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EUNICE, La. — The e-mail messages arrived periodically from Iraq, a soldier looking for a second chance at a college pitching career, a young man who wanted to square away business left unfinished as a boy.
Jeff Willis was both wary and intrigued. He coached Louisiana State University-Eunice to a national junior college baseball championship in 2006 and 2008. Meanwhile, the soldier had not thrown a ball seriously for years. Willis knew that an arm made strong from weightlifting in the military was not the same thing as an arm made strong from pitching off a mound. Eventually, Willis decided to take a chance on the soldier when he left the service. Maybe the pitching would work out, maybe it would not. But something just as valuable might be in the offering — leadership. “I knew he had seen things none of us had ever seen,” Willis, 32, said. This season, he offered a roster spot to the soldier, Brandon Guidry, who had been a medic with a scout-sniper platoon of the Fourth Battalion, 31st Infantry out of Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y. Guidry also recruited a friend, a former Marine named Chance Mistric. Both had been all-state pitchers, graduating together in 2002 from tiny Port Barre High School near here in Cajun country. Both were looking to resume careers that had been interrupted variously by illness, injury and immaturity.
Both 24-year-old right-handers, they have become leaders and mentors of an L.S.U.-Eunice team that is 44-7 and ranked first in Division II of the National Junior College Athletic Association. As the Bengals seek their second consecutive national title, Mistric has built a 12-0 record and thrown a no-hitter, while Guidry has pitched out of the bullpen with an arm that feels increasingly alive. “A lot of our success,” Willis said, “has to do with these guys with life experience telling our young kids, ‘This is how it is.’ ” After graduating from high school in 2002, Guidry enrolled at L.S.U.-Eunice, located 80 miles west of the main L.S.U. campus in Baton Rouge. But his baseball career seemed to end before it began. Guidry contracted mononucleosis, lost 30 or 40 pounds, kept missing school, fell behind in class and left after only two semesters. “I just couldn’t get well,” the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Guidry said. His friend, Mistric, had been a three-sport star at Port Barre High — a pitcher, a quarterback and linebacker, a two-time state champion throwing the javelin. He attended McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., on a track scholarship, seeking to play baseball as a walk-on. But he was unprepared for the 5 a.m. conditioning drills and the late practices as sport became a kind of full-time job.
“I was cocky; I thought I was better than I was,” the 6-3, 240-pound Mistric said. “It slapped me in the face.” He transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette, then back to McNeese, hoping to play football, only to injure a knee in the 2004 spring game. “I lost hope for everything,” Mistric said. Guidry had entered the Army in February 2004, partly because he was from a military family and felt compelled by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to his father. Mistric joined the Marines that summer. Both he and Guidry still felt they could play baseball at the college level. “We figured if we served our country, somebody would give us a shot,” Mistric said. In August 2006, Guidry arrived in Iraq as a medic. Occasionally, he sent e-mail messages to Willis at L.S.U.-Eunice, explaining that he had attended the school in 2002, only to leave after he got sick. He would like a second chance at pitching when he was discharged in 2008. “I left a lot undone,” Guidry wrote.
Then, in an instant, any chance at resuming a baseball career was threatened. One night in January 2007, Guidry said, he was on patrol in Yusufiya, Iraq, 25 miles south of Baghdad, when his right leg completely sank in the mud of a flooded field while his left leg remained on dry ground. Wearing more than 200 pounds of gear, Guidry said he rocked backward and herniated three disks in his back. The pain became so debilitating, he said, he eventually needed help getting out of bed and climbing out of a chair. Guidry returned to Fort Drum and had surgery in Syracuse, N.Y., in April 2007. A month later, feeling relatively pain free, he again considered renewing his baseball career, playing softball that summer. He kept in contact with Willis, and while home on leave for Thanksgiving, he threw a bullpen session at L.S.U.-Eunice.
It was the first time Guidry had pitched a baseball in five years. His fastball lumbered along at 83, 84, 85 miles an hour, but Willis cared less about Guidry’s speed than his experience in the Army. Skip to next paragraph Keep up with the latest news on The Times’s baseball blog. Go to the Bats Blog » M.L.B. * Scoreboard * Schedules: A.L. | N.L. * Standings: A.L. | N.L. * Stats: A.L. | N.L. * Team Reports Yankees * 2009 Schedule * Individual Stats | Team * History * Times Topics: The Yankees Mets * 2009 Schedule * Individual Stats | Team * History * Times Topics: The Mets “I knew that was something we could all benefit from, including me,” Willis said.
After Guidry was discharged in February 2008, he worked to get his arm limber, then re-enrolled at L.S.U.-Eunice last fall. And he began to tell Willis about Mistric, his high school buddy, who had served his tour of duty in administration at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, playing baseball in a wooden bat league in the summer. After leaving the service last August, Mistric said he tried unsuccessfully to gain a spot on the team at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He had bounced from school to school in a thwarted career. Thanks to Guidry’s persistence, L.S.U.-Eunice offered Mistric a tryout — likely his last. One morning last November, Mistric spent seven hours in transit, flying from Washington to Houston, then to Lake Charles and driving an hour to Eunice. The first ball out of his hands clocked 88 miles an hour. Later, his fastball popped at 93 m.p.h. “He said he had the G.I. Bill to pay for his education; he just wanted an opportunity,” Willis said. Mistric got one this spring. His first appearance came in relief, bases loaded, nobody out. He retired the side without surrendering a run and eventually won the game. Mistric, known to his younger teammates as Pappy, has since won all 11 of his starts and has a 2.63 earned run average with 70 strikeouts in 78.2 innings. A professional career is uncertain, Willis said, because Mistric will turn 25 in early May and teams may be reluctant to groom a pitcher who may not be ready for the majors until he is 28 or 29. If his career ends here, Mistric said, at least he got a second chance. “I tell these young kids, have fun, don’t take anything for granted,” Mistric said. “These are the days to be living.” Guidry, who is married and expecting his first child this summer, has a 1.42 ERA in six appearances this season, five of them in relief. After returning from Iraq, he said he felt withdrawn, angry. Now he is back in school to study nursing, back playing baseball, feeling that he has finally tied up the loose ends of his life. “I have an uncle,” Guidry said, “who told me, never be a guy who goes through life saying, ‘What if?’ ”