, he always wanted to see in Reid. It is also one of those things that made Mainieri chuckle when he saw Reid return to the field after several months off.

“He didn’t play all summer, didn’t play all fall, hadn’t been a starting player since his freshman year, and he comes out there two weeks before the start of the season in an intrasquad game facing guys throwing 90-plus miles an hour and you would have never thought he missed a day,” Mainieri said. “How many kids can do something like that?”

It’s Reid’s innate ability to simply put the bat on the ball that made him a run producer in LSU’s lineup at times this season. It is how he picks that up, nonchalant, after several months off that added something else. Mainieri tried to sum it up several different ways—cool, doesn’t press, laid back—but all of it has an effect on the team.

“His influence on the team is such that it keeps the team relaxed instead of being uptight,” Mainieri said.

Here is a different way to handle being told you are the 36th-best player on a team that can only take 35 players: You stick around and make them tell you that again, then you stick around some more so you force the decision-maker to reach a different conclusion.

Caracci tried and failed to make Ole Miss’ 35-man roster in 2016. He came up short again in 2017. So, of course, he tried again in 2018.

“A lot of kids would leave and try to find somewhere else where it was a little easier for them to make the team,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “He didn’t. He wanted to pitch here, he thought he could pitch here, he believed that he could pitch here, and he proved that he could be here.

“That’s probably the reason he’s so good in that closer role.”

Caracci made the roster in 2018, with Bianco envisioning him as one part of a solid bullpen rotation. By the end of his debut season, he was an All-American and earned a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. In the last two seasons, he’s used his big fastball to strike out 109 batters in 77.2 innings, saving 21 games in the process.

Bianco gets a kick out of the way Caracci stays on his hip during the game, always ready to remind the coach he is ready to throw when needed.

“He’s a guy that wants to be there. He wants to be on that stage when the fire’s really hot,” Bianco said.

Maybe the reason Caracci would not take no for an answer is because life had already forced so much on him. He will turn 23 in September and has already dealt with the death of three of his friends.

One of those friends, Walker Wilbanks, is the reason Caracci wears his unusual No. 65 for Ole Miss. Wilbanks wore that number when the two were football teammates at Jackson (Miss.) Preparatory School. Wilbanks died unexpectedly after a game in Caracci’s senior year because of a rare condition called hyponatremia.

“He’s been through a lot on and off the field. That’s really the story,” Bianco said. “Yeah, he’s a terrific closer, he’s done a lot for our program, but a lot of people don’t know that he’s been through a lot. To be able to do what he’s done, it was pretty special.”

There are more than two ways to handle being told you are the odd man out. The best thing about these stories is they did not end there, but instead are still going this weekend in the NCAA Tournament.

And maybe the stories will continue into Omaha, in June, a place Reid figured he never would see again as a player last fall. He has been dying to get back since LSU lost the College World Series final in 2017 to Florida.

“Losing that left that void in there that makes me yearn for it,” Reid said. “If we could get back and give ourselves a shot at another national championship, you can’t ask for much more than that.”

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